‘They Come From Near, They Come From Far’

By Alexander Hanimyan

The world has the golden arches, but Thornhill has the Golden Star.

Fifty-six years after the retro burger joint opened, the iconic sign continues to draw crowds daily with a lunch and dinner rush that sees lines forming out the front door onto the patio. The memorable towering sign, with its large yellow letters and four-pointed golden star on top, can be seen from afar.

The smell of charcoal-grilled meat greets customers new and old who come craving the diner’s array of fast food, from hamburgers to steak sandwiches.

The crowd on any given day or night is a mix of families, couples and singles enjoying a quick bite to eat.  There is a happy buzz in the dining room for those who stay to sit and eat as others leave content and satisfied. 

The restaurant, just north of Steeles Avenue at the corner of Yonge Street and Meadowview Avenue, is surrounded by multiple highrise condominiums. Its classic features, including the brown brick walls and red tiled roof, stand out among the sleek modern designs showcased by its neighbours.

The nostalgia kicks in as the front door opens. Flashbacks to the 1960s begin with the natural wood countertop, large Coca-Cola sign and the lit menu board with yellow and orange letters. The cashier, wearing a blue button-up shirt bearing the Golden Star logo, greets every customer with a jovial, “Welcome to Golden Star. What can I get for you?”

Golden Star employees getting ready to start another day just before the lunch rush begins. Morning prep consists of chopping up fries and the fresh toppings for the day. On Feb. 26, 2020. (Alexander Hanimyan/T•)

The floor is covered with brown rectangular mosaic tile in a cobblestone pattern that wraps halfway up the wall. White stucco covers the rest of the wall. Family pictures and newspaper clippings line the wall, chronicling the long history of the restaurant. Brown plant pots hang from the drop-down white tile ceiling.

Each wooden table seats four in vintage orange plastic booths and has a 1970s-era Coca-Cola napkin holder sitting alongside salt and pepper shakers and a bottle of vinegar.

Not only has the décor remained unchanged in half a century, so has the menu: Pure char-boiled burgers with a selection of fresh toppings prepared daily, and a variety of items from steak sandwiches to buffalo-style chicken wings. The food is paired with combinations, which include french fries, onion rings or a salad. The combos are served in plastic baskets lined with black parchment paper. 

It’s all one retro reminder of a time long past.

“Homemade all-star burger combo with cheese,” the cashier yells to the guy at the grill. Once the order is filled, patrons choose toppings from large steel bowls visible through a glass partition.

James Doria, co-owner, talking about how his grandfather got into the food industry.

Golden Star is a drive up and park restaurant kind of restaurant – no drive-thru here. It’s run by the Doria family: James, Justin, Julian and Micayla, the third generation of Dorias to flip burgers here. Their grandparents, Frank Sr. and his wife Margaret, took over the property at 7123 Yonge St.  in 1966 from two Greek brothers, who first opened an eatery there in 1964.

The property was always a burger joint, even before the inception of Golden Star. In the early 1950s, it was known as Wilcox Drive-In. Later in the ’50s, up till 1964, it was Biff Burger.

World on Yonge at 7299 Yonge St. is one of the many new modern buildings surrounding Golden Star. The condominium complex opened in 2014. On March 2, 2020. (Alexander Hanimyan/T•)

Frank Sr.’s sons, Joseph, who died in November 2019 at age 73, and Frank Jr., who is now 70, began working at the restaurant in their early twenties, after the family bought the property. 

Joseph’s sons, James and Justin, now in their early 30s, started at Golden Star at the ages of 8 and 9 in the early ’90s. “My dad used to bring me here to wipe tables and socialize with the customers,” Justin says.

Since 2012, this generation of Dorias has been running Golden Star. James says, for years,  his father and uncle Frank Jr. “would still come and bark at us and do whatever they felt was right.”

Jason Grenier is a longtime customer who first visited Golden Star in 2003 at age four. His grandmother, Ruth McDermid, who moved to Thornhill in 1963, introduced him to the burger joint. 

His go-to item is the classic banquet burger. He likes everything on it, but is adamant that there can be no hot peppers.

Grenier describes Golden Star as a family-oriented restaurant that takes care of its patrons. “I find that if you are a repeat customer, you build a relationship with them. They treat you well,” he says. Sometimes, they give him extra condiments or throw in a slice of cheese or some extra bacon on the house.

Justin Doria, co- owner of Golden Star, explaining the day-to-day procedures of working at the restaurant. (Alexander Hanimyan/T•)

“They would recognize me and they always had a big smile on their face,” he says. “Sometimes, they would even say my order for me.”

In one of Grenier’s early trips to Golden Star, he remembers the late Joseph Doria recognizing his grandmother and joining him and his brothers on the outside patio. “We were young kids and would say these almost nursery rhymes or jingles. He would say, ‘They come from near, they come from far, they go to eat at the Golden Star,’ ” Grenier recalls. 

Dining at Golden Star was rite of growing up in Thornhill. “You are very proud there. It’s not very healthy food, but you are proud to be a part of the experience,” he says. 

The restaurant’s ’60s-era interior is dated but Grenier believes it’s become Golden Star’s brand image: “old-fashioned hamburgers and your classic diner.”

Each table with a wooden top and orange plastic booths fit four people. All the tables are set up with a napkin dispenser, a bottle of vinegar and salt and pepper shakers. (Alexander Hanimyan/T•)

He couldn’t imagine an updated, modern Golden Star. “I would almost be steered away from it because you don’t have that old feeling of the Star. You would think the quality of the food would change because the interior changed.”

Carolyn Reid has been eating at Golden Star since 1982 when she was 18. She had just moved to Thornhill and was looking for an old-style burger place, like Johnny’s Hamburgers at Victoria Park Avenue and Sheppard Avenue in Scarborough.

Reid’s favourite item at Golden Star is the chicken burger with lettuce and mayo and a side of onion rings. “The service is good, quick and the food is good,” she says. When she first visited 38 years ago it was a nice place to go eat with her friends. Now when she returns it brings back memories of being young since it feels like the diner hasn’t changed a bit. And that’s the way she likes it.

World on Yonge at 7299 Yonge St. is one of the many new modern buildings surrounding Golden Star. The condominium complex opened in 2014. On March 2, 2020. (Alexander Hanimyan/T•)

The restaurant sits on a valuable piece of real estate, but selling has never been in the cards for the Doria family. James says if the business wasn’t making money, it would be a consideration, but that isn’t the case.

“It’s hard for us to just throw in the towel, take a lump sum of money and move on,” he says. “Not to mention, we’ve been here a while. Everyone is happy right now.”

The décor and the atmosphere remain unchanged since before he was born. “We don’t fix anything that’s not broken. Why do it, if you don’t have to?” he says. 

“We listen to our customers and they say, ‘Don’t you ever change.’ ”

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‘PACINO SAID HI TO ME ONCE’

By Adriana Fiorante

Miriam Laurence’s studio, a lilac calm before a storm of students enter to stretch physical and vocal muscles. Laurence sets up the lighting to make more room for students depending on each class, as some are more intimate than others. On March 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•).
Miriam Laurence’s studio, a lilac calm before a storm of students enter to stretch physical and vocal muscles. Laurence sets up the lighting to make more room for students depending on each class, as some are more intimate than others. On March 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•).

Act 1: The intent to live

Inside a lilac-walled studio of blond wood flooring and no windows, Miriam Laurence saunters around in sunglasses and a faded noir baseball cap. An obnoxious buzz vibrates her North York studio and Laurence walks to the door, gently inquiring: “Yes … OK, come in.” Back into the studio, she pulls a wheeled desk toward the worn carpets that line the entrance of the cave. Two television screens stacked on top of each other and a nest of wires sit on the desk.

The television and tripod are set up and alight. The first student to perform dresses in costume in the washroom, prepared with a dress shirt, a tie, and slacks – ready to transform into a lawyer. On March 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•)

 Laurence has been teaching acting for almost 30 years, one-on-one, on set, and in group classes.

Her skin is ironed smooth, her voice light as air. There is no clear mark of her age. Her eyes remain emotionally static as she scans the room. As she sets up, she meows and experiments bird-toned pitches with various vowel sounds.

When Laurence was 18, she studied acting in New York City with the legend who trained the likes of Pacino, De Niro, Newman and more – Lee Strasberg. Many of the exercises she uses in her acting class have been appropriated from what she learned in The Actors Studio – Song and Dance, Personal Moment, Object, Chair.

The students clamber in one by one at noon on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. The room changes from a desert to a thunderstorm as the students noisily prepare.

“All right,” Laurence coos after 15 minutes of various lunges, twists, and vocal runs. “Make a circle.”

Ten students of different ages, hair colours, heights, shapes, sizes, silence their warm-up and form a circle, not unlike kindergarteners, connecting with a partner across them. In sync, they sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star syllable by syllable to each other while thinking about anything other than the song.

After everyone is warmed up, an assembly line of chairs forms and delivers everyone to a seat — with a metre of space on each side — throughout the room.

“Tense a muscle in one part of the body and when you release it, make a sound,” Laurence whispers to her focused audience. “Va-va-va-vaaaa,” as her thigh rises and falls in tension and relaxation.

A quarter of an hour later, the class is in a near-catatonic state as screaming erupts from one corner of the room, sighing and sloth-like movement another. The actors are contorting over their seats as Laurence slinks from one occupied chair to another, moulding her hands over their muscles to feel for tension. 

To Lydia Cain, Laurence whispers, “You have to allow yourself to be louder.”

Cain slumps her head forward as Laurence guides her shoulders off the back of the chair. Cain’s head slowly drops to the seat of the chair in between her out-stretched legs. Laurence’s palms mould over Cain’s curved spine, coaxing from Cain a gentle “ahhhh” as Laurence applies therapeutic pressure.

“Al Pacino said ‘hi’ to me once,” Laurence encourages in a mothering tone. “And I was too nervous to say anything back. My whole life could have been different.

Raising the camera to the height of another student’s face, Miriam Laurence adjusts it to ensure the camera meets the face of the student performing. The background, already set up, encourages the viewer to focus on the actor. On March 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•).

Act 2: A dream of passion

The Taming of The Shrew’s Petruchio lives in the untoned body of Farbod Pakpour, who is shifting from left to right before the starting pistol of Laurence’s “begin.” Petruchio is adorned in a lazy Sunday outfit: grey slacks, nondescript loose grey shirt and slippers.

 A civil engineer by trade and an actor by passion, though wrinkles around his walnut-coloured eyes have grown deep, they are youthful still. His Persian tongue mangles W’s and R’s unlike a native English speaker, a bit punishing on his consonants, rolling his Rs.

Now … by the world,” proclaims Petruchio with gusto. “It is a lusty wench!

Though Shakespearean is unnatural to Pakpour — whose first language was Farsi, then French, then English – it sounds as though he is saying it from the soul, not the mind.

I love her ten times more than I e’er did,” his lips part and from the jungle of hair a smile emerges. “Oh,” a long pause, his eyes glow. “How I long to have some chat with her!

“It’s really coming along,” Laurence praises. He has been a student of Laurence’s for years. “Such an improvement from how you were when you started! I can’t wait for you to be able to finish your studies and act full-time. How much longer will your PhD take?” 

“I don’t know,” Pakpour’s eyes gloss. He flops his head to the side. The jovial Petruchio has vanished, it is a wonder how Pakpour found the light in this dark cloud. “I have no idea when it will end. My boss is very intimidating, he is always yelling, and I am not getting paid. Otherwise, I would be committing to acting full-time.”

“I’m sorry,” Laurence reassures.

While Petruchio’s voice was strong, vibrant, confident and resilient, Pakpour’s now is broken in half.

“It is like you are a slave. It is literally like you are a slave.”

Students in Miriam Laurence’s class stretch, scream, run their vocals back and forth, and jump. The pre-class discussion is linguistically focused – clearly not all fun and games. On Mar. 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•).

Act 3: An actor prepares

Pedro Abrantes’ head, crowned by a receding hairline, is almost making contact with his knees. He contorts himself in the corner of the lilac studio while contributing to the pre-class discussion, albeit not one that many would feel immediately comfortable joining. Most involved in the discussion speak in ogre-tones and extended vowels. “Nobody in C-C-C-Canada knowowowows how toooooo drive,” his words are ushered by a Portuguese inflection and framed by thick lips. “Back hooooooooome, everyone is a precaaaaaautious and proactiiiiiiive driver.”

Pedro Abrantes, David Feehan and Gabe Marshall do stretches before class begins. Each actor is in a different phase in their comfort level and experience, each one has been visiting Laurence for different periods of time. On March 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•).

Laurence expands the legs of a tripod, topped by a 10-year-old video camera, and rearranges a web of wires into one long rope connecting to one of the televisions. Three other students in the class morph into the crew and move the stage lights a foot here and an inch there at Laurence’s direction.

While the set is being struck, Abrantes sits on a grey chair and opens his mouth as wide as he can, stretching his tongue to chin. He punches the air with fury, his face contorted in the manner of the Cheshire cat.

