The Art of Bringing People Together: A Dialogue with Titi Tijani
Titi Tijani is a Community Development activist, an educator, advocate for immigrant issues, an excellent collaborator and a team builder supporting the integration of newcomers in Manitoba.
She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Ecology (Family Social Sciences) from the University of Manitoba (1998), and from Nigeria, Certificates in Education (1986), Community Leadership, Training and Conflict Resolution.
Titi has worked at Manitoba Housing from 1998 to date. She is currently, the Manager of Specialized Tenant Services, supporting vulnerable population access housing and sustain tenancies.
Titi has volunteered in many African community organizations and communities for over 20 years. She is the current President of the African Communities of Manitoba Inc. (ACOMI), supporting all African ethno-cultural community organizations build and develop capacity to support their membership; preserve and promoting African cultural heritage and promote cultural understanding in Manitoba. She received the Government of Manitoba Spirit of a Community Builder Award in 2014.
BY EMMANUEL NWANERI
This conversation took place in Winnipeg, Manitoba, via Zoom.
Emmanuel: I sat in on a virtual meeting which you had earlier this year about volunteering; that was when I had the opportunity to listen to you for the first time and get a sense of who exactly you are.
Can you please share your experience at the time you arrived in Canada and why you chose to come to Winnipeg, Manitoba to study back then?
Titi: I did not come to Canada as a student. I came to join my husband. It was after I got here, I faced the challenge of finding work in my field and to recognize the credentials that I brought from Nigeria; that was going nowhere. My credentials were assessed as a graduate of Education from University of Ilorin in Nigeria. After my credentials were assessed, I was assessed as a Child Care Worker 1, which was not even for a school; it only allowed me to work elsewhere which was not my passion. I really wanted to work in a school, which was my passion. That was what led me to go back to school because I soon realised there was no other means of finding a job in my career. This actually only happened after 8 years of being here in Canada.
I wasn’t able to go back to school right away. There were challenges in that aspect also. I was asked to go do GED, which is like going back to Grade 10. There were many friends of mine whose university degrees were also not accepted. They were told they had to have the credentials from high school; to have your GED first before they could be accepted into universities here. You know…so many who were here before me had to go through that path. I didn’t feel that I needed to do that and so I worked for a while and then when I decided to go back to school, I challenged my Department. I had to do it this way but I did pledge to myself that other people coming after me should not have to go through this struggle in order for them to be able to work in their fields. So that was how I got into school.
Emmanuel: What a story! I mean, I’m still shaking my head. How is it possible for people who came into this country with degrees to be asked to go back to high school and get a Diploma?
Titi: Yes, it was a real challenge at the time. But with dedication and passion and having my orientation and my goal of being able to have the degree to get me the job that I want. You know, all these challenges and experiences laid the foundation for me getting into advocacy work and helping others. You know, then we started seeing people who had practiced medicine in their country for twenty years and then they came here. They are doing ‘survival’ jobs; driving taxis, washing dishes, things like that and so we came together. You know and with what happened to me, it had to stop. That was how we moved to start working with the government in establishing the Office of Fair Assessments which was created as a result of our advocacy.
Emmanuel: What an experience. You had to literally jump through fire to get to where you are. So, what led you to the African Communities of Manitoba Inc. (ACOMI), or was it existing when you arrived in Winnipeg?
Titi: ACOMI was not in existence when I came to Winnipeg, but I have always been a community-minded person who brings people together, especially being so far away from home. I’ve always felt that whatever I’m feeling, other people are feeling the same and so we shouldn’t die in misery. We shouldn’t suffer alone.
I’ve always been the first to bring people together to reminisce about our experiences here to share it and then think of how we can overcome it. I started informally bringing together some of my friends from different organisations and communities. It was in 1997, that a group of people from four African countries came together (I think from Uganda, Congo, Nigeria and Ghana). We had also been hearing about this event, the Folkorama Festival, and felt we could also share our cultures. So ACOMI stemmed from Folkorama. I wasn’t part of it at the time, but as time went on I started volunteering at the kitchen.
“I have always been a community-minded person who brings people together, especially being so far away from home. I’ve always felt that whatever I’m feeling, other people are feeling the same and so we shouldn’t die in misery. We shouldn’t suffer alone.“
I think it was a few years later that we came together after sometime we decided to see where things are going; we felt we needed to do more than bringing people together once a year so that’s what led me and all of the others from those countries to band together and have one umbrella association and so that’s how ACOMI came to be, which is the organization for all of us. So, today ACOMI will sponsor the African Pavilion and bring all the other associations together to organize dance, music, culture, food, etc.
Since we formally formed ACOMI, I was part of it and I’ve been an executive on the board in different roles. I started as an Organising Secretary, then later Secretary and Vice-President before I eventually became the President about four years ago.
Emmanuel: Okay. I have heard of a similar organisation in Ontario and another one in Alberta, which are both associations of Africans. Do you have any relationship with these groups?
Titi: Yes, we are reaching out. In Edmonton, there is the African Centre, which is an umbrella organisation. There is also another one in Saskatchewan, African Communities Research Network (ACRN) which we are reaching out to. So these four organisations I mentioned, we have teamed up to form the African Communities of Western Canada to begin to advocate. We felt the need to come together because when we started advocating, we noticed that everything seems to begin and end in the East (i.e. Ontario).
I attended one national meeting at the time and someone from the leadership actually said – which shocked me – that he had no idea that there were Black people in Western Canada! I almost fell off my chair. It was comments such as those that opened our eyes to the need to start organising amongst us in order not to be left behind.
Emmanuel: I just want to find out from you; considering how long ACOMI has been in existence, which I think is going to be about 20 years now, does ACOMI have a database or a register of Africans in Manitoba?
Titi: So, this is how it works. ACOMI is the umbrella national organisation. Our members are the grassroots organisations and associations which normally are the national and ethnic (language) groups. So each organisation, e.g. the Nigerian association, the Ghanaian Union of Manitoba, all keep the database of their membership and so our role is to strengthen those organizations to be able to serve the grassroots communities.
We do not keep a list of their membership. They do that on their own. We do however discourage people from coming to register as individual members of ACOMI because we feel that it will not strengthen the grassroots organisations’ members. So, we just need the organisations to just apply and that way, all the members of their community grassroots organisations become members of ACOMI. So, we support them and strengthen them so that they can continue to be able to support their members. That is how it works
Another reason why we don’t have a database of all Africans in Manitoba is due to privacy issues. So, we leave that to the affiliate grassroot associations to maintain the list of their members.
Emmanuel: That makes sense. I want us to speak about what I call institutional racism in Canada. I’m sure you have had experiences; you have heard stories; you have come across people who come here with very high qualifications but are then forced to become taxi drivers, or forced to become security men and women. So, do you think or do you disagree with the belief that there is institutional racism in Canada based on the time you have been here?
Titi: Absolutely, I don’t think one can deny that there is institutional racism in Canada. It is not only institutional but systemic racism. Rules are made by certain people. The people that were here before us, the people that are in power made the rules to suit themselves and so, without us being at the table how can we contribute to those rules? Those rules are made to support themselves and if you’re not part of that you are already cast out. So that is why it is called systemic racism. With different cultures comes understanding. Starting from my experience with education. I came here for a better life and what is required to have a better life. I already had the preparation and requirements, the education which is the minimum you can ask of anyone.
Meanwhile, when you fill out immigration forms to come here, you’re being assessed based on your educational qualifications. So those with no education, or very low education (unless they come through the refugee system) do not have room to come to Canada under the immigration system. Everyone knows these are the criteria; if you have a Bachelor’s degree, these are the certain points you get. If you have a higher degree you have better points which even increases your chance of being approved to come to Canada. Of course, all these raise your hopes very high that when you get here, you will be able to work in the field which you have spent many years acquiring.
But when you get here, you then hit a wall because of the system; because you are different. So, the gatekeepers of those systems look at you and say ‘No, it’s not for you, the rules are meant for certain people and you don’t fit that criteria.’ That system reduces you, including the way you speak English despite all the education you have. Firstly, it starts when you apply for jobs. When they see your name. If your name is not Anglo-Saxon or French, you are out. That also created issues for us because then we had to now ‘anglo-cize’ our names in order to be able to get through the first gate in the application process. Then if you are able to scale through this first barrier because your resume says you have what it takes; you have what they’re looking for and then you somehow get to the interview and you’ll see they’re looking in the room, searching for somebody else but instead they see you there, you know you have failed that interview.
That is systemic racism—the pre-determination that the gate is only open for certain people and not for others. So those are discriminations built into the system. Of course the system was already designed; the rules are already written, so people are implementing those rules. Then if you are able to get into that workplace, you then have to deal with microaggressions. You now have to deal with the cultural aspects. People not willing to open the door for other cultures to come in. You now have to fit into a different culture whether you like it or not. All of these cause stress for us.
We’re all immigrants in Canada—except the indigenous people. Then there are the first-generation Canadians and second-generation Canadians who were born here. So if you were born here, you may not go through all of that. But that’s what we first-generation immigrants who came here, had to deal with in order for us to be able to live the life which we worked hard and prepared for.
Surely, there are barriers everywhere you turn as an immigrant here and you have to be strong to be able to overcome those barriers. You have to be dedicated and have some resources, to have money to go back to school. Otherwise, you see that when people come here as seasoned professionals into the country but everywhere they go here, there are barriers and there are full stops. So they have no choice. I mean, they have to live. They have to take care of their families. That is why people do those jobs like being taxi drivers. We call them survival jobs. So, if we did not do what we did—advocating to the government to start credential recognition—you realise that those survival jobs would end up becoming people’s lifelong jobs, and people would not be able to go back to their careers.
There is systemic and institutional racism, which still exists today. However, there is awareness now in the larger society in light of what happened in 2020 (George Floyd’s death and subsequent riots in US), and in light of Canada also waking up and acknowledging that racism does exist. This includes the willingness to do something about it; to educate everyone, to be mindful of it, to create policies and to begin to see each another as human beings and not just ‘us and them’.
Emmanuel: I enjoyed that response very much. It was very thoughtful, with so much knowledge and information. I now want to ask you that being the President of ACOMI now for about four years, what do you think you can point to as your biggest achievement, or the effort which gives you the greatest satisfaction? Or better still, what can you identify as the high point of your presidency?
Titi: Thank you. I start by saying it doesn’t take just one person to keep this association going. One of the things that gave me great joy was in 2005 when we started advocating for credential recognition because education is very important, so is your career which becomes your livelihood; and it defines you as a man or as a woman. You would have spent many years studying and now you’re not able to use it. You can imagine the effect of that on your children and on your family. So our goal is to support and strengthen families, which is by making them pursue their careers. We realised that if it continues, people cannot practice their careers, their hopes and aspirations are going to be dashed and we definitely do not want people of African descent here going into the welfare system due to a pandemic of health issues, divorce or depression because you are not able to pursue your career.
Many things could happen health-wise, socially, everything could go wrong. So taking-up the ball was our president at that time, the late Andre Doumbe (may his soul rest in peace). The board came together to discuss what to do. The irony of this was that you see someone at the meeting and they look responsible, but when you ask them what they do, you will be shocked. And you start asking why and they also tell you that what they’re doing (job-wise) was the only option open to them. So we took it upon ourselves to call on the leadership of the province, our Premier at the time, and had a meeting with him for a one-point agenda. It was to tell him that educated immigrants are doing menial jobs despite the fact that they have their certificates. Why was this? That is how we started our discussions. He would bring different Ministers to address certain things and we would also bring affected individuals to those meetings, so they could see it was not just hearsay. We would bring them to the Premier and say, ‘make your case’. And the Premier looking at him would see that this man has all these qualifications but this is what he’s doing; is that fair?
It took three years before the Office of the Fairness Commissioner was created, and it started working with the professional licensing bodies because apparently they’re the ones not allowing people to practice their profession; they are the gatekeepers. So the government, along with us, started working with them to open the gates to create bridging programs so that internationally-educated immigrants would then be able to do bridging programs and then be able to try to work in their fields.
The effects of that is what you see today in terms of people like you being able to come to Canada. It is the foundation that we laid and the work that we did that allows people to come here now and be able to entrench themselves properly into society and achieve their goals in very short years. That was not achievable prior to 2008. Every time I see an immigrant—regardless of where they come from—practicing their profession, that gives me the best joy ever, because that was my experience. I took the negativity in my experience, worked on it and turned it into a positive for people. I cleared the path for those coming behind.
So that is for me, not just as president but for the entire board. Credit to our executive board at that time, who put all their efforts into what led to the creation of the Office of the Fairness Commissioner, which many immigrants are now benefiting from. That is the biggest joy for me today.
Also, part of my delight is the fact that we were able to get grants; large, medium and small grants, to be able to run programs. This took us a while because Black organisations were not seen as credible for a very long time.
Emmanuel: Thank you so very much Titi for a refreshing dialogue. I have enjoyed this conversation thoroughly.
Titi: Thank you so much for having me as well.
Emmanuel Nwaneri is a journalist with about 27 years of writing, travel and journalism experience in Nigeria, South Africa and Australia. He moved to Johannesburg in South Africa where he spent 10 years as a writer, journalism tutor and commentator. His time in South Africa afforded him the chance to observe the fast-changing dynamics of a country popularly-known as the “Rainbow Nation.”
He moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba with his family in 2018, where he has since found interest in the Administrative and Customer Service industries. He actively writes news stories for the New Canadian Media, as well as the highly-respected Winnipeg Free Press.
He is the author of Once Upon A Woman and is working on a second work of fiction.