By Mehreen Shahid
Many workers whose efforts and contributions keep our community functioning smoothly often go unnoticed. This includes members of trade unions, cultural, and equity-seeking groups.
The Mayworks 2014 Min Sook Lee Labour Arts Awards recognize marginalized cultures and groups in Canada and laud the efforts of workers and trade unions. Mayworks was formed in 1986 by the Labour Arts Media Committee of Toronto and the York Region Labour Council.
This year, among various winners, efforts by two groups to educate and inform are being celebrated and awarded.
They saved Toronto libraries from being run over by the Rob Ford misguided anti-gravy train cuts and fought back a 10 per cent cut in library budget. The superheroes are the Toronto Public Library Workers Union Local 4948 (CUPE.)
“The award we got was for the union to have used arts to engage its membership,” said Maureen O’Reilly, president of the Local.
A regular participant at Word on the Street, this year the union enlisted artist James Braithwaite to help engage visitors. He photographed visitors wearing the famous cat-eye librarian glasses. He also developed an animated short about the campaign called OurPublicLibrary.
The union also used a multitude of social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram to rally up support.
“The connection with art in bringing forward our message certainly allowed us to take a light-hearted approach to our serious campaign,” said O’Reilly. “We’re very appreciative of the arts in our community and of many of our member artists, writers and poets.”
The workers of the local feel immense pride in the recognition they have received from Mayworks, said O’Reilly.
Like the local, bringing education and awareness was also the main reason why Jo SiMalaya Alcampo and Althea Balmes put together a comic book scripting the stories of Toronto’s Filipino live-in caregivers.
The two met when they were working as artists with Filipino community organizations concerned with social justice issues.
Balmes and Alcampo collaborated on this project because it seemed the most obvious way of throwing light on the stories they were hearing in support circles. Given the rich history of storytelling in the Filipino culture, a comic book organically conveyed the message well, they said.
“Jo and I would go to community events where caregivers would be present,” said Balmes, who illustrated the comic. “And we would just experience what it feels like to be there, and what it is like to be a caregiver. We would then get together and discuss what we had heard to come up with a collective story.”
Alcampo, the writer of the 10-page series, to be released at the end of 2014, pointed out that changes in the temporary foreign workers in Canada immigration laws put a large number of caregivers at risk of not being able to apply for a permanent resident status.
“When we did our research about the caregivers and workers, we found that articles, studies and paper and government projects lacked art,” she said.
Unlike most research they came across, the stories focus on the real experience. “How the caregivers resist the exploitative structure of the program they’re in, and how they help strengthen community,” she added.
When their work was shared with the workers it featured, the response was overwhelming, they said.
“It promotes community storytelling,” said Balmes, 26. “It breaks isolation and creates strength to know that other people are also experiencing similar things.”
The Min Sook Lee awards gala will be held on Saturday, November 29, at Steelworkers Hall, 25 Cecil St., Toronto. Tickets are available on Mayworks’ website.
Mehreen Shahid is a freelance writer who enjoys writing human interest and profile pieces, and dabbles in writing about the arts as well. Mehreen is a CWA Canada Associate Member.