Pedro Abrantes prepares for The Verdict, pacing back and forth, gaining intensity and energy until the camera starts rolling. When action is called, he is focused and determined, convincing and thorough. On March 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•).

His face beams through the television, his shoulder (a reader to whom he speaks his lines) sits to the left of the camera. 

Laurence presses the red button on the camera, and eases back into her chair. “When you’re ready,” she susurrates, with such softness it is almost silent.

Abrantes lifts his head, the words are no longer from the pages of Mamet’s The Verdict, but his gut. His lips shake on notes of passion, his hands fly as he speaks of justice being lost in America.  

The text from Pedro Abrantes’ scene. He brings a script to glance at if he needs it and a copy for his reader to be the opposite character. While Abrantes takes a break, David Feehan performs an audition scene he was only given one day ago. On March 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•).

What did he say? What does he mean? His Portuguese pronunciation, while beautiful, makes it hard to hear the nuances.

There is a beat when he finishes and Laurence hops to constructive criticism: “Good, now do you want to work on your accent?”

“Yes, if David (the shoulder) can correct me throughout?”

The shoulder nods.

The now-familiar words, facial expressions, and gestures are repeated, but this time the shoulder repeats the words Abrantes pronounces too hard on the R, too cushy on the S.

The look in Abrantes’ eye is no longer full of anger and passion, but deadened, focusing on the forward movement of the shoulder’s Canadian inflection.

“My accent has gotten in the way, it will be hard for me to get roles here. It’s very hard to grasp English fully.”

There is another class tomorrow, so once Abrantes is done his scene, the chairs and television are left out for Sunday’s performers. The calm that was in the room before the beginning of class has returned. On March 7, 2020. (Adriana Fiorante/T•).

Abrantes announces after that he has landed a good agent in Toronto. After a year and a half of classes and many Portuguese short films, it is a step toward his dream.

He offers a second “thank you” to the shoulder as he leaves, the shoulder refuses thanks, and compliments Abrantes’ improvement over the last few weeks. 

While saying her goodbyes to the Saturday class, Laurence packs up her tripod. Tomorrow, a whole other group of students will simulate the same dance as today’s class, immersing themselves in similar chaos and growth.  

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Championship Mindset

By Sofia Vavaroutsos

Alex Zimilis’ short dark hair stands out among the 14 ponytails that surround him in a huddle on the gym floor as he addresses his provincial gymnastics competitive team.

It’s a Saturday morning and the girls stare back at him, looking spaced out. It’s their fourth day of four-hour practices and their bodies are feeling the strain.

When they take to the gym to work on routines, the sleepiness disappears. Precise, focused, crisp movements replace the lazy walks, blank looks and hazy smiles. Silence hangs in the air, broken only by the occasional cheer when someone lands a new skill, or a loud thud when someone doesn’t land a new skill.

Some of Ontario’s best gymnasts — girls between the ages of seven and 17 — train at the Woodbridge Academy of Gymnastics, in Woodbridge, Ont., under the guidance of Zimilis, a former U.S.S.R. champion.

Zimilis, 53, is the owner of and head coach at the gym and has been part of the furniture for the past 20 years, taking over in 2000 from a previous owner. Since then, the expanding gym, sandwiched between Hwy. 407 and Hwy. 7 near Weston Road, has relocated three times, but is still only two streets away from its original location.

The moves are the result of Zimilis’ efforts to grow the business. It had 200 members in 2000 and is now the home-away-from-home for 500 young athletes, and the host of some of Woodbridge’s coolest birthday parties.

Alex Zimilis, owner and head coach of the Woodbridge Academy of Gymnastics in Woodbridge, Ont., discusses his journey and his goals for the gym.

The shining jewel of the whole operation is the gym’s competitive program whose prestige grew alongside its membership. Now, it’s the home of 16-year-old junior Olympic level gymnast Martina Rubino. She is the first of Zimilis’ athletes eligible to compete at that level. Zimilis fondly remembers the program’s early days which kickstarted the gym’s success.

In Kingston, Ont., two years after taking over the business, Zimilis experienced his first competition with his new team from Woodbridge. The team took second place. “Kids were just so excited, jumping up and down. That was the first success.”

Rocking back and forth in a padded folding chair in the gym’s rainbow-filled birthday party room — the only room that isn’t painted pale blue with white trim — Zimilis opens up about what it means to foster a winning team.

For him, the strategy is simple: create a home, a place where athletes can feel comfortable learning, making mistakes and spending lots of time. If his girls are going to be working out for 16 hours per week, he wants them to be as happy as possible. 

Alex Zimilis runs through an average day as the owner and head coach of the Woodbridge Academy of Gymnastics in Woodbridge, Ont..

The coaches’ office is more like a living room. Brown leather couches and a glass coffee table take up most of the space, tucked away down a long hallway. Of course, the room isn’t just for the coaches… the whole gym belongs to the athletes. Zimilis says sometimes the athletes go in there to take a breather, do homework or have a snack. A shelf full of trophies and photos next to the coat rack displays some of the gym’s claims to fame. Other trophies hold a permanent space in the reception area, next to a sign that asks all visitors to have a good day.

Take a virtual tour of the Woodbridge Academy of Gymnastics:

At 4:30 p.m. every weekday, practice starts for the provincial-level athletes, but the gym is buzzing well before then. It’s not unusual to find directors Michelle Hernandez, 25, and Emily “Cozi” Cosentino, 21,  putzing around on the blue floor mats, practising skills they once mastered, well before the athletes arrive.

For Cosentino, Zimilis’ gym has always been like home to her.  “Alex is a gym dad,” she says with a nostalgic smile. “High school wasn’t ideal for me, but coming to the gym was always a safe space, and Alex created that safe space for me and for any athlete here as well.”

Hernandez’s career as a rhythmic gymnast was in another gym, but when her brother started the recreational gymnastics program almost 10 years ago, she met Zimilis. “Even though he wasn’t my coach I still see Alex as my second dad. I still talk to him and see him more than my dad… Even if I get a ticket, I go and ask him for advice and see what to do.”

As the athletes file in, Cosentino and Hernandez are greeted with hugs and inside jokes. “I can’t believe you just pulled that off,” one athlete yells to another, as hair is tied back and sweatpants are switched for leotards — except for one athlete.

Lounging around on a blue and orange spongy triangle as her extended family does flips and runs laps all round her, is bright-eyed, provincial-level gymnast Jaydin Segal.

Her right foot is extended in front of her, and even her blue and grey air cast can’t take away from the poise Zimilis instills in his athletes — you can tell her toe is pointed to perfection underneath. Segal, 11, tripped over one of the gym’s Olympic-size balance beams, but still attends practice.

Zimilis walks by and nods at her, signalling it’s time to start whatever conditioning exercises she’s able to. “I think he’s a great coach. He’s so nice,” she says. “He’s serious but then he’s always funny.”

Even when she has a rough day, her coaches help her through it. “I think we’re very lucky to have coaches that understand us so well.”

Alex Zimilis helps Martina

on the uneven bars.

For those in the competitive sports world, an environment like the one at the Woodbridge Academy of Gymnastics isn’t always easy to come by. No one knows this better than Andrika Rook, who works with former athletes on the transition to everyday life after sports.

Rook, a psychotherapist at Toronto clinic Shift Collab,  notes that while competitive sports are often a positive experience for children, the layers of pressure they can experience could carry into everyday life easily. “The coach has a special role in itself, but a lot of times that goes hand-in-hand with support …  For them to be at their best, you have to model that behaviour,” Rook explains. “You have to be what the children are going to learn how to be.”

Rook’s not surprised that Zimilis has amassed success with his gym, both in winning competitions and in the love his athletes profess for the sport. For Rook, Zimilis’ strategy of focusing on the gym’s environment just as much as the training itself is key.

Anita Verma, a mother of two of Zimilis’ athletes, sits on a bench, watching her youngest daughter, Sophia, adapt to the rhythm of a warm-up.  Verma appreciates the accommodations Zimilis’ team made for her, allowing her to sit in the gym. Since Sophia has trouble adjusting to the separation at the beginning of classes, it makes it easier to be in the room for the first few minutes. It’s in stark contrast, she says, to other environments, which are strictly no-parent zones.

Zimilis knows his role. Once his athletes are in a championship mindset, there’s nothing they can’t achieve.

“You have to be a father, a motivator, you have to be a friend, everything.”

Alex Zimilis hugs Malaiah during a warm-up huddle on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020.
(Sofia Vavaroutsos /T•)

He aims to motivate them to succeed as athletes and individuals.

For Zimilis, success is like bending a stick. “With the kids, you must push them, but again with the balance. If you over-push them, you over-bend the stick, they might quit, they might lose interest.”

That is the last thing he wants to happen, “I want (a) happy child in the gym.”

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Coloured and Colourful

By Nakosi Hunter

For roughly eight months of the year, one would be hard pressed to find a vacant outdoor basketball court in Toronto. Over the past decade the city has undergone something of a basketball renaissance, which reached its zenith in June 2019, when the hometown Raptors won their first NBA championship. But here, on this frigid February afternoon, snow is the only thing storming this Briar Hill court.

Returning to the court upon which Cassius Washington Smith first learned to play basketball always brings back memories of his childhood. Having grown up in Lawrence West himself, raising a child here has been a special “full circle” experience.
On Feb. 23, 2020. (Nakosi Hunter/T•)

“I’ve been hooping on these rims my whole life,” remarks Cassius Washington Smith, a lifelong resident of Lawrence West, located a handful of blocks north on Eglinton. “I was born just up the street.” His tone is steeped in nostalgia as he gestures toward the housing complex down the block.

“I love this neighbourhood.”

Washington Smith is a Toronto native who has spent all of his 24 years living in Toronto’s north end. Not only was he born down the block, but he is now also co-parenting his own daughter, three-year-old Luna, in the same neighbourhood as well.

“At first it was eerie,” he remarks in reference to pushing a stroller down the same streets he grew up on. “But this neighbourhood is filled with a lot of culture. A lot of interesting people, people that will teach you lessons just in passing and through conversation, and I think she’ll pick up on that in time.”

“I think this area gave me the ability to manoeuvre in any room that I’m in.”

Walking toward his apartment, the final stop on Washington Smith’s brief tour of his neighbourhood, which includes his favourite bar and grocery store, he mentions he still needs to get his cooking and cleaning done in preparation for the week ahead. It is Sunday after all.

It is late in the evening by this time and the sun has taken full command of the sky, painting the horizon in shades of red and purple. The streets surrounding the court are serene, the silence broken only by the humming of cars passing by on the main street somewhere off in the distance behind the houses. If one looked only into the sky, the swooshes of the vehicles could be mistaken for the swooshing of the tide as it meets the shore.

Cassius Washington Smith has observed the same patterns of media for far too long. He believes it’s time for the black community to demand better.
On Jan. 26, 2020. (Nakosi Hunter/T•)

Sunset is now in full bloom and, as if it sought to light his path in gold, the orange ball at the centre of the show seems to be hovering directly along Briar Hill Road toward Marlee Avenue, where Washington Smith is headed. 

In a lot of ways he is representative of urban young adulthood done right, or at least with noble intention. But to Washington Smith, stories of individuals like himself never get told.

“There are a lot of guys like me, early twenties, figuring things out, trying to go about things the right way,” he says, “but I never see that when I turn on the news. It’s always the other talking points.”

On Feb. 6, 2020, the Toronto Sun published a cover story headlined “Rhymin’ and shootin’: life imitates art for Toronto rappers.” It garnered widespread condemnation from Toronto’s urban youth for its lack of sensitivity. The story was published just a week after one of the individuals depicted on the cover had been murdered, which heightened tensions between the media and the predominantly black urban community. The Toronto Sun offices received various death threats in response and a Brampton man was arrested four days later on Feb. 10.

Sam Pazzano, a veteran court reporter for the Sun and contributing author of the story, is unswayed by the response to the story. “We dare to say what the [Toronto] Star would try to avoid because they don’t want to be seen as stereotyping things,” he says, “I didn’t create this image, I’m saying what I see.”

For Washington Smith though, the frustration isn’t that the media fabricates negative stories, but that they disproportionately choose to cover stories about violence and crime instead of the positive stories that largely aren’t deemed newsworthy to them.

“We’re not just coloured. We’re colourful, too. We have passions, we have hopes and dreams, we want to raise our kids right and make our parents proud. Some of us are achieving great things. You just wish that was newsworthy to them.”

This perspective isn’t one that has gone entirely unnoticed by those within the media bubble. Prominent black columnists, though few in number, have been sounding the alarm on this front for quite some time. Andray Domise, a columnist for Maclean’s and communication co-chair for the Black Business and Professional Association, expressed dismay at the lack of awareness within the news media in regards to their coverage of black young men.

“Even when the coverage is sympathetic it’s still all about the terrible things that happen to black boys and can they actually fix something on their side,” he says. “It’s never about ‘what are the shortcomings here?’ ‘What are the things they need?’ We don’t talk about that stuff.”

Pazzano minces no words when responding to the view that the black community receives disproportionately negative coverage by the news media. “Bad news sells,” he says. “People strive for negative stories. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.”

