Panelists Ron Roxtar and Tanu Oberoi discuss this year’s Just for Laughs Festival and several news items in the News Roundup segment with host Jason C. McLean, plus an interview with NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton, Community Calendar and Predictions!
News Roundup Topics: Charlottesville, North Korea, Canadian media companies focusing on old models to their detriment, refugees in Montreal
Ron Roxtar: Entertainment journalist
Tanu Oberoi: Web designer, musician
Laurence Tenenbaum: FTB co-founder
Host: Jason C. McLean
Produced by Hannah Besseau
Niki Ashton interview by Jason C. McLean, recorded and edited by Hannah Besseau
The Chilean refugees who arrived in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Montreal, have been a community that has captivated me throughout the past two years. I was therefore ecstatic to have the opportunity to see The Refugee Hotel staged at The Segal Centre. Despite some awkward translation into English and a difficult script to work with, the play is an excellent one that I recommend – particularly after yesterday’s events in the USA.
These brave Chileans who came across the oceans were faced with two choices; the first being to trust that everything would be okay for them in Chile if they kept their heads down, stayed in line, and trusted that the military would “make Chile great again”. The second: to restart their entire lives in a country with a new language, new food, new music, and of course, the omnipresent “Canadian values” (still searching for a definition of those, other than the ability to properly cross-check someone).
Teesri Duniya Theatre’s production of The Refugee Hotel does its sincere best to answer these questions. The script draws from author-and-playwright Carmen Aguirre’s lived experience as the child of Chilean refugees growing up in 1970s Canada. It’s an impressive story made even more poignant by its autobiographical basis.
This is one of the reasons that it is so frustrating to review this play. Though the premise is admirable, Aguirre’s play shortchanges itself by trying to fit too many facets of the Chilean refugee story, and indeed, the story of human migration, into two short acts.
At the centre of the play are Jorge (Pablo Diconca) and Flaca (Gilda Monreal), a married couple who represent two sides of the resistance movement in Chile. Jorge is something of a milquetoast pacifist anarchist accountant, while his wife is a firebrand Marxist active in the MIR (the Revolutionary Leftist Movement).
Their two children escape with them to a hotel in Canada, where they meet other Chilean refugees subjected to inhuman torture in the Carabineros’ concentration camps. The rest of the play progresses at a slow pace as each rediscovers their humanity and intimacy, one-by-one in a frustratingly perfect way.
By “frustratingly perfect,” I mean that of course the mute girl is coaxed into to talking at the end of the second act, and she falls for the man who talks with her first, and of course they end the play with a freeze-frame photo motif. The play’s unfortunate dives into clichés keep it from developing serious critiques.
Jorge and Flaca’s struggle to be intimate once again despite the horrific sexual torture that the Carabineros inflicted upon her is a topic that is criminally underrepresented in works of art; and even less so is it approached sensitively. An exploration of that theme alone would have made for a powerful and moving production, but Aguirre’s insistence on shoehorning so many important themes into the play means that extraordinarily difficult trauma from torture is treated as nothing more than a plot point. For example, two suicide attempts that happen within two minutes of another are treated as comedic moments.
Moreover, I felt that the repeated flashbacks to scenes of torture in the Estadio Nacional de Chile are not used to explore the characters’ motivations and histories, but rather as punctuation marks for the drama as a whole.
The play is being performed at the Segal Centre, which bills itself as the heart of Montreal’s Anglophone theatre culture. This presents an interesting double-edged sword for the actors in that they are reading from a script originally written in Spanish, for an English-speaking audience in French Canada.
Certain recurring parts of the script (such as the nickname for Jorge, “Little-Big-Bear”) sound awkward in English where they would have made perfect sense in Spanish (“Osito Grande,” better understood as “Teddy Bear”). On a larger scale, the familiar words, particularly “desaparecido,” used to articulate the brutality of the Pinochet regime are lost in translation.
Furthermore, the play misses opportunity to develop a more nuanced comedic character in Bill O’Neill, the enthusiastic Québécois hippie who helps the guests at the Refugee Hotel find work. In the Spanish script, he speaks with comically poor but confident command over Spanish, but in this English adaptation, his dialogue sounds like a 19th-century caricature – “Army me take to stadium. Bad men take Bill!”
Other than awkward phrasing, this makes the characterization of Bill difficult for the audience, as he is repeatedly referred to (kindly) as “the only gringo who speaks Spanish.” In poor translation, Bill’s character shifts from that of a Canadian activist with a sincere wish to improve his Spanish and act in solidarity with Chilean refugees into a buffoon.
