Teenaz Javat, 39, came to Canada in 1997. She had accumulated five years journalism experience in her native India and in Pakistan. She has a masters in economics. But when she came to Canada, because journalism is not a nine-to-five job and her kids were young, it was her personal choice to put her journalism career on hold.
After eight years of not working in Canada, Javat went back to school for a college certificate, initially considering a corporate communications program. But when she looked online, she discovered Sheridan Institute’s course, Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Writers. It seemed like a perfect fit.
Javat was among the first group of immigrant students to participate in this program in 2006. Its premise is to help foreign writers develop their media skills and understanding of Canadian journalism. The course also includes an internship portion that allows participants to get into the newsroom and prove themselves to employers. Still, at the end of the course, Javat faced problems.
“We realized that the industry is just not ready to take us,” she says.
Joyce Wayne started the program in 2007, after seeing the hardships that foreign journalists face in Canada. “They’re fleeing their home countries because they’ve written about things deemed inappropriate, in places where there really isn’t a free press.” At the same time, Jim Poling, managing editor of the Hamilton Spectator, was creating a group of internationally trained writers and providing support and byline opportunities for them. “I was despondent about their stories and the lack of commitment in Canadian media to help and recognize talent,” he says, “I grew weary of their employment struggles.” In Poling’s eyes, these journalists were often written off because they lacked Canadian experience.
Poling and Wayne came together and created the Sheridan program, where Javat was a self-described guinea pig. She was one of 31 journalists from such countries as Pakistan and India who enrolled in the three-semester program. Among the courses they took were Freelance Writing and Media Ethics and Law, followed by a six- to fourteen-week internship. For their $6,359, the participants attended classes four evenings a week and all day Saturdays to accommodate those who had full-time jobs. Most students were in their late 30s and had experience in print writing or editing.
Wayne, now coordinator of the journalism program at Sheridan, explains, “There seems to be a bias in the media against hiring these people.” She suggests a quiet, systematic racism as the cause. Although media outlets appear to be embracing the program through scholarships directed towards relieving tuition costs, only the Toronto Star, CBC and The Hamilton Spectator actually offer internship job opportunities.
“There are places, for instance, CanWest, CTV, The Globe and Mail and CP, that have not taken anyone, even on a free work-placement basis,” Wayne says, although these outlets did offer scholarship money.
A staff person at a large Canadian media outlet, who wishes to be left unnamed, explains the reluctance less as racism and more as a question of unfamiliarity with the course and those behind it. This person, who works with interns, also sees language as an issue. Although decent writers come through the program, he says, “Some call me and I can’t understand a fucking word they’re saying.”
During the early stages of the program’s development, there was much discussion about English-language standards for admission. Katherine Govier, an award-winning novelist and journalist and a member of the advisory board for the program, explains that the language standards were lower than expected in the first year as the college tried to fill the course. “I taught freelance writing in the first year and half. Several students in the class certainly didn’t understand spoken English,” she says.
Language comprehension problems made it difficult for instructors to teach, for students to learn and for the college to arrange internships. As former president of PEN Canada, an association of writers which defends freedom of expression, Govier supports the idea of the program. “It’s hard to fit in as a writer in a different country,” she says. But, she explains, the courses presume that the student enrolled has a good grasp of English. “That’s where we ran into trouble.”
Poling suggests that the reason for the change in the language requirements had nothing to do with enrolment. “The language standard moves a little bit, but it’s only because we believe in people and that they have something to contribute.”
Although Javat has no language barrier, she still experienced employment problems after the program’s completion. She was placed in a six-week internship with the Toronto Star last year but wasn’t lucky enough to land a job. “They have a patronizing attitude that they’ve given you exposure and they’ve fulfilled their obligation,” she says.
Javat’s issues were a combination of few contacts and zero social capital. She believes that in journalism, you’re only as strong as your networking. Still, Govier describes Javat as one of Sheridan’s most successful students. She now works as a casual at CBC, most often writing banner headlines. “I admire my bosses for being patient,” she says, “it’s an ongoing process.” Although Javat has seen her share of hurdles, she concludes, “I wouldn’t be anywhere without Sheridan.”
A current student, Edna Amador, 44, agrees with Govier that knowing the language is paramount. “The problem with most immigrants is that they read the news in their native language,” she explains, “but language never ends. How can you express yourself without mastering it?”
Amador believes that the course can open doors for immigrants because they earn a Canadian certificate and learn skills that are transferrable to the real world. However, she also faced some resistance, even though she’d been writing in English since she was a teen. “Most people think that because English isn’t your first language, you can’t be that good.” Although Amador participated in the course, she was lucky to land a job at a publishing house seven months before internship placement time came around. “I was already working as an editor; I was an exception,” she explains.
If Sheridan tightens up the language requirements for the course, class sizes might shrink and work placements could prove easier to arrange. And without filled classes, Wayne says, the program shouldn’t suffer. Still, Poling says, “There are always improvements that can be made, but it’s not as simple as applying a big fix.” He also articulates the main purpose of the program: “You give them a byline and the community gets a fresh perspective. Our communities are changing, and we have to adapt to the new wave of immigration.”
For 2010, Wayne is working on expanding the program to include TV and radio broadcasting and to admit second generation immigrants, as well. But with language already a barrier in a writing course, expanding into broadcasting might only prove more ineffective and unfulfilling for the students, and the community may miss out on new voices.