“Unfortunate,” while perhaps a fitting term, leaves much to be desired in the efforts to reconcile the divide between Toronto’s news media and its urban youth.

“We’re not perfect,” concedes Pazzano. “We should cover positive redemption stories as well. I’ve done stories like that, but we can do more.”

Redemption stories matter, but it’s an angle that follows an overarching pattern of covering the black community within the context of criminal activity in one way or another, to Domise’s point. “Generally what interests people about black people is how they survive in dire circumstances, and what were the circumstances of our death,” he says.

Cassius Washington Smith remains hopeful for a change in the narrative about young black men like him. It’s a change he intends to be a part of.
On Jan. 26, 2020. (Nakosi Hunter/T•)

Through it all however, Washington Smith remains hopeful for representation that displays the full range of what his community has to offer. “Not that we need to be given a chance,” says Washington Smith, “but if they gave us a chance, they would see we have so much more to offer than what they show.”

In a reporting climate that often misrepresents or under-represents certain cultures and communities, Washington Smith’s perspectives reinforce a sentiment that newsrooms could be more mindful on how to cover marginalized people. As he says, members of Toronto’s urban community aren’t just coloured, they’re colourful too. And their story is a picture worth painting, completely.

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Empty hair styling shop.

Cuts and Comfort

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_3699-2-1024x768.jpeg
The place where all the magic takes place. Seats and mirrors at every corner, ready for people to settle down and get beautified in comfort. (Lucas Reyes/T•)

By Lucas Reyes

Snip snip, buzz buzz. The sounds of scissors smoothly slicing through hair and clippers shearing heads mixes with the murmur of conversation and spirited laughter as skilled practitioners coif the hairdos of a handful of clients.

Add the bold scent of hot espresso and you begin to see how Salon Fifth Image strives to be different from many other establishments.

Everyone is engaged – customers are talking to each other as if they are all catching up from the previous night out and that really could be the case, truth be told. The entire salon which sits by Yonge and Florence is engulfed in a positive conversation. Jokes are cracked as laughter fills the room.

Martin Petris, a barber/stylist at the salon, asks a customer if he would like an espresso before his haircut. 

“How many sugars?” Petris adds. “One, please,” the customer replies.  Petris returns from the back room with the hot cup of espresso with one sugar, made to order. 

On another occasion, he is heading out on a brief Starbucks run across Yonge Street to grab a snack and offers to grab something for his client while he settles in for his haircut.

The gentleman declines the offer politely, but Petris asks again to make sure he truly doesn’t want anything.

Gaetano “Tano” Terzo, the owner of the salon but is soon retiring, says you need an engaging personality to run a business like this, where staff interact with dozens of people daily. “If you don’t treat people well, if you don’t treat people with respect, you won’t be in good shape.”

Terzo keeps a smile going all day and repeatedly asks clients if everything is OK.

Terzo says small salons often pay too much attention to finances, and not enough on being genuine and personable – and treating customers right. To him, it’s a difference maker, whether seeing customers once and never again, or every week.

And rightly so. The little things do matter. Salon Fifth Image puts significant priority on quality customer service and making sure staff build connections with their customers. The salon wants customers to stick around beyond their first visit. The positive energy flowing across the floor day-in and day-out is not taken for granted by those who work there and the salon’s regulars. 

That’s the key: attitude. Bad attitudes are not accepted at Salon Fifth Image, Terzo insists. There’s no temperamental yelling or behind-the-scenes hostility or employees being rude to customers. When Petris takes over the salon on Yonge south of Sheppard this spring, he plans to maintain that philosophy. “It’s all about customer service and how we greet the clients from the first minute that they walk in,” he says.

There’s another thing in the room keeping everyone engaged … the sound of television commentary can be heard creeping from above. A soccer match is being played from a TV at the front of the salon, and everyone, including those getting their hair cut, turns around to check the score and see if anyone has scored. The game is a UEFA Champions’ League match between Italy’s Atalanta and Spain’s Valencia.

Terzo, who is of Italian heritage, shouts with excitement when Atalanta scores another goal to extend its lead to 4-0, and goes on to win the match 4-1. The atmosphere is loose, everyone is cracking a smile. Soccer flows through the culture in the shop after it was introduced by Terzo, and it keeps customers, especially regulars, engaged.

This isn’t the only time you will find the TV entertaining the clients. Whenever there is an important game on, especially a soccer match, you can expect the staff to make sure it’s tuned to the right channel. That way, anyone who happens to be interested, including the staff, won’t miss any of the action. On days when no sports are scheduled, customers can catch up with the world as Toronto’s CP24 keeps them informed, whether they’re sitting and waiting at the front, in the barber’s chair and stealing a glimpse at the screen reflected in the mirror.

Aydin Yildiz, a barber at the salon, says there is a difference between the genuineness in their business and the pretentiousness in other salons. “A lot of the time, (other businesses) will be nice for you just for the money. Here, we’re just friends.”

That doesn’t only apply to those who work there. Observe the interactions that go on throughout the salon and there is a consistent family-like vibe.

Julie Kagan left a review about Petris on his personal website, praising his services:

“It is such a pleasure to have Martin as our family hairdresser. He is very talented and also helpful with recommending a style while still respecting what the customer wants. He is lovely with children and my daughters were very happy (with) their cuts recently. We couldn’t ask for a nicer and more skilled hairdresser!”

Despite the positive energy that Terzo has brought to the culture of Salon Fifth Image for over two decades, he looks forward to retirement. The salon will undergo a brief renovation before Petris takes over. In the meantime, there’s clients to be coiffed.

As the stylists and barbers get down to work, the sounds of scissors snipping and clippers humming continue throughout the day, interrupted by the occasional booming blast of a blow dryer.

And, of course, “Would you like an espresso? How many sugars?” 

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Man with face paint, baseball uniform, and a glove waiting in the field.

For The Love Of Baseball

By Matthew Tassopoulos

It’s a hot summer day in the GTA. Baseball season is in full swing, and the playoffs are quickly approaching for minor baseball teams across Canada.

Aaron Preiano and his Aurora Blue Jays teammates are preparing for the biggest tournament of the year.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Aaron feels a “pop” in his elbow. He’s in immense pain, but what’s worse is the feeling that life as he knows it may have just come to an end.

At the moment, Aaron is just a 12 year-old kid playing the sport that he loves.

He’s known known baseball was a big passion of his for a long time, and an opportunity to potentially chase his dreams were in front of him. “From a young age baseball has been part of my life. My dad has always liked it, and he brought me into it as a kid. Ever since I first played baseball I thought it was really fun,” says Aaron from his home in Aurora just a few months after his 20th birthday.

Many kids have dreams, and many kids say they would do whatever it takes to pursue those dreams. 

For Aaron, his dream was to be a Major League Baseball player, and he was determined to not let anything get in his way of getting there. 

Until the day it all changed.

“Unfortunately I still remember that feeling. It was during our final tournament of the year, which is always in August, and I was just throwing the ball around in warmups when I felt something in my arm. I never really had a feeling like that before but I could tell right away that it was bad,” says Aaron.

Aaron suffered a significant injury to his throwing arm, which required Tommy John surgery. Tommy John surgery is a procedure that is done to repair a torn UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) inside one’s elbow by using a tendon from another part of the body. It is named after former Major League pitcher Tommy John, who was the first player to successfully undergo the surgery. 

The injury meant Aaron was unable to play baseball for over a year, and had to undergo many physiotherapy sessions.

Despite not being able to physically be on the field playing during the recovery process, Aaron’s love for the game was at an all-time high. 

Aaron’s father, Stephen Preiano, was Aaron’s baseball coach for five years when he started playing, and he is someone who Aaron credits a lot of passion for the game to.

It was “extremely difficult” for Stephen to see his son in pain and agony on a daily basis, but he also knew that Aaron was not the kind of guy to let a bum in the road stop him from doing something he loved to do.

“Ever since Aaron was a little kid throwing the ball in the backyard, he really loved the game of baseball,” says Stephen. “I think any parent would have a hard time seeing their child go through what Aaron was going through, but Aaron had a great attitude about it and I knew he was going to do whatever he could to get back on the field ASAP.”

After being out of action, Aaron finally returned to the field, but not without some unfortunate consequences.

Arm pain was a recurring issue that Aaron had to continue to deal with.  

There would even be times where Aaron had to sit out of games for weeks at a time to go see a doctor and try to fix the issues.

“I didn’t realize how serious my injury was at first, but after that I knew it was something that was going to take a lot of time and energy to get past,” says Aaron, pointing to the spot near his elbow that caused him the most pain.

It eventually got to a point where Aaron needed to make a decision that would be best for himself and his future.

“The moment it became clear to me that it was time to go from my playing career to coaching was when I would get home after a game and I was in so much pain. I’d be icing my arm for hours after games and I realized that it was probably time to move on,” says Aaron, who had to quickly come to terms with the reality of his situation.

Since then, Aaron’s passion and affection for the game have not gone away whatsoever. In fact, if you asked Aaron, he’d tell you that everything he went through only enhanced his love for baseball.

In 2019, Aaron started up a new company by the name of Elevation Baseball, as a way to teach and coach children about not only the game of baseball and how to get better as a player, but also how to take care of your bodies as young athletes.

In a big facility full of open space, turf, and space to swing their bats, kids between the ages of 11 to 14 arrive ready to learn and become baseball players, with Aaron’s loud voice giving tips and pointers to the young ones.

“Elevation Baseball is a way for me to pass down my knowledge to younger generations, and also a way to grow baseball in Canada,” Aaron says. 

James Chrono, one of Aaron’s former teammates, and fellow coach at Elevation Baseball, says Aaron is one of the hardest working people he knows.

“I’ve known Aaron for a long time, and he’s always been the type of guy who works really hard to accomplish what he wants,” says Chrono, who played baseball for a number of years himself.

Looking back, Aaron says he doesn’t have any regrets about anything that happened, and as he has gotten older, he has a greater appreciation for what athletes of all levels have to go through to get to the top.

Aaron is currently a student at Brock University in the Sport Management program. Even though his playing career did not go exactly as planned, he is still determined to have a successful, baseball-related career in any way possible.

“Down the line I want my career to be something to do with baseball. Maybe a scout, executive, analytics person, something along those lines,” says Aaron, who seems to be happy with where he is at in life.

“Anything to do with professional baseball works for me.”

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a banner image of the explore printing logo. The background wall is wood panelling, and the 'e' in explore is filled with succulents.

From the Basement to a Booming Business

By William Dixon

A print shop can be found on every corner, run by any Joe Schmo with a half decent printer and some blank business cards. 

A print shop can also be a quaint little store sandwiched between two colossal red brick industrial buildings in Vaughan, with a handcrafted wooden sign and a welcoming glass front and two dedicated young adults whose hard work, tenacity and dedication have created a successful business. 

What started off as just two friends silk-screening band T-shirts for their friends and family has snowballed into what Explore Printing Incorporated is today. 

Unlike most print shops, Explore Printing has concentrated on custom one-off projects and, as a result, has tapped into a niche market. Projects have ranged from wrapping ATVs and guitars to installing a skating rink on top of a downtown Toronto skyscraper. 

Recently Anthony Saldutto and Lucy Abate created a Jack Link’s beef jerky dispenser that looked like a sasquatch. They had to source the fur, custom airbrush it to match the rest of the suit and tease it out, all while making sure the fur could be easily removed afterward so the dispenser could be used in a more professional, corporate setting.

Saldutto, 29, and Abate, 32, have been officially running Explore Printing for nine years. The business started off in Abate’s mother’s basement in Woodbridge and has been self-funded from the outset.  Explore Printing attributes its success to word-of-mouth and references from past clients. 

Lucy Abate, co-owner of Explore Printing, adds the final touches to a project for Mackenzie Spine and Brain Associates on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Abate cuts small sections of double-sided tape and sticks them on to the back of 3-D letters to make on-site installation quick and smooth. (William Dixon/T•)

Today, Abate and Saldutto work in the back of the shop at 301 Hanlan Rd., finishing up the 3-D letters, graphics and signage for Mackenzie Brain and Spine Associates. The constant hum of the printers is accompanied by background country music. Saldutto and Abate tap their feet to the beat as they work on finishing touches.

 Saldutto stands with one leg resting over the other, watching the Rose Graphix Laser Cutter outline the shape of a brain on a piece of scrap cardboard. After each round of the laser cutter, Saldutto stops the machine and raises the lid, releasing a puff of white smoke. He gently presses on the cardboard to see if the laser cutter has reached the appropriate density to where he can easily remove excess cardboard from the graphic. 

While Saldutto finishes up with the laser cutter, Abate leans over her workbench, adding final details to the project. She cuts small sections of red double-sided tape, gently tapping her finger on each piece to make sure it is still sticky, and attaches them to the finished 3-D letters and graphics. 

It’s tedious, painstaking work but it is something Explore’s craftspeople clearly enjoy. 

Once, Saldutto says, Explore was asked to wrap a fire truck for a beer festival. “So, we had to figure out a way to wrap the whole truck and convert it so out of every tap came beer. The tricky part was we had to do all this while also making sure the fire truck was still fully functional.

“Figuring out those little details is always the fun part,” he says. “Annoying, but fun.” 

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Sitting area with a green couch and green armchair in front of a huge window.

Ghost in the Stacks

By Maggie Feldbloom

On a quiet afternoon in March of 1972, sunlight flooded through the snow-frosted windows of a tiny library. Gene Gerry, touring a circuit of libraries with his wife, made a left past the foyer into the children’s section, its surfaces scuffed with time and age. To his surprise, he was met by the sight of an elderly woman in a rocking chair, moaning, “John, John, John.” Gerry quickly turned to call his wife, but upon turning back, not a single trace of the woman was left behind – instead, only the chair sitting mystifyingly empty in the corner.

“If you could find out if anyone has ever seen this lady, even one person, well, just let my wife know. Then I will be vindicated,” reads Gerry’s letter to the editor of a local newspaper. This story would soon become the Thornhill Village Library’s most notorious ghost encounter.

“I swear I was expecting the ghost to reveal itself to me. There is an energy in that house.”

– DEBORAH KERBEL, AUTHOR OF ‘LURE’

Author John Robert Colombo – known as “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” – included Gerry’s anecdote in his novel, “Mysteries of Ontario.”

“Most ‘ghosts’ and hence most ‘hauntings’ are sounds rather than sightings, less often combined,” says Colombo. “The account is vivid because of its telling.”

When it comes to Thornhill Village Library’s more permanent residents, it appears Mrs. Ellen Ramsden has decided to take on the lead role in what might be Thornhill’s very own haunted house. Ellen Frizzell married John Ramsden, a miller, in 1847, and the home was originally built for her. Ellen passed away at the age of 39 shortly after, and left the home to her infant son, John.

This begs the question – which John was Ellen calling for from her chair that afternoon?

Old Thornhill Village revolves around Yonge Street, clustered between John and Centre streets. It’s a designated Heritage Conservation District, and the library is surrounded by plenty of other historical homes.

Thornhill at Yonge and Centre streets circa 1900. (Courtesy City of Vaughan  Archive)

Thornhill at Yonge and Centre streets circa 1900. (Courtesy City of Vaughan Archive)

Andrea Dunn, current librarian at the Thornhill Village Library, flips through the library’s historical binder at her desk, whose pages outline paranormal experiences from decades past. She’s read these passages before, and quite a few make her smile. As a face of the library, she is often the first person that patrons report to after an unordinary experience.

Andrea Dunn, one of the librarians at the Thornhill Village Library branch, pictured during our Zoom meeting on February 24, 2021. (Maggie Feldbloom/T•)

The majority of stories fit nicely with the description of Ellen. Staff members have claimed to hear a woman’s voice whisper goodbye on their last day of work, as well as seeing a Victorian-style skirt sweeping by the top of the stairs up to the second floor. Multiple library patrons have also told Dunn that, when they drop off books at the library late at night, they see the silhouette of a woman looking out the upstairs windows.

“Anything you see in the middle of the night is not us.”

– ANDREA DUNN, BRANCH LIBRARIAN

Cynthia Tappay, a past branch librarian, intentionally stayed away from the library after hours. She told a reporter in 1988, “I do not intend to spend Halloween night or any other night in the library, for at night the library belongs to previous occupants. I myself may someday haunt the building.”

Though the building was expanded in the 1990s, the exterior of the library still closely portrays its original, Victorian-era character with white, clapboard walls and elegant moulding.

It certainly caught the eye of children’s author Deborah Kerbel on a summer day in 2008, as she turned onto Colborne Street in hopes of finding some parking to run a quick errand to the local paint supply. To her left sat a little white building that appeared to be a small house, frosted by large, black shutters and neighbouring a quaint garden.

Kerbel says that she felt inexplicably compelled to enter. She would go on to title her novel ‘Lure’ after that very feeling.

She ran inside, passionate and full of excitement – in true Kerbel fashion. Asking the librarians about the building’s history, Kerbel learned of the library’s paranormal presence.

“They all looked at me and said, ‘When we started working here, we did not believe in ghosts.’ They all believe in ghosts now,” Kerbel says.

Deborah Kerbel pictured reading her novel ‘Lure’ at its release at the Thornhill Village Library on October 31, 2010. (Courtesy Deborah Kerbel)

She even attended a ‘ghost tour’ where librarians pointed out the spot the infamous rocking chair once sat – now, it remains in the building’s basement.

“I felt a big creative wave,” Kerbel says, her eyes widening. “This is why that house was attracting me, this is the pull I felt.”

Her young-adult novel ‘Lure’ follows a 16-year-old boy, Max, who has recently moved to Thornhill, and is contacted by a ghost named John who lives in the Village Library. Kerbel used the real stories that she discovered throughout her research as a baseline for some of the events in her novel.

While the historical home has had an array of residents, it may also include one that isn’t human at all. Dunn tells me through a grin that one ghost in particular has been quite prominent recently.

Just a few years ago, an older man stepped up the ramp, past the picturesque, white lattice that frames the side-door of the library. He felt a quick brush past his leg – what could only be described as when a dog passes you by.

“Did you guys see that dog?” he asked as he set foot in the entryway, approaching the front desk where Dunn sat.

“No,” she replied. She was confident she had seen nothing walk in – plus, the library doesn’t allow dogs. But the man was sure of what he had seen: a dog ran into the library, and it must be somewhere. Baffled, they asked around, but sure enough, nobody had seen it.

The library staff decided to research the sighting, discovering that the library had been a veterinarian’s clinic from 1902 to 1911. What’s more, recorded tales of fifty years ago revealed patrons had felt that very same four-legged friend brush by.

Click on the markers to learn more.

It’s been a while since the last sighting at the Thornhill Village Library, but Dunn says it’s these long, uneventful periods of time that usually indicate something is about to happen. And no visitor is exempt from potentially being the next person to glimpse a silhouette or dog on their way in.

“From what I’ve heard,” Dunn says, “the people that experience something the most are the ones that are most adamant that it’s not real.”

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Empty church pews, a red carpet on the floor, nature lighting through the aisles

Keeping the Faith

By Eduard Tatomir

The parking lot fills as families arrive; parents hold their children’s gloved hands as they dash for the one storey, orange-bricked building. They may be a few minutes late to the Sunday service, but most of their eagerness comes from escaping the cold.

Agricola Finnish Lutheran Church at York Mills Road near Yonge holds services in four different languages.
It is a haven to dozens of families from many backgrounds and it is open to everyone. Feb. 23, 2020. (Eduard Tatomir/T•)

Just a stone’s throw from York Mills subway station, in a quaint, tucked-away neighbourhood sits the Agricola Finnish Lutheran Church. The area is placid with its greenery and open space. Next door to a park with a free-flowing pond and surrounded by eggshell-white, affluent homes, this place of worship keeps its antique charm and unsophisticated, rustic roots intact.

Visitors trudge through the snow and are welcomed inside. Oftentimes there will only be silence or perhaps the sound of the pastor giving a sermon. From time to time, the heavenly choir will be singing at the front near the altar. Warm candle lighting and the polished wood pews make it feel like a second home.

That is, if you can enter the space at all. If it’s not a Sunday morning, the front doors likely will be locked.

“That’s because the building is usually rented out throughout the week,” says Hannele Väättanen as she stands against the doorframe leading to the empty chapel. It’s a weekday and she’s only there to fill out some paperwork, organize some files and keep the space tidy. “Our congregation has gotten smaller and smaller so we do rent to survive, to cover the costs. We rent the parking, we rent the space. It’s not ours anymore.”

Väättanen has been the secretary and a member of the congregation for the past two years. The church is the only thing that’s kept her in this country after she and her family immigrated here because it’s given her a job and a sense of community. She has seen new faces come and old faces go but still, she maintains that the community remains strong, even if it may be diminishing.

Day in the Life video for Hannele Väättanen as she talks about her transition to Canada from Finland and her thoughts on the church. On Feb. 10, 2020.

Religious affiliation and church attendance among Canadians has fallen over the last few decades. Canadian census data indicates the number of people claiming to have no religious affiliation has risen from 4 per cent in 1971 to 24 per cent in 2011. It grew to 29 per cent in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. For many Canadians, churches and organized religion have increasingly lost their appeal over the years.

Over the past 50 years, there has been a slow but steady rise in Canadians who self-identify as having no religious affiliation.
This could spell trouble for the future of church communities and congregations.

As Väättanen cleans the pews of the church and straightens the Bibles behind each seatback, she notices a man at the door. Elias Koskinen. He looks worn out, his jacket falling off his shoulders. Her face lights up as she goes in for a hug.

“How’s your mother doing?” He sighs. “She’s resting, but doing better,” he says. They are more than just acquaintances from Sunday worship. They are friends.

Service every Sunday is held in four different languages — Finnish, English, Swedish and Estonian — to accommodate a wide range of communities. After they pray, everyone is welcome downstairs to feast on soup, sandwiches and coffee. People can drop spare change and small bills in a bowl at the end of the table to show their appreciation. It’s always filled with cash.

This old-fashioned church sports a digital sign and one of the slides lets everyone know that they are welcome.
The church hosts four Sunday services each week, in Finnish, English, Swedish and Estonian. On Feb. 7, 2020. (Eduard Tatomir/T•)

Kids run around, playing tag while the adults sit at a last-supper style table discussing work, imminent errands and their qualms about technology these days. A larger church would look at this gathering and call it a slow week but this is their most impressive crowd in a while with nearly 40 people breaking bread.

The room smells of pastries and is bursting with conversation. Whenever someone walks past, they feel welcome enough to butt in and join the chatter. Soon, everyone has an empty plate and a finished cup of joe as they leave to start their days.

A lone woman sits in the corner during the English service, ensuring enough space for her service dog and mobility scooter.
The church tries to be as accommodating as possible and the pastor asks people to stand during the service “as you are able.” (Eduard Tatomir/T•)

Hilkka Luus, the chair and counsel of the church, arrives last to the meal as everyone is finishing and heading out. She was working upstairs, making sure everything was prim and proper for the English service. She is more than happy to put the needs of the church and the people before her own.

“Some of the people who were originally here when I started to come in about 1980 are no longer with us, but there are some new faces now and new faces coming all the time. But we used to be bigger.” In fact, it’s the smaller size that lets her feel so close to everyone.

“It has grown in a sense that there are fewer Finnish families moving to Canada and the older section is getting smaller but there are still new families and individuals that come for a year, two years, or stay for longer. Some aren’t even Finnish. The point is to make sure that everyone feels welcome.” And she does. Everyone knows everyone and she considers that a blessing.

In the eating area, a wall of photos taken over the years shows the faces of the choir members with their names underneath.
The choir is a beloved part of Sunday services and essential to their congregation. On Feb. 23, 2020. (Eduard Tatomir/T•)

Another woman sits at the table and quietly eats her food. She has soft eyes and a persistent smile. Elizabeth Virtanen has been attending the church for decades now. She has no children and her husband, Tauno, died in 2012.

“These people have known me for so long. They feel like more than my friends. I know their children, they know me and I feel like I belong.”

She recalls walking the church a few weeks ago when one of the kids came up and hugged her. “She was my friend’s daughter and I wasn’t expecting that. I almost wanted to cry.”

If Pastor Matti Kormano isn’t preparing his sermon for the English or Finnish service, he is likely mingling with the men and women he just gave communion to earlier. He will grab a seat along with the guests and drink a cup of coffee while they all feast.

Kormano can attest to the smaller congregation size, but isn’t complaining. “It’s not as big as it once was and the children aren’t very involved, but I trust they will be in the future. Hopefully.” He laughs, but during the service, groups of five to seven kids sit near the staircase on their phones.

Children, who have spent most of the service in the hallway, come inside to receive communion bread along with everyone else.
Some of them leave again right after and meet up with their parents after the service. On March 1, 2020. (Eduard Tatomir/T•)

This doesn’t concern him much because he is able to look around and confidently remember each face and almost each name week-to-week. As the children grow into their teens, they may start to attend less, but Kormano says they “usually always” come around, even if statistics claim otherwise.

“We may not be a large congregation and renting the space is necessary to survive, but I’d prefer a handful of loyal members over a room full of people who change every week.”

A week later when everyone gathers together for another Sunday service, they greet each other with nods and smiles before taking their customary seats. When they close their eyes in prayer and their kids leave to play downstairs, they can trust that everything will be OK in a space that feels like their home away from home.

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Mural of hands of different colors coming together and forming a heart.

Limitless Heights

By Laila Hashem

It’s 2004. Three giggling girls look out of place wandering a quiet hallway until their feet simultaneously stop at apartment 207. Hand in hand, they lift their fists to knock, but the brown door swings open before they reach it, revealing a woman with all-too-knowing eyes. She isn’t dressed for guests  — her turquoise baati, a classic cotton pajama dress from her ancestral home of Somalia, is her Saturday uniform. She opens the door wider and the girls’ smiles light up the dim hallway as they notice the small figure hiding behind her. 

They look back at the woman with hopeful eyes and flutter their eyelashes before asking, “Can Sumia come out to play today, hooyo?” 