This is the part of reviewing that I do not enjoy. The story itself is captivating, and the curation behind the set design and music choices was phenomenal. I just wish that the story was more focused on one or two of these families, instead of a script that leaves several important facets of post-traumatic stress equally unexamined.
All of this is not to say that I did not find the play enjoyable and tastefully performed – in fact, the actors did a stellar job working with an awkward script, and the set direction was simple and elegant. I give a special commendation to the Set Designer, Diana Uribe, who placed the beds of the hotel at an upright 90º angle, which allowed the actors to remain part of the action, while staying true to the stage direction to lie supine.
The music choices, namely the major-key Victor Jara folk ballads that accompanied scenes of horrific torture in the Estadio Nacional may have been shocking to people unfamiliar with Chile’s musical history – but it seems a deliberate nod to the famous Cueca Sola spot produced by the Anti-Pinochet Campaign during the 1989 plebiscite made famous by Pablo Larraín’s 2012 film. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that Victor Jara was tortured to death in the Estadio Nacional, specifically targeted and brutally murdered for his popularity and beliefs.
Speaking with the actor who played Jorge, Pablo Diconca, I learned that many of the cast came into this production with the explicit goal of putting faces to the communities so left behind by history. Diconca is a Uruguayan-born Montrealer who has been an integral part of the local theatre scene since his arrival in Canada at 19:
“I can not ever forget the fact that I have an accent, and I will always have one. This has restricted me as an actor – I have played drug dealers, murderers, and taxi drivers more than I can count,” Pablo told me. “When I came to Canada, I refused these roles out of principle…but with time, I came to realize that acting is my passion, and that by being on stage, this is how one becomes involved in the local culture and community. One must put their heart into acting. It becomes easier when the script is [about] something you already have in your heart. I was invited to be a part of this cast, and I didn’t see how I could turn it down. This is a play that can help to open minds.”
Teesri Duniya’s Artistic Director and co-founder, Rahul Varma, explained to me that he chose to stage this play as a way of “challenging the notion that 9/11 of 2001 divided the world into pre-9/11 and post 9/11…there have been so many other 9/11s, such as the 9/11 of 1973.” Rahul is of course referring to the military coup in Chile that took place on September 11, 1973, where the Chilean Air Force bombed downtown Santiago and assassinated the democratically-elected head of state, Salvador Allende.
Rahul continued, referencing the current Syrian refugee crisis, “I thought that this play brings certain realities of the past and connects them to what is currently happening. The idea is to look into what has happened – why is it that refugees are coming to Canada? Why do people leave their homes elsewhere?”
According to their website, Teesri Duniya Theatre “is dedicated to producing, developing and presenting socially and politically relevant theatre, based on the cultural experiences of diverse communities.” They are an incredibly important part of Montreal’s Arts community and I am thrilled to see that they took it upon themselves to tell the story of an underrepresented and important part of Canada.
As we draw to the closing of this play’s run at the Segal Centre, as well as the dawning of an unprecedented dark cloud over North American immigration politics, it is important to remember the lessons left by Chilean-Canadians’ struggles in and out of their homeland. I salute Teesri Duniya Theatre, The Segal Centre, and the cast and crew of this production for shining a light on the challenges faced by refugees in a sensitive and responsible manner despite an unaccommodating script.
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.
The Refugee Hotel is playing until Sunday at The Segal Centre (5170 ch. de la Côte-Ste-Catherine). Tickets available here.
Panelists Samantha Gold and Ford Donovan discuss refugees in Canada and elsewhere and common misconceptions about them, the state of the Montreal music scene and some of the greats we lost in the past few weeks including David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Plus an interview with Ryan from the Montreal band The Holds, the Community Calendar and Predictions!
With the escalation of the conflict in Syria, the developed world has faced increasing pressure to accept the ensuing refugees. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has used the refugee crisis as an opportunity to reestablish Canada’s reputation as a country of compassion and generosity, a reputation that faltered under Stephen Harper.
The Liberal government pledged to accept twenty five thousand Syrian refugees by February 2016. All of Canada watched as our Prime Minister greeted some of them at the airport with coats.
Though a poll conducted for Global News claimed that fifty four percent of Canadians support the federal government’s plan, there have been concerns about the toll refugees will take on our country’s already overstretched health and social services and the security risk new arrivals will bring.
Canada’s refugee system is governed by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), the , and the UN Convention against Torture. These rules set parameters with regards to who can claim asylum in Canada and for what reasons. According to the IRPA, if a person has a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, they can apply for asylum in Canada.
