‘South Asian communities are vulnerable to poverty, facing racial and gender discrimination, facing backlash in the media.’
‘The current immigration / refugee environment is stacked against a potential immigrant’s ability to get permanent residence in Canada.’
Shalini Konanur was born and raised in Toronto to parents of South Asian descent. Her parents immigrated to Canada from Bangalore and Mysore, India with the hope of better prospects for themselves and for her and her sister.
Having worked her entire career in Ontario’s legal aid clinic system including working in both rural and urban settings (Renfrew, Mississauga, and now throughout the GTA) with low-income Ontarians, Shalini considers herself lucky to be the current Executive Director and a Barrister & Solicitor at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO). SALCO is a free legal aid clinic that serves low-income South Asians in the Greater Toronto Area and provides services in various areas of poverty law, including immigration, disability, human rights, employment law, social assistance, and old age security.
In conversation with Generation Next, the lawyer extraordinaire speaks about immigrants’ rights and difficult immigration policies.
1. You’ve been a distinguished and award winning female law practitioner. What made you choose this career?
Oddly enough, I have known that I wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 6. My maternal grandfather was a lawyer who worked with low-income people in India. I was fascinated by the idea that I could use the law to make positive change. As a young child I also found the drama of arguing and being in court exciting.
I have been told (by my parents) that I was an argumentative young child who was constantly trying to change their opinions to be in line with what I thought! As I grew up my parents introduced me and my sister to the idea of volunteerism and the reality that most people in the world were not as lucky as I was. I began to see the practice of law as an opportunity to protect minority rights.
2. How has it been working in the South Asian community for immigrants’ rights?
The South Asian communities that I have worked with the Greater Toronto Area (including Peel and York Region) have been incredible. They have taught about the diversity within our communities and the reality that there is no such thing as a “South Asian” community – They are many significant, wonderful, and different communities within the term “South Asian”.
I have been sad to see the increased difficulty that many in our communities are facing in settling in Canada. At SALCO we continue to see clients dealing with the repercussions of regressive immigration policy; we have research that shows that racialized communities, like South Asian communities, are disproportionately vulnerable to poverty, facing racial and gender discrimination, facing backlash in the media, and facing impossible criteria and processes to have their credential recognized in Canada. We also continue to see issues of family / partner violence.
3. With changing government policies and difficult immigration rules, is settlement here a bumpy ride for many?
I would go as far as saying that South Asians are under attack by regressive immigration changes and funding cuts. The current immigration / refugee environment is stacked against a potential immigrant’s ability to get permanent residence in Canada. Changes to our refugee system have curtailed the ability of many refugee claimants to have access to legal resources and to their own ability to properly prepare for a fair and meaningful refugee claim process.
In addition, Citizenship and Immigration Canada have introduced rules around spousal, common-law, and conjugal partner sponsorship that directly target situations of arranged marriage or marriage after a short dating period by creating a conditional permanent residence for those categories of sponsored people. In addition, there are also new regulations banning future sponsorship applications for 5 years for sponsored spouses. Added to that was the cancellation of many federal skilled worker applications and the freezing of parent / grandparent sponsorship. What all of this means is that for South Asian families reunification with family members outside of Canada has become extremely difficult, if not impossible. In addition, since 2010 Citizenship and Immigration Canada has cut significant funding to settlement services for the South Asian community in Ontario.
4. Internationally trained professionals especially face a tough task getting employment and getting their credentials accepted. Is Canada open enough and fair?
Canada is absolutely not open or fair in terms of credential recognition for foreign trained professionals. While all levels of government have paid lip service to this issue for years now very little has changed. Many foreign trained professionals face years of retraining and re-examination in order to have their credentials recognized. The truth is that many of the processes are so long and so expensive that new immigrants simply cannot afford to go through it. They have to move on with their lives, to work and support their families. That is why we continue to hear case after case of over-qualified immigrants working low-level jobs.
5. How is it being an Indo-Canadian? Or do you call yourself a Canadian?
I fully consider myself an Indo-Canadian. My parents did an amazing job raising me to understand my Indian heritage and to also be a Canadian. This is a concept that I think is being lost here. We hear more and more talk about how immigrants have to learn to be Canadian. When I was growing up being “Canadian” meant understanding that this is a country of immigrants and there is space for us to incorporate our own background, like Indian culture, into our lives.
As a child I was able to study my native language, Kannada, to learn classic Karnatak music, to take part in cultural performances, and to socialize with people from our community back home. But I was equally able to do all of the things that we would consider “Canadian”. I had a great upbringing in both cultures and am proud to relate to both.
6. SALCO has also become a national leader on the issue of forced marriage and the protection of woman and girls in violent situations. Can I call you a ‘feminist’?
I haven`t thought a lot about that label `feminist` but as I think about it now I guess I would say that I consider myself a feminist. I remember studying feminism in university and how difficult it was to define feminism. It meant different things to different people.
I define it simply as political, economic, and social equality for all genders. I have certainly spent a lot of time in my career and volunteer work promoting equality between genders (including men, women, and the LGBTQ community), and also for racialized people.
In Canada, I think we have a long way to go. You can see the way we treat our aboriginal communities as a prime example of inequality in Canada.
7. Is Canada an egalitarian society? Is Canadian workplace free of racism and discrimination?
I could talk about the racism that South Asians face in Canada for hours. I recently went to a conference from an organization called `The Colour of Poverty` (COP). COP has done extensive research that demonstrates that racialized people have less access to the workplace. From our experience at SALCO it is clear that many South Asians are passed up for jobs, paid less than others in the same positions, face comments about the way they look and their religions, and do not get promotions within their companies.
We do not have a racism free society or workplace. In fact, it seems that for many South Asians racism in society is still very much prevalent – there are racist comments and stories in the media, racist incidents (like spitting on a woman wearing hijab), and racist government policies like the conditional permanent residence that targets arranged marriage cases. We have also dealt with issues of racial profiling by the police, discrimination in the workplace, and a government campaign to suggest that we need to become more “Canadian”.
This will continue to impact us and our children if we do not push back.
8. How do you juggle your personal and professional life?
I am extremely lucky to have a very supportive husband, a cooperative child, and an incredible extended family. I live within minutes of my own mother and sister (my dad passed away from cancer in 2007) and minutes away from my in-laws. We have had amazing support from all of them. Without it I would not be able to do anything!
Sadly for my mom, I am still making her cook for me. I haven`t yet mastered her flavours. I have never been able to get my rasam to taste like hers!
9. Any unfulfilled dreams and aspirations?
Ideally, I would like to have a society that has equality for everyone – Things like employment equity are critical.
I also want us to strongly support the rising group of people (racialized, young people, children, women) in Canada who are falling into poverty. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”