Mila Roble became a “hooyo” (which means mother in Somali) to the seven-year-olds and many other Somali children in the tight-knit community when she moved there in 2000 with her four children — Walid, Sofia, Sumia and Shirwa. 

“I love you, be safe,” she yells after the small figures running toward the purple playground across the street, their shiny curls bouncing behind them.

And she knew they would be.

All that has changed  — today, a knock on her rusty Lawrence Heights door sends her motherly instincts into overdrive, and her worry-filled eyes can’t help but wander her small home. She counts her grown children’s heads “to make sure they’re there” — one, two, three and four, her “Baby Shirwa.”

Lawrence Heights, a hard-scrabble North York neighbourhood just south of Yorkdale Shopping Centre, is one of Canada’s oldest and largest community housing projects. Its roadways are a labyrinth of twists, turns and dead-ends, making a somewhat aesthetically pleasing pattern from the sky and little sense on the ground. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1-4-1024x768.jpg
Built in the 1950s, Lawrence Heights is made up of 1,080 low-rise apartment buildings, rowhouses, detached homes and a high proportion of single-parent families. With only a few roads going in and out and a fence that once encompassed the neighbourhood, it was built to keep its residents separated from the rest of the city. On March 16, 2020. (Laila Hashem/T•)

In 2005, Toronto City Council designated Lawrence Heights as one of 13 priority neighbourhoods, a label reserved for areas high in crime and low in support resources. 

Fourteen years later, in July 2019, it became clear that Lawrence Heights hasn’t been a priority when it endured seven shooting incidents over two weeks. But this was not news to the people who wake up every morning to this horror movie replaying outside their bedroom windows.  They cannot shield their eyes and ears from the random drive-by shootings and gunshots that echo day and night. They cannot grieve their brothers, cousins and friends or the disappearing innocence in their young siblings’ eyes. And when winter comes and there’s a moment of peace and quiet, their hearts cannot rest remembering those who promised it’d be over soon. There’s an everlasting dark cloud over their homes — but Roble’s fond memories paint a colourful Lawrence Heights. 

“I let my kids out to play, my neighbours let their kids out to play. We never feared our community,” she remembers. However, over the years, as her children grew older and transformed in front of her very eyes, so did her community.

Her home became the “Jungle” to the people of Toronto. A place where drugs, poverty and gangs live. But between the dehumanizing headlines and racist stereotypes that vilify her community, it’s often forgotten that people live here, too. Children, single parents and solo seniors make up this neighbourhood, and they’re just trying to survive in a place that works against them.

“I remember the first time someone died since I moved in. It terrified me, but I still felt OK because a lot of people cared then,” she says, referring to a drive-by shooting down the street from her building in 2005. “My kids remember it too. They’re never going to forget.” 

Sumia Ali, now 23, recollects the good and the bad.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_5451-1-1024x768.jpeg
Sumia Ali, 23, was born into a small household in Lawrence Heights in 1997 and she’s seen her community suffer and grieve through violence and death rightoutside their bedroom windows. She holds the happy time close to her heart, but the bad things she’s lived through cloud her memories. On March 16, 2020. (Laila Hashem/T•)

Predominantly newcomers and immigrants from East and West African countries, the Caribbean, and Latin America, many communities are represented in the small housing units spread out over 100 acres of fenced land. But in her naive eyes, they were one.

Sumia Ali, resident of Lawrence Heights, discusses her first encounter with death in her neighbourhood and how it affected her community.

In Ali’s room a white desk is scattered with the same NYX Cosmetics make-up she used to create her photo-perfect foundation and fierce purple eyeshadow for the day. On the edge of it, there’s a thin black microphone —— the same one she bought three years ago to record her first original song, “Curls Down.”

To survive in Lawrence Heights, “You have to have a passion. If you don’t, you might fall into the wrong crowd or do things that are not good for you,” she says, reflecting on her love for art. Her eyes shimmer when she laughs, remembering all the times she stole her hooyo’s makeup brushes as a child. 

But Ali’s journey isn’t hers alone, she’s bringing her community with her.

Her latest mission? The Community Healing Project at Stella’s Place  — a mental health facility for young adults in downtown Toronto. Through this program, youth receive training to handle trauma, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health issues developed in communities with high rates of crime and violence. Then, they train other youth to do the same.

“The bad things have affected this community drastically, but I do think there are healthy mechanisms for coping with mental health,” sighs Ali, pictured at right. “A lot of people don’t care about us, so we have to do things ourselves. We can’t just talk but not do anything about it.” 

Growing up in this environment has also shaped the way her younger brother, Shirwa, navigates life as a 21-year-old black man. “I have to be alert at all times. I have to leave the house knowing my mom is worried I won’t come home tonight,” he says, almost in a whisper.

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 Siblings Sumia, Shirwa and Sofia Ali have always had strong personalities and differences that sometimes clashed. However, their bond and emotional connections are unbreakable — no time or distance can break them. On March 16, 2020. (Laila Hashem/T•)

Shirwa’s young eyes have seen too much.  He can’t tell the difference between fireworks and gunshots. Cousins and friends have been shot and killed steps away from his building. He has been at the scene of a stranger’s murder before the police and ambulance arrived. He loves his community but hates his neighbourhood.

“If I hadn’t grown up here, and seen the things I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I’ve seen how systemic racism and gun violence have affected us and left us to suffer. Not us alone, but black people all over the world.” Shirwa takes women’s rights and race issues classes at Carleton University, is involved with activist groups on campus and is an ally at protests for other marginalized groups, like the Wet’suwet’en people who have been in a battle of their own since February. “It’s made me aware of and passionate about so many other social justice issues and movements. It’s made us stronger.” 

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“Deep Roots, Limitless Heights” is a community mural produced by youth from Lawrence Heights under the Art Starts mentorship program. The mural focuses on the history of the neighbourhood from its development in the late 1950s to the present day and celebrates the hard work and creativity of its residents. On March 16, 2020. (Laila Hashem/T•)

In 2013, Toronto Police launched the Neighbourhood Community Officer Program to address violence and crime in neighbourhoods across the city. Geoff Kerr has been a cop for 30 years and has worked in 32 Division for the past 20. About two years ago, he was assigned to Lawrence Heights as a community officer. 

“One of our primary focuses is to build a better relationship between the police and the community. We’re here to connect with people and help them out with family issues and whatever other adversities they may be facing, and obviously to keep the peace,” explains Kerr. 

The annual Walk of Hope for Peace is a community-led initiative that honours victims of gun violence in the Lawrence Heights and Neptune communities. The first walk was held in 2014 in honour Abshir Hassan — a teacher at Lawrence Heights’ elementary school who was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity.

The program has made a difference in this neighbourhood, both for the police and the people, and crime has decreased, Kerr says. The officers couldn’t do it without faith, in themselves and in the community. “You can’t embark on something without having the belief that you are going to make a difference. You don’t sit on a chair without the faith that it’s going to hold your weight. The officers working in this area want to be here. We believe we have the skills to make a difference in the community.”

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As neighbourhood officers, Geoff Kerr and Caila Khan want the residents of Lawrence Heights to not only feel safe and protected in their presence, but also know they can lean on them for support.  They believe the bond they’ve created with the community is unlike any other in the city. On March 17, 2020. (Laila Hashem/T•)

His partner, Caila Khan, can’t help but smile as she listens to him talk about the same place she’s grown to love. “This is a great community. I’m amazed at the different relationships they have and the sense of community spirit amongst everybody  — it’s a proud community and they’re doing their best,” he says, warmly. 

But their best will never be enough. Lawrence Heights can only reach so high without the rest of us.

Now, hiding behind the door of apartment 207 in her favourite pink baati, Sumia Ali’s final words echo in the quiet, dimly-lit hallway, “I don’t think the people that live here are bad. I love Jungle. I love the people that live here. They shaped who I am as a person. I just want this city to see us the way I see us too, as humans worthy of love.” 

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Baby Shirwa, hooyo Mila and Sumia celebrating the first day of Eid al-Fitr at the end of the month-long Ramadan fast. Their difficult, individual journeys in and outside of Lawrence Heights have made them stronger, together. On June 5, 2019. (Sumia Ali)
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There are women dancing onstage in silk shirts and brightly coloured skirts. They're holding wicker baskets on top of their heads.

Long, cold, lonely winter of COVID-19

By Negin Khodayari

It’s like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Plazas that are normally packed with cars and swarms of people, are deserted. Schools are vacant, with no students in sight. Streets are empty, but for the odd car, and the only place you need to be, is at home. 

Driving past the Iranian Plaza at Yonge Street and Steeles Avenue, Soroush Khosravi notices neon “open” signs flashing late into the night. Just a couple weeks away from the Persian new year, this place should have been packed, with echoes of music and laughter floating through the neighbouring streets. Instead: silence. 

“(They’re) open later than usual. Probably because they want to compensate for the lack of sales,” says the former Toronto Farsi School volunteer. Toronto has since declared a state of emergency, but most stores at the plaza remain open as they qualify as essential businesses.  

The parking lot of the Iranian Plaza at Yonge Street and Steeles Avenue is almost empty as customers stay away due to the COVID-19 outbreak, on March 14, 2020. Most stores have remained open during the isolation period as they are considered essential businesses. (Negin Khodayari/ T•)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, communities all across the world have been affected, some worse than others. Iran was among the countries hardest hit. The news has sent shock waves through Iranian communities around the world, just like in Thornhill. According to the 2016 census, the Iranian population in the Greater Toronto Area sits at 97,110 and North York, Thornhill and Richmond Hill have the most Iranian attractions in the GTA. 

Toronto Farsi School, a non-profit organization that operates on weekends at Thornhill Secondary School, aims to perpetuate Persian heritage by providing a full Farsi curriculum to Iranian-Canadian youth. The school was among the first places to shut down following the outbreak, back in late February. Mastaneh Rezaei, the director of the school, says the main concern is protecting students and staff members.

“We plan to reopen next week,” Rezaei says over the phone on Feb. 29, the first week classes were cancelled. Several weeks later, the school remains closed,  along with every other school, college and university in Ontario. 

A York Region District School Board poster at Thornhill Secondary School on Saturday March 14, 2020, reads: “All schools closed to students March 16 until April 5.” With Ontario in a state of emergency, schools remain shut indefinitely. (Negin Khodayari/T•)

Toronto Farsi School attracts hundreds of Iranians every week, but even more so in March, when it holds a series of performances — except this year–  in celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year. 

Every March, students prepare performances featuring brightly coloured costumes, and volunteers greet guests at the doors and guide them to their seats.

Most of these volunteers are high school students filling the 40 hours of community service required to graduate. In the weeks when the school is open before the pandemic, the volunteers usually walk to nearby food places during their breaks, which is the most memorable part of their experience as Khosravi recalls.

“We’d get a bunch of junk food and sit around in a circle and just eat and laugh with each other,” he remembers gazing off in the distance. With a smile on his face, he tilts his head back, trying to contain his laughter. “We always had a great time,” he says.

Those nearby food places, like the Iranian Plaza, are now being avoided. A representative at Arzon Supermarket, located in the plaza, says he understands why people are scared. “It makes sense, people want to protect themselves. This is usually the busiest time of the year for us with Nowruz coming up,” he says over the phone a couple weeks before the Persian new year. 

“It’s sad, but people are trying to be positive. Unfortunately that country is no stranger to pain and distress. This too shall pass,” he says in Farsi, over the phone, his voice growing quieter as he reflects on the situation.

Tirgan, an organization that promotes the preservation of Iranian culture and traditions, also had it’s Nowruz plans unpended. One of its biggest events of the year is a Nowruz festival featuring a series of renowned Iranian artists performing in North York venues, over the course of several days. 

An Instagram snapshot from one of the performances at Tirgan’s Nowruz festival in March 2019. This group of women performs a symbolic dance in traditional clothes from northern Iran. (Sina Mateen/Tirgan)

Earlier in March, Tirgan announced it will convert all performances into a televised production. “We hope that these decisions will not only help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but will also bring the Iranian-Canadian and the global Iranian communities together, while promoting Iranian art and culture. Looking forward to better days.” Tirgan said in an online statement.

A Tirgan spokesperson said in an Instagram message that this year’s eventful winter, with all the pain and suffering it brought, is mercifully coming to an end. “We hope all Iranians can once again feel the joy of celebrating spring with full hearts, as their ancestors did.” 

In Iran, this winter was tougher than most, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the downing of Flight 752 in early January with 176 victims, and the nationwide protests in November 2019 that left over 1500 people dead. The Tirgan spokesperson ended the statement by remembering the ones we lost in the year that passed. 

“As we welcome Nowruz with family and friends, our hearts are with those most affected by the devastating events of this year. Our promise to them is to stand by them through their struggle for peace and justice,” the post said. 

Within the Iranian-Canadian community here in Thornhill and around the GTA, families are shunning their regular Nowruz gatherings. The holiday involves several public festivities over the course of two weeks, all of which have been cancelled as an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Every year, on the last Tuesday night before the vernal equinox, Persians usually celebrate with a fire festival called “Chaharshanbe Suri.” Most years, large outdoor event centres, such as Richmond Green and Mel Lastman Square are home to the gathering of hundreds of Iranians celebrating with loud music, dancing, bonfires and lots of food. But this year with these events cancelled, most people celebrated with their families in their backyards, to keep the tradition alive while maintaining social distance. 