Though neither the IRPA nor the Convention on the Status of Refugees mention gender or LGBTI status directly as a basis for an asylum claim, asylum has been granted by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada on such grounds as lawmakers interpret “a particular social group” as including them. The Trudeau government has even gone insofar as to specify that women and LGBTI people (which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people) will be considered as low security, vulnerable refugees along with complete families and will be prioritized under Canada’s plan.
The cost of an asylum application is free. Processing of claims generally takes about two months, though there are exceptions. If you come from a country Canada considers safe such as Mexico, you can get a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board in as little as one month.
Refugees are meticulously screened to make sure they don’t pose a security risk, and anyone found to have violated human or international rights and/or been convicted of a crime that in Canada would result in a sentence of ten years or more is considered inadmissible.
They are also required to provide proof of a medical exam. If the exam shows that their condition would put Canadians at risk and/or make them an undue burden on the health care system, they risk the denial of their application.
According to Émilie Le Huy, a Montreal based attorney who occasionally handles refugee cases, refugee claims are decided on the basis of four criteria:
The personal credibility of the claimant, which will be established by an interview with immigration officials, and through the examination of all previous declarations made at the border or airport. In addition, claimants have to provide proof of identity, and failure to do so could result in their being detained until their identity can be confirmed.
Whether the person has genuine fear of persecution or cruel and unusual treatment or punishment based on the aforementioned reasons.
Whether or not the person asked for help from the authorities of their home country. That means that the Refugee Board will look at whether the claimant went to the police or other law enforcement for help. If going to the authorities in the claimant’s home country is impossible because, for example, the home government is the one doing the persecuting, it will be up to the claimant to prove it.
Flight alternatives. This means that if there is somewhere other than Canada that a claimant could go, Canadian immigration officials will ask why the claimant didn’t go there. This is particularly common in cases where the claimant has dual citizenship. If there’s somewhere else a refugee claimant can go in order to be safe from the persecution they fear, the authorities will encourage him to go there instead.
Though these four criteria are important, it’s the question of credibility that rules the day. Asylum claims are decided by a single administrative judge who is a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board. If the judge doesn’t believe you, you won’t be granted asylum.
Opportunities for appeal are limited. A claimant can file a judicial review with the Federal Court of Canada and some can file an appeal with the Refugee Appeal Division.
The Federal Court of Canada looks at requests for review with one criterion: reasonability. If they decide the rejection of the asylum claim by the Refugee Board was a reasonable one, they’ll respect the Board’s decision and maintain the rejection.
If the Refugee Appeal Division agrees to look at your case, they can do it with or without a hearing, and can examine only evidence from the first claim. The only new evidence the Appeal Division is allowed to look at is that which was not reasonably available or obtainable when the first claim was rejected.
Whether your claim is rejected by the Appeal Division or the Federal Court, the result is the same: you have to leave Canada (if you made the request from within the country) or remain in your home country. You’re free to file a refugee claim elsewhere, but it’s going to be tough because governments tend to take into account previous refugee claims when assessing applications for asylum.
Despite the government’s pledge to help refugees, the focus seems solely on helping those fleeing Syria. Those not targeted by the government’s plan find themselves at the mercy of immigration judges who seem to go into refugee hearings prepared to disbelieve and discredit those fleeing everything from gay bashing to domestic abuse. To all those knitting tuques and offering free language tutoring to those unsafe at home and desperate, now is the time to remember that refugees don’t just come from Syria.
Panelists Josh Davidson and Stacy Drake discuss the refugee crisis and how many only started paying attention after a picture got shared, Donald Trump, Kanye West’s VMA presidential announcement and the latest bits of craziness from Peter Sergakis. Plus the Community Calendar.
Jeremy Corbyn, newly elected leader of the Labour Party in the UK, didn’t waste much time. A few hours after taking the helm of the once progressive force in British politics, Corbyn made his first public appearance, at a rally for Syrian refugees in Parliament Square.
Corbyn set a decidedly different tone than any of his recent predecessors, including Tony Blair, a man he wouldn’t mind see get charged for war crimes. In the speech, Corbyn talked about the reasons behind the refugee crisis in Syria and elsewhere, namely all the wars launched by governments like that of Great Britain, which he admitted he has seen happen in the British parliament.
What will this mean for Syrain refugees right now? Probably not much, David Cameron is still PM. What does this mean for the British Labour Party? A helluva lot. it looks like they have thrown off their Blairite ways and embraced a return to their past as a hope for their future.
Regardless, listen to the speech, it’s a real good one: