Jolly Abrakasa says life in Canada often reminds her of a poem she refers to as “The Loon.”
Abrakasa migrated from Nigeria to Northern Ontario in 1981. The part of the poem that resonates with her the most is the description of a beautiful loon that swims through lakes and dives deep into the lake to get food.
“The loon must know when to surface from deep underwater to live to see another day,” Abrakasa said in a video monologue for an exhibit called Women of Courage.
“Struggling and surfacing just in time, that is my story,” she said. “I surfaced just in time to take a huge breath and continue with life.”
Courage, she said, is the ability to face something you used to be afraid of. “A lot of immigrant women are doing that daily.”
Abrakasa and multiple other women shared their stories of being racialized immigrant women in Canada in a series of videos, and visual arts such as art projects, and written projects for Women of Courage.
The exhibit made its debut at Todmorden Mills on Feb. 15 and is stopping at four select locations in Toronto, including the Scarborough Museum, where it is currently on display until April 19.
The showcase was initiated by CultureLink, a settlement and community organization in Toronto. It partnered with Toronto History Museums and the project received funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Culturelink CEO Jemima Sabapathy explained that “this exhibition brings together racialized immigrant women and engages them in developing their narrative through storytelling and other forms of expression.”
Abrakasa got the privilege to travel all throughout Canada teaching and learning as well. She got her Ontario teacher certificate in 1990. Where she became a supply teacher for 12 years, she switched between multiple secondary institutes throughout those years. Abrakasa did her fair share of exploring Canada as well.
The process to create this project was explained by project worker Minerva Hui. “Firstly, you want to have the ability to sacrifice two evenings, every week, every Tuesday and Thursday,” she said. “The women signed off for two hours and did hard work with us. And then that extended over eight weeks.”
This resulted in the extensive stories told in the exhibit. The team of women put together various forms of art that didn’t leave the gallery walls bare.
“We want to hold space in two environments where we find racialized immigrant women to be underrepresented,” Minerva said. “The two environments that the proposal had identified were social media and institutions.”
“And we know that immigrant racialized immigrant women have been contributing to Canadian societies for decades. And so, the under-representation of this particular demographic is also problematic,” she continued.
According to 2022 data from Statistics Canada, there were 4,200,630 immigrant women in the labour market alone, where they’re subject to lower wages.
Once racialized women accept that Canada has systemic racism, the next step is to talk about the difficult issues, Minerva said.
“Because we want to get to your authentic stories. Your story may not be about necessarily racism in of itself, but racism will be the backdrop with the context,” Minerva said.
The Women of Courage exhibit is free and is currently at the second stop of its tour. It will be at the Scarborough Museum until April 19, before heading to the Gibson House Museum, and closing off at Montgomery’s Inn on June 4.