An image from Google showcases a common scene during “Chaharshanbe Suri,” the Iranian fire festival usually held the last Tuesday night before Nowruz. People jump over the fire as a symbolic cleansing ritual, where they give their cold and “paleness” to the fire in exchange for its heat and redness. (Creative Commons)

Elly Roustaei, who left Iran over 30 years ago, says she will never stop celebrating these historic holidays, regardless of how difficult times may be. “It’s hard to want to celebrate with everything going on. This year no one is really in the mood to celebrate, but we will still do what we can,” she says. 

“We continue to remain hopeful and spirited. It’s hard and the reality is devastating. Every time I remember all that’s happened, I get a pit in my stomach and my heart breaks. But that should be more of a reason to remember our roots and to not give up,” she says, her voice shaking as though she is fighting back tears.

She pauses, clears her throat and continues with a touch of pride in her voice, “This isn’t easy, none of this has been easy. Some people have lost everything, but we have continued trying to celebrate to show our strength. To show our power.”

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Work office that has four desks and four desktop computers. The room has colourful decorations and hanging photos.

One contraction at a time

By Rhea Singh

Twelve years ago, Mafalda Oliveira was just a yoga teacher. 

At 20 years old, Oliveira spent her lessons teaching students warrior poses, transitioning from basics to intermediate yoga. That all changed when a new student walked in and, to Oliveira’s surprise, she was pregnant. Oliveira didn’t know how to cater to her student or how to teach her yoga while she was pregnant. But those barriers didn’t stop her from trying. 

Mafalda Oliveira (left) and Melissa ‘Mel’ Rafaela (right) find support within each other, as they are both mothers themselves and on call 24/7. After meeting in 2016, they became friends and created Mama Doula. 2019 Photo. (Courtesy Mama Doula)

Oliveira began to take prenatal teacher training as a way to break down the barrier between her student and her yoga teaching. When the woman was reaching closer to her due date, she invited Oliveira to the birth to help with breathing exercises and calming her down.

“One of the nurses asked me if I was her birth doula and at the time I didn’t know what that was. But because I loved the experience so much I went and did research and became a birth doula after that,” says Oliveira.

The word “doula” would soon become part of Oliveira’s everyday life. Doulas are certified professionals trained in childbirth, prenatal and postnatal care, or termination. The journeys they take with their clients aren’t medical, but emotional, physical and educational. 

When Oliveria officially began her doula training in 2016, she got her start at community centres where she acted as a translator and doula for families from Brazil and Portugal. Oliveira would explain and guide them through the importance of vaginal births, as many leaned towards having C-sections instead.  

Most women within the Portugese community prefer C-sections to natural births, says Oliveira. In 2011, a study published by Rev Saude Publica stated that among the Brazilian women who were monitored, overall C-section rates reached 45 per cent and 81 per cent among private patients.

Now at 31, Oliveira runs her own doula agency, Mama Doula, alongside friend and co-founder Melissa ‘Mel’ Rafaela. Mama Doula offers services such as help with infertility, pregnancy labour/delivery and postpartum care. It also has workshops for care and support during the birthing journey. Including Rafaela and Oliveira, Mama Doula has a team of eight trained doulas, that cater to services from birth to postpartum care. The agency is the brainchild of two women who saw a lack of support when it came to birthing in the Portugese community in Toronto. And, as mothers, they saw it as a support system for each other.

“The first time we met we really connected. We were both mothers and at the time I didn’t really know how to work by myself, to have a child and be on call 24/7,” says Oliveira, who met Rafaela through the Portugese community in Toronto. 

Being on call 24/7 comes with the job, says Rafael. Her day does not begin with an alarm but with a call – from mothers, partners of mothers or potential mothers. “Sometimes you have 48 hours of no sleep, and that’s very intense,” she says. “I could be heading to bed, or just putting my kids to bed, and then I get a call.”

Founded in 2018, BirthMark wants to break the stigma that families are “straight cis-gendered and white.” The organization helps clients in intersectional communities, whether they are black, Indigenous, people of colour or 2SLGBTQIA+. On March,15, 2020.(Rhea Singh/T•)

A 2010 study published by the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada found that reasons for discontinuing doula practices were linked to on-call requirements 50 per cent of the time and difficulty in balancing family demands and obligations at 43 per cent. However, the study did find that 89.6 per cent of participants said they chose the job in order to support women in childbirth and 42 per cent linked their interest in the job to their own birthing experience with a doula.

Every week is completely different. Sometimes there are no calls. Then suddenly there’s a wave, a baby wave. But this isn’t a burden for Rafaela – these calls are what she is passionate about and have become part of her job. 

“You could have two birthings in a row, and even once you are done with those birthings, you still have prenatal and postnatal appointments with those clients,” says Rafael.

Similarly for doula Gillian Cullen, 20 to 30 hours of work a week became the standard when caring for postpartum clients. Since her first doula training class in 2014, she has had over 150 clients. Navigating on-call life is tough and can mean missing birthday parties, holidays and special events, she says.

“I knew that just surviving on birth fees alone, you would have to take six to seven births a month. That’s not humanly possible, but I did that for a while,” says Cullen. 

Growing up in Rexdale, Cullen saw how living in an underserved area affected friends and people around her. BirthMark’s main goal is to cater to communities that might not have access to  doula services, she says. On March 15, 2020. (Rhea Singh/T•)

Even with the high demand, the profession provides memorable “magical moments,” she says, especially that moment when a mother and family connect with their baby. Cullen knew the sleepless nights and 2 a.m. calls from mothers were worth it after she attended her first birth. 

Now at 38, Cullen is executive director of BirthMark Support, a registered charity founded in 2018 to provide doula services to people from marginalized communities. Much like Mama Doula, BirthMark’s services include termination and loss doulas, labour and birth doulas, and postpartum. Cullen started BirthMark Support after she saw a gap when it came to serving mothers in marginalized communities. 

Growing up in Rexdale, Cullen had become a mother at 19 and had three daughters by  the time she was 23. As a survivor of domestic violence and a young mother, she felt alone and isolated. She also watched a lot of her friends and people in her community navigate tough situations in their underserved area. Cullen understood the importance of having the right person to guide you through an important stage in a mother’s life.

“A lot of the time, when we look at the way this country was built, having a white middle-aged woman (doula) is not going to be the safest thing for a lot of our clients.” says Cullen. 

Trauma for mothers can come in different forms and waves. A study published by Statistics Canada in June 2019 found 23 per cent of mothers who had recently given birth reported consistent links to postpartum depression or anxiety disorder. The study also found 67 per cent of mothers opened up about their mental health to family, friends or health professionals. 

During Oliveira’s second pregnancy, she experienced severe stress, linked to problems with her husband and it made her birthing experience much harder than anticipated. But having a doula, a person in whom she found support, made the experience much smoother.

Having two birthing experiences with a doula made Oliveira realize that the stress was much deeper and that, in theory, she was hiding something from herself. “It made me a better doula when it comes to giving as much emotional support as I can, as a woman and as a human being,” she says. 

Rafaela likes to say it’s more psychological than physical, notes Oliveira. If the mother doesn’t trust the people around her, the birth becomes much harder. There is a deeper meaning to labour and motherhood

Becoming a mother isn’t for everyone, she says, and the stigma against women who choose not to have children is slowly fading. That’s mainly because people are starting an open conversation on how motherhood shouldn’t be always expected of a woman. 

“We are at the cusp of this change in society where women are starting to really be able to use their voice and have strength, and the more we talk about it, the more we keep the conversation alive,” says Cullen. 

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a man is standing in front of two punching bags. Behind him there are large wrestling images.

Rolling With the Punches

By Adam Hostetler

The red digital timer above the mirror ticks down and shrieks like a smoke alarm as it finally reaches zero.

“Go, go, go. Keep going! Keep going! Keep going!” barks Viloryi Kim, as the seven young men in front of him continue throwing left and right hooks into the air. The timer resets, counting down once more from 60 seconds. The punchers bounce forward and back on their toes, like children jumping rope.

“Elbow, elbow, elbow,” Kim calls, and like clockwork every elbow is raised higher for the punches that follow.

Clinical white fluorescent lights beam down onto the black, sweat-stained floor of Siberia Boxing Club. The flags from 16 countries hang down from the industrial ceiling, the harsh lights piercing through the thin fabric.

Some late arrivals have joined the class and everyone pairs up to practise their technique. Two-foot pool noodles in muted colours are swung by one partner, while the other bobs and weaves to avoid the blows. Kim is 59 and his wisdom and knowledge of boxing is apparent. Kim observes the students like a professor analyzing a math problem and individually critiques their form.

Sergei Shishkin (left) and Andres Santana practise their defence and dodging techniques using a pool noodle. This exercise forces the boxers to move swiftly without causing any harm to partners. On Wednesday, March 4, 2020. (Adam Hostetler/T•)

He is the sole coach of Siberia Boxing Club at 177 Dolomite Rd. in North York. He established the gym in 2014, but boxing has been a large part of his life since he was 10 years old growing up in Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Two-thirds of the country lives in rural regions, but his hometown, Bishkek, stands out as the only major city, with a population greater than the next 20 combined.

Kim describes the importance of a focus on community rather than competitiveness at his gym. (Adam Hostetler/T•)

He did four years of training before entering any professional fights. He says that qualifying for competitions in the Soviet Union is a challenge of its own, in large part due to the sky-high standards and copious contenders. His devotion paid off when Kim successfully made the Kyrgyzstan national team. He would later go on to win the championship of the republic in Kyrgyzstan.

After high school, he went to the Kyrgyz State University of Physical Culture and Sports for four years, graduating in 1982 with a major in boxing. He fought competitively throughout university. After completing his degree at age 21, Kim’s career was at a fork in the road and he had a choice to make.

            “When you’re part of the U.S.S.R. team you’re getting money and getting treated in a way that makes you want to compete. If you’re not on the team, there’s no reason for you to keep competing because there’s no money in it.” Without a spot on the Soviet national team, Kim decided to take his talents outside the ring — and began coaching immediately. 

Kim had been able to delay his mandatory draft into the army until he finished university. So for two years following graduation, he was a boxing coach for the Soviet Army in an eastern-Kyrgyzstani military district. That is where Kim achieved what he says is his greatest boxing accomplishment: When he was only 24 years old, two of his students — Dmitry Boliguzov and Vladimir Stepanov — both placed third at the Soviet Union championships.

Boxing Ring
The boxing ring is the centerpiece of the training room at Siberia Boxing Club. The flags from 16 countries hang above, including Viloryi Kim’s homeland of Kyrgyzstan, second from the left in the front row. On Wednesday, March 4, 2020. (Adam Hostetler/T•)

The gym that Kim taught at had members hailing from several teams, including the U.S.S.R. national team, the Russian republic team and the army team. Despite all vying for the same titles and championships, there were no rivalries among the members of coach Kim’s gym. He brought this co-operative-over-competitive mentality overseas when he came to Canada in 2004 and it remains an integral part of his program to this day.

With six other martial arts studios within three kilometres of Siberia Boxing Club, standing out from the competition is crucial. Kim knows he needs a good relationship with his students if he wants more long-term clients. Kim’s daughter, Adele, says students will call her father about life advice.

Even the gym’s name has origins in an appreciation of community. Kim does not have any direct ties to Siberia, but a lot of the people who helped to fund the gym are from that region. The club’s name is a way for him to pay homage to those who helped him in the past.

This community focus is palpable throughout the gym: the sincere smiles exchanged between students upon arrival, the steady stream of “thanks coach!” Kim hears each night, and the abundant advice shared by advanced fighters. Boruch Rabiski is one of these advanced fighters and has already competed in five professional fights.

“I’ve been to other gyms and this is the best one I’ve tried for sure. Coach critiques each student individually rather than hanging back and only stepping in every so often.”

The friendly environment does not translate into a forgiving workout. The glaring white lights above shine down on the members, who glisten with beads of sweat within minutes.

Photos of world-renowned boxers like Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather encircle the training room. If this room were a boxing ring, the rows of iconic boxing images on the walls would be the ropes, ensuring that the sport never leaves the mind of any member.

            Even though he had years of experience as a boxing coach, Kim had to adapt to the Canadian market when he opened his gym. Canada is not nearly as competitive as Kyrgyzstan when it comes to boxing. “Back in the Soviet Union, the goal of being a boxing coach is that you’re going to coach them so they can compete and win.”

In Canada, it’s just not worth it to try chasing down that one special student. Kim had to convert his teaching skills from working with elite talent to working with anyone who signs up, and he says he enjoys both of these teaching styles equally.

 He moved to Canada with his wife, Aigul, and their daughter, Adele, who was only eight at the time. Like many immigrants, they came in search of better opportunities.

A brief history of where boxing has taken Kim. (Adam Hostetler/T•)

When they first arrived, Kim was working an office job. He had experience working in business back in Kyrgyzstan, but his poor English made the transition difficult. He went through two college programs in Canada – business administration and massage therapy.

“I don’t like to work as a massage therapist. Why I finished the program? I don’t know.”

Kim enjoys coaching far more than if he were working in an office, but there’s no job security or guaranteed income. He has seen many competitors open gyms, and nearly just as many close their doors.

“If you want to open a gym, I don’t recommend it. It’s not a good business.”

According to Kim, one of the most important things when establishing a gym is understanding how you can make money and how you can be better than other clubs. Before launching his own business, Kim would rent space in any gym that would give it to him and he’d teach boxing. His goal was to develop an understanding of what people want and then find his own way to give it to them. At Siberia Boxing Club he seems to have found the right mix.

The class draws to a close and some students find their own area to begin cooldown exercises. Others, like Rabiski, continue practising their punching proficiency, a few catch up with friends, or get in some final free weight reps before the next class starts.

The next group of students arrive at 8 p.m. and the warmup exercises begin. Kim instructs them to work on their punching techniques. After a minute, the red digital timer above the mirror reaches zero and shrieks like a smoke alarm once again.

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Sole Survivor

By William Dixon

Uniformed students from MacLachlan College funnel into the silent auditorium as a frail, diminutive 94-year-old shuffles to her seat. She is perched on a petite, old wooden chair, nodding to the students as they file in one-by-one and sit down around her. The room hums with whispers from the students. “Shhh,” one says, the presentation is about to begin. 

“Hello, my name is Vera Schiff and I am a Holocaust survivor.”   

The Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre was officially opened in 1985. The centre provides education and understanding about the Holocaust and serves as a platform for dialogue about civil society for present and future generations.

Michelle Fishman is the manager of education, outreach and communications at the centre and the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors. Fishman works with survivors daily and assists with programs that teach subsequent generations about Holocaust history, its lessons and legacy.

Fishman says the centre reaches an average of 50,000 people annually through school visits and its signature education programs such as In Conversation and Holocaust Education Week. In Conversation brings schools and community groups to hear survivors tell their story and create a personal connection to history.

Schiff is one of the centre’s most notable survivor speakers and has been conducting presentations for over 10 years.

Vera Schiff discusses her childhood, life in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and the power of hope (Feb. 7, 2020). (William Dixon/T•)

It’s Prague, 1939. Dinner has just finished, and a young Vera Schiff sits on the lap of her father, Siegfried Katz-Taussig, as her mother, Elsa, cleans up. Vera’s older sister, Eva, is somewhere in the house. Eva is always doing something, Vera recalls, whether it’s lending a helping hand or coming up with games for them to play. She is so full of energy, so full of life. 

The night grows older and the family begins to settle down. It is a night like any other and 12-year-old Vera decides to sneak out and have some fun. 

She walks to the street, turns the corner and stops. Uniformed soldiers with machine-guns stomp down the street. Scared, shocked and confused Vera runs home, up the stairs and into her bed. This is the first time she has seen a Nazi. On this night, childhood for Vera comes to an end.

In the following days, all the Jews are rounded up and put into make-shift ghettos around the city of Prague. Life for them is never the same.

Coupled with Schiff’s presentation is a tour conducted by one of the centre’s expert educators and volunteers, like Joyce Rifkind. On an unseasonably warm February morning, she guides students through the centre’s library and then to the auditorium, offering insight about life before, during and after the Holocaust. 

Rifkind stops at the large, green brass doors of the auditorium, and asks the gossiping students if they recognize either of the two symbols on the door (שש). One student, who clearly knows his Hebrew, says it looks like “shesh,” which is 6. Another suggests it looks like two trees. Somewhat surprised, Rifkind tells the students they are both correct. 

The number 6 represents the 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust. The artist elongated the Hebrew letters to create two trees, which Rifkind says is symbolic of the rebirth of Jewish culture and people here in Canada. 

She pushes the heavy doors forward and ambles down the hall of the auditorium, the students following her. Enveloped by pictures of survivors and Holocaust artifacts, the once loud-laughing group of students now falls silent, as if someone had sucked all the air out of the room. 

Vera Schiff, one of the centre’s most notable survivor speakers, answers questions from the Grade 10 students from MacLachlan College
 after her presentation at the centre on Feb. 7, 2020. (William Dixon/T•)

In May 1942, Schiff and her family, including her mother, father, sister and grandmother are deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

After the two-hour train from Prague to Theresienstadt, the Katz-Taussig family are separated by gender. Although Schiff doesn’t know it, this is the last time she ever will see her father. 

What were once an army barracks and horse stables are now overflowing with thousands of old, dirty cots. The claustrophobic quarters are a breeding ground for lice, parasites and viruses. Schiff recalls that on more than one occasion she woke up, startled, by a rat in her bed gnawing at her toes or ears. 

Schiff is assigned to work in the camp’s hospital – “Vrchlabi” – while the rest of her family are sent to work in the fields. She still doesn’t know if it was a blessing or a curse. On one hand it allows her to avoid the ongoing deportation to the death camps while on the other, it forces her to watch as each of her family members died.

Her sister Eva, once a vibrant energetic little thing, contracts strep throat (even then a curable illness with proper medication and care) and over the next couple weeks Schiff watches as her sister – her best friend, her confidante – slowly withers away.

Starvation and fear of death are a constant in Theresienstadt. On a spring morning, Schiff remembers, a prisoner who looks more like a skeleton than a young boy, climbs a cherry tree to get some fruit. Before he can pop the delicious fruit into his mouth an SS soldier walks over to the boy, pulls out his pistol and shoots him in the head. 

Such atrocities happened daily, Schiff says. People would be hanged or shot for the smallest misdemeanors. She can’t even count the number of executions she witnessed at Theresienstadt. Even one was too many. 

But there was some joy amid all the suffering. She met her husband, Arthur Schiff, in Theresienstadt. A gentle and handsome man, it was his kindness that she really fell in love with, says Schiff. In the concentration camp, kindness was even more scarce than food. 

A photo of Vera Schiff and her late husband, Arthur Schiff, who she met in the Theresienstadt. This picture was taken in 1945, Vera is 17 and Arthur is 39, when the couple finally arrived back in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Feb. 22, 2020. (William Dixon/T·)

On May 8, 1945, Theresienstadt was liberated by the Russian Army. Following the war, the couple returned to Prague. Then, in 1949, they made “Aliyah” (the term for the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the Land of Israel) and lived in Israel until 1961. Arthur’s sister and mother had settled in Canada and under family reunification rules they were able to find refuge and a new place to call home. In Canada, Schiff began her new life and worked as a medical technologist, specializing in hematology. 

Schiff, the sole survivor of her entire family, had two sons, David and Michael, and now has six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She surrounds herself with family, remembering what she has lost and cherishing what she has gained. 

Following her retirement, she decided to commit to paper her memories in a book published in 1996 titled “Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews.” This was followed by two other books in 2004 and 2005. Schiff also began speaking at schools as well as working with the centre to offer her personal testimony of the Holocaust, to educate young adults and to serve as a reminder of past atrocities. 

Sitting in the library of her North York apartment complex, Schiff slams her fragile hands against an old wooden desk. “It must never repeat itself,” her voice strains after each syllable. 

Her pearl bracelet and wedding band bang against the wood. “We must never allow a strong-armed bully, be it with an army or a stone, to attack a weaker man and to destroy people for no good reason.” 

She pauses on each word, letting it linger in the air: “It. Can. Never. Happen. Again.”

The Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre creates knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust and serves as a platform for dialogue about civil society for present and future generations. The centre was officially opened on September 22, 1985. Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (William Dixon/T·)
The centre has a small library filled with Holocaust literature written by some of their survivor speakers, like Vera Schiff, as well as other authors. Joyce Rifkind, one of the centre’s expert educators and a volunteer, works on her presentation for a tour of the silent auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (William Dixon/T·)
A collection of photos with some brief information offers visitors of the silent auditorium a glimpse into life before the Holocaust on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (William Dixon/T·)
Within the auditorium is a memorial for the Jews that passed away during and after the Holocaust; it is a place for quiet contemplation and remembrance. In the memorial hangs the Ner Tamid (the eternal light) which is a light that hangs in front of and above the ark in synagogues and is symbolic of the light of truth and the presence of God on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (William Dixon/T·)
A collection of photos and information about the Holocaust, life after the war and the creation of the Israel state. After the Holocaust there was a great diaspora of the Jewish community, for many, including Vera and Arthur Schiff, the creation of the Israel state was symbolic for the end of their great exile, they finally had a home and place where they belonged; Vera and Arthur moved to Israel in 1949 to make Aliyah on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (William Dixon/T·) 
A poem by Abraham Sutzkeuer, dubbed as the greatest Holocaust poet by The New York Times, titled “The Jewish World has Vanished”. The poem, written in both English and Hebrew, discuss the fallout of the Holocaust and the near extinction of Jewish culture and its people on Feb. 25, 2020. (William Dixon/T·)

Although the centre can get noisy due to the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily routines, behind the thick metal doors of the showroom there is nothing but silence

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Photo taken on an iphone of a person laughing. They are sitting outside near plenty of green trees.

The Final Mission

By Nick Baldwin

Toby Henderson wakes up in his aunt’s house just before 7 a.m. on a Tuesday — much earlier than usual. It feels like a normal November morning, except it isn’t. At all.

The Toronto high school student is in Warren, Man., to say goodbye to his 86-year-old grandfather, who is suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disease that results in long-term breathing problems and poor airflow. Kelvin Baldwin has decided he wants a medically assisted death, and his entire family — minus a few members who live in British Columbia — are in town to be with him.

Henderson and his cousin walk over to his grandparents’ home, which is attached to his aunt’s.

Another aunt and uncle are sitting on the couch in the living room, quietly talking, as Henderson enters the house. They exchange good mornings and he sits down on a chair next to the couch. He quickly dozes off — probably didn’t get enough sleep last night.

There’s a strange feeling in the air. In just hours, a team of medical professionals will arrive to “perform the mission,” as Henderson’s grandmother, Donna — who’s been married to her husband for 66 years — calls it.

Three hours later, Henderson sits in the living room with his grandparents, mother, two aunts, two uncles, and two cousins. A black SUV drives up the lane — you can sense that everyone’s hearts just dropped.

Since medical assistance in dying was legalized in Canada in 2016, the numbers of people who have received an assisted death have skyrocketed.

From June 17 to Dec. 31, 2016, more than 500 Canadians received an assisted death, according to an interim report released by Health Canada. From January to the end of June 2017, the number increased to 875 and in the following six months another 1,086 people received an assisted death. Then between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, 2018, more than 2,600 people were granted their wish. No data has been released for any timeframe since then.

Ever since Kelvin learned that he had COPD in 2016, he planned on receiving an assisted death when the time was right, Donna says. “He didn’t want to get to a point where he couldn’t breathe on his own, or where he suffocated to death,” she says.

On Nov. 12, 2019, the time was right.

Donna greets three women at the door. They are the medical professionals who will grant Kelvin’s wish. Two are nurse practitioners and the other is a counsellor who will help the family. They smile upon entering the house, walk into the living room, and say hello to the gathered family members.

In just a matter of 30 minutes, Henderson’s grandfather is gone.

Looking back, Henderson says it was a sad moment for him and the rest of his family, of course, but that they were glad his grandpa no longer had to suffer.

Toby Henderson looks back on a photo of his late grandfather, Kelvin Baldwin, who died on Nov. 12, 2019. Henderson says one thing he’ll never forget is his grandfather’s laugh. On Feb. 27, 2020. (Nick Baldwin/T·)

“The way that I think it was most positive was in how it was for him,” he says.

“He was very unhappy, because his whole life he was an active man. With the lung condition that he had been facing over the past few years, having an oxygen tank, not being able to move nearly as much as he used to – and, by the end, pretty much not at all. All the things that really brought him joy in life, other than his family, he couldn’t really do anymore. I think he was ready. He felt as though his life was fulfilled.”

Henderson says his grandfather’s death was a smooth process. He says the night before, Kelvin’s family sat with him in his bedroom and told jokes. Kelvin told more jokes than anyone else.

Kelvin Baldwin played several musical instruments, including the piano, guitar and fiddle, says Toby Henderson. Kelvin performed at many family and community gatherings. Henderson brought back his grandfather’s guitar to Toronto after he died. On Feb. 27, 2020. (Nick Baldwin/T·)

While a stigma still surrounds medically assisted death in the eyes of some, there’s no doubt that more and more Canadians are choosing to die on their own terms.

Ed Weiss, a family physician who provides medically assisted deaths in Toronto, believes that has to do with the fact many people have only recently been finding out about medically assisted death for the first time. Weiss is also a board member for Assisted-dying Resources Centres Canada, an organization “devoted to providing suffering patients with a supportive, inclusive and home-like setting” for when they choose to end their life, according to its website.

“I think over the last couple years, the understanding of who is eligible has evolved,” Weiss says.

“At the very beginning, a lot of people were assuming that the law meant you had to be terminally ill to qualify. People have realized that it means someone has to be on a trajectory toward death, but it doesn’t have to be imminently happening.”

Weiss says he thinks a rise in doctors and nurses who provide assisted death has also contributed to the increase.

“At first, a lot of doctors and nurse practitioners were really uncomfortable with it,” Weiss says. “There was no official guidance on how to do things. People were really left scrambling to figure out, ‘OK, how do I get the medications, how do I get the intravenous lines started, who can I turn to for help?’ Now, there is more organized support for doctors and nurses who want to get involved.”

Toby Henderson says this was his grandfather’s favourite kind of jam. On Feb. 27, 2020. (Nick Baldwin/T·)

In February, the Canadian government proposed changes to the medical assistance in dying legislation. If passed, the bill would allow a person to be eligible for an assisted death even if their natural death isn’t “reasonably foreseeable,” according to the government website. Additionally, a person whose death is reasonably foreseeable would be able to give final consent prior to receiving an assisted death in case they no longer have the capacity to consent when the time comes.

The vintage Smith-Corona Galaxie 2 typewriter is another of Kelvin Baldwin’s possessions that Toby Henderson brought home to Toronto. Henderson says his grandfather loved to write. On Feb. 27, 2020. (Nick Baldwin/T·)

Donna, 84, says since her husband died, she’s been very much in favour of medically assisted death – or at least the right to one – and hopes to support organizations like Dying With Dignity Canada as much as she can.

Dying With Dignity Canada, an organization headquartered on Eglinton Avenue in Toronto, advocates for the right to a medically assisted death. According to its website, the group wants to improve quality of dying, protect end-of-life rights and help Canadians avoid unwanted suffering. It also strives to support patients and educate Canadians about the options they have at the end of their life.

Donna laughs when asked if she plans to follow in Kelvin’s footsteps and have an assisted death herself – when the time is right.

“Of course,” she says bluntly.

“As a matter of fact, I wanted to go with him – you know, die with him. But they wouldn’t let me.”

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wo large non-medical syringes filled with a yellow substance.

The Optimistic Juice Man

By Julian Beltrano

Driving past a suburban shopping plaza in Woodbridge, Ont., one might notice a few bold ‘WE ARE OPEN’ signs. On closer inspection, there is a deserted family travel agency, and the insides of several  surrounding storefronts  are littered with partially disassembled equipment, abandoned seating areas and idle chairs. These days, the parking lot is mostly vacant. This isn’t the once bustling plaza located off Pine Valley Drive of a year ago, before the coronavirus spreading around the world was declared a pandemic. 

Michael Appugliese, owner of Freshouse Food and Juice Bar photographed from his office, on Feb. 17, 2021. (Julian Beltrano/T ·)

In a neighbouring plaza, a fast food restaurant’s drive-through twists and turns like a snake in the sand of a desert. It’s difficult to find a bustling clothing store or coffee shop, or any sign of optimism, really. About one in six Canadian small businesses is at risk of closing their doors permanently as a result COVID-19 restrictions, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which routinely surveys small and medium-sized businesses across the country. For food service and drinks businesses, it’s even worse. Even large chains such as Booster Juice and Starbucks have closed stores across Canada in recent months.

Perhaps it is because of all this that a leafy juice bar hidden behind an average-looking storefront, far from the city of Los Angeles it evokes, feels like a unique find. It is on the edge of the quiet plaza, just steps from restaurants that are unable to host diners.

Part of the reason Freshouse Food and Juice Bar feels like an oasis might also be the owner, Mike Appugliese, He is as animated as his social media feed, which features videos sprinkled with cartoons of body systems like human guts that lighten up topics including gout, arthritis and anemia. In Instagram videos, Mike clasps and unclasps his hands and waves his arms in exaggerated circular movements that make it obvious he’s excited even with the sound turned off.

He has owned the juice bar since 2016 and his energy these days is being poured into a focus on health and optimism as the pandemic drags on. 

“Although this has not yet ended, I’m feeling optimistic that it will and I wish everyone felt the same”, he said, his eyes wide and focused. 

Julia Koutrouliotis is a regular. She comes for the juices as part of her routine. But these days, she says, it feels like she’s also coming in to see a friend. 

“I think that trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle during the pandemic has been very good for my own mental health and it has been a source of happiness for me,” she said. ”Mike is super outgoing and friendly, and you can tell that he loves what he does which always makes going to Freshouse a good experience and makes me want to return.”

Before starting the juice bar, he worked for almost a decade as a personal trainer and bootcamp instructor, where he led individual and group workouts. He says the foundation of teaching, coaching, and motivating was helpful once he started his business. 

Maria Caldarone, a 56-year-old customer who lives in Woodbridge, says Mike encouraged her to try a juice cleanse, something she had never done before.

“I wouldn’t have taken that extra step in doing a cleanse myself,” she explained during a recent visit to the store. “I just came in one day to get my daughter a juice and Mike encouraged me to give it a try.”

The regimen involves consuming only liquids over a period of days, and Mike compares its effects on the body to a rigorous workout. Caldarone said it was worth taking the plunge. 

“I have never felt lighter, more positive and well rested than ever before and it’s honestly all thanks to Mike,” she said.

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Leaving the chill of the sidewalk on a Thursday afternoon in February and walking through the frosted door of Freshouse, a light chime sounds, alerting Mike to an incoming customer. It is nearly drowned out by a row of blenders grinding and swirling the fruit for that day’s drinks. A pungent spicy aroma of freshly blended ginger hangs in the air. Juices already lined up in the fridge match the vibrant hues of the tips of a row of fresh magic markers.

The large double-door fridge is surrounded by a group of teenage girls, all wearing masks of course, and chatting with Mike as they photograph their favourite juices for their Instagram feeds. The brightly coloured juices are named after positive affirmations such as ‘I am fresh’ or ‘I am lucky’. 

One of the teens asks Mike which juice is his favourite. Before answering, he takes a second to reflect as if asked to pick a favourite child and says: “Right now, I would say our flu shot because it boosts your immune system and is antiviral. However, if you want a good tasting juice, ‘I am healthy’ is our best-seller and is made with spinach, pear, lemon, mint and turmeric.”

Despite his optimism and loyal customers, business is down this year, with less foot traffic at the plaza and rolling restrictions including stay-at-home orders in effect.

“Although this year has been slower compared to years past, I’ve been fortunate from both a business and personal perspective to be able to stay open during the pandemic,” Mike said. 

“For me to stay open even in a time when business has slowed down, I’ve tried to be available at the juice bar as much as possible so that I can talk to people to stay relevant!” 

Food service and beverage businesses in Canada are facing an uncertain future, and are in a worse position than the business community as a whole, according to a survey conducted by Statistics Canada earlier this year. More than one in four expect they will be able to operate for fewer than 12 months before having to consider closure or bankruptcy, based on current sales and expenses. This situation is faced by only 10 per cent of businesses of all types. Many food and drink businesses also reported dwindling profits, with nearly 57% expecting their profitability to decrease over the next three months.

The pandemic isn’t far from Mike’s mind as he goes about his work in the quiet plaza. And with extra time on his hands, he is trying to be creative to help keep his business afloat.

“I’m creating a new product with a syringe filled with juice,” he said, his eyes crinkled at the edges and the corners of his mouth curled into a grin. “Because everyone’s talking about vaccines, hey, why don’t we try to make a natural one?” 

Listen to this audio clip from Mike Appugliese discussing how he manages staying motivated during the pandemic.

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Gift shop display at the Canadian Clock Museum

Time travelling the Canadian way

By Carolina Pucciarelli

Allan Symons can’t pinpoint when he started collecting clocks. These days, he’s on the hunt for a pink Snider 1950s Spider Electric Wall Clock. He’s already found the blue and brown models, and needs the pink one to complete the set of small analog clocks, each with 12 concave metal legs and rounded colourful ends. He almost nabbed one in a bidding war a few years back, but the price was steep. Now, he wishes he’d bought it.  

For nearly 21 years, Allan has done every job imaginable at the Canadian Clock Museum, home to several lifetimes worth of clocks, like the Snider Spiders and the Westclox alarm clocks, showcasing over 18 Canadian clockmakers.

“I joke that my hat’s got 23 labels and I just rotate it around because I am the president, the executive secretary, the manager, the curator, the assistant conservator, the bookkeeper… ” he said, standing near the museum’s gift shop after a tour.

It’s an odd career choice for someone who admittedly didn’t excel in history at school. But from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, the museum’s founder guides visitors through the eight rooms on the exhibit floor that house timepieces dating back to the early 1800s. On a recent day in early March, the sound of grandfather clocks chiming the Westminster Quarters and the metal marbles of the rolling ball clock accompanied his voice as he described how his personal collection of 600 clocks has grown to more than 3,000 artifacts at latest count. Sitting on a stool near the nook of reference books, arms crossed, in the middle of the modified brick-and-mortar split level revamped church, he sported a maple leaf print face mask and knitted deer sweater, and had a name tag loosely hung around his neck. A bright orange neon glow emanated from a diner-esque electric wall clock, not far from an eye-catching old school employee punch clock and a painstakingly detailed 1934 ‘Tramp Art’ clock.

The clock museum — Canada’s only one —  is in Deep River, a rural Ontario town of 4,500 people. This fact is perhaps as unusual as a 78-year-old former nuclear scientist running the show.

 “We only average 600 to 700 [visitors] a year, mostly in the summer, some tour groups,” Allan explained. “Tour buses don’t stop in the Valley. Forget about Deep River!

Over the years since opening in May of 2000, the museum’s renaissance man has seen some memorable visitors, from a hearing-impaired couple whose tour consisted solely of communicating by pen and paper, to a man who tried bargaining for discounts at the gift shop, to four busloads of people who got stranded in town.

Gary Fox, news editor at the Ottawa chapter of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, has been in the clock business for many years and says he has yet to come across a collection quite like Allan’s.

“A friend of mine once said that collecting is a mild form of insanity. In light of that perspective. Allan did something admirable, or perhaps even a little crazy,” said Gary, who is also a longtime friend of the museum owner.

Born and raised in Kingston, Allan graduated from Queen’s University with a degree in Engineering Chemistry in 1965 and a PhD in 1969, and landed a job at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, now called Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. Its biggest laboratory straddles Deep River and neighbouring town of Chalk River. After a 27-year career, he retired on a random Friday in 1999. The following Monday, he enrolled in a tourism workshop, a diversion that would play a key role in preserving a part of Canadian history.

An elderly man sitting on a stool in a building surrounded by clocks
Allan Symons, founder and curator of the Canadian Clock Museum, after giving his first tour since Ontario’s second COVID-19 shutdown (Carolina Pucciarelli/ T•)

The museum is housed in the former Calvary Pentecostal Church, established by well-known Canadian televangelist David Mainse, host of the long-running TV show, 100 Huntley Street. The church was for sale in 2000 when Allan was looking for a place to house his clocks and start the museum.

“So I remember cycling up, opening the front door, fingers crossed the way I remember. And the pastor at the time was in his office, which is my ‘full of everything’ office now… And I asked something like, ‘Has it been sold?’ And the answer was no.”

Today, a bell-chime sounding electric door alarm notifies Allan, who can usually be found in his office, when visitors arrive. He takes his time welcoming them, ensuring they’re aware of COVID-19 protocols and offering to guide them through. The short stairway that used to lead congregants from coat check to the chapel is much quieter these days, and leads to the exhibition floor. Once filled with oak pews and hymn books, the former chapel is now covered in clocks of all kinds, watchmaker repair kits, maps, toys, and record players. Allan guides visitors through while maintaining a leisurely pace so visitors can choose their own path. His animated hand gestures add a fresh feel to the proficiency that comes with more than two decades of museum experience. On work days, he wakes up around 7 a.m. to catch the news, then heads for the museum. Days are filled with guiding tour groups, conducting clock appraisals, and dealing with correspondence.

Discover the Montreal “Midget Palace” clock, on of the rarest finds in Allan’s collection (Carolina Pucciarelli/ T•)

His dedication, which included working through the recent Easter weekend, has been recognized by the Ontario Historical Society. In 2019, the non-profit group presented him with the President’s Award, an honour bestowed on him the year before that recognizes outstanding contributions to the preservation of the province’s history.

“Allan Symons has done outstanding work collecting, researching, curating, and displaying clocks manufactured in Canada, most of them made here in Ontario,” the historical society wrote in a news release at the time. “As Canada’s only clock museum, it has brought national and international recognition to the history of Canadian clock-making.”

With the continuing hunt for the pink Snider Spider and other clocks waiting to be discovered, the museum’s collection will continue to expand  — at least as long as its proprietor sticks around. With Allan approaching 80, Gary wonders if the unique collection’s time is winding down.

“The shame of it is that when Allan retires, the museum will probably disappear and the contents split up and distributed to museums across the province,” he said.

For now, though, Allan is happy spending his time touring and educating anyone wanting to listen.

“When people are leaving, absentmindedly they say, ‘Thanks for your time.’” he said. And his reply is almost always the same: “‘Was that pun intended?’”

***

Since April 2, 2021, the Canadian Clock Museum has been closed to the public to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario.

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