By Sophia Blankenhorn
Photo: Brooke Wedlock
When CBC Radio’s Metro Morning announced Kanwar Anit Singh Saini, MSc(A)’11, as a nominee for ‘Torontonian of the year’ in 2016, it came as a “huge surprise” to Saini.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have.
Since moving to Toronto from his native Montreal, Kanwar Anit Singh Saini, MSc(A)’11, a speech language pathologist (SLP), has found many novel ways to give back to his community.
There is the volunteer work he undertook to ease the transition for newly arrived Syrian refugees.
At the height of the influx, Saini organized free workshops, where he coached parents on how to help their children learn English, and provided tips on how to navigate the system when more support was needed.
As the son of immigrants himself, Saini says that he is acutely aware of how difficult it can be for new arrivals to get a handle on the health care system. “I witnessed the hardships of my parents as they navigated the system. They spoke English and a little French and still had to bear a lot of systemic racism and access barriers.”
Saini partnered with several other SLPs to explain the science behind language acquisition and the value of learning two languages. “Children’s brains are very plastic and able to absorb languages, and languages that are systematically supported will survive,” he told the parents who attended his workshops.
If parents had additional concerns, Saini would steer them towards the appropriate services, something he wishes someone had done for his own parents. He says, “As a child, I had a stutter and my parents did not know about speech language pathology.”
It is not just about language, though, says Saini. “Views of mental health are different across the world.” The families he was reaching out to didn’t just need a translator, he says, but a socio-cultural interpretation—and a dose of sensitivity.
In addition to his work with the Syrian community, Saini volunteers at an LGBTQ2S centre in downtown Toronto, offering his speech and language services to families with parents or caregivers who identify as LGBTQ2S.
Saini also contributes to the LGBTQ2S community not only as an SLP but creatively: “I DJ for a lot of LGBTQ parties around Toronto and produce music for local LGBTQ artists who need music for their work,” he explains.
Saini is also one of the masterminds, along with friend and ally Mita Hans, behind BuddyUpTO, a program that aims to pair or “buddy up” people around the city to do errands or travel to different areas where one might feel unsafe alone. It was conceived of as a response to a surge in hate crimes in Toronto. Saini, who has described himself as “a gay male of colour who wears a turban,” says, “The theory is that there is power in numbers.” Similar initiatives based on this model have since been launched in Ottawa, Vancouver and in the US.
Saini’s community activism does not stop there.
In 2016, he worked to help connect temple and church services around the city with low income families to give out free food and clothing every Sunday. Saini says he learned a lot during the experience. “Even in that scenario you could see how speech and language barriers exist for families living in shelters, and how that can also have an effect on their mental health.”
Saini’s career as an activist has not been without challenges.
In 2014, he made headlines over a controversy involving Facebook.
As a political statement, in response to a world event, Saini posted a picture to his artist page of himself kissing a man.
The picture received a lot of attention, much of it negative, which, Saini says, Facebook unfortunately misunderstood. Moderators removed the picture, apparently assuming that it had been posted to provoke homophobic comments.
“My artist name, Sikh Knowledge, could make it seem like I have a religious page but it is a double entendre,” says Saini. “Because of my race it was decided that I was a homophobe and not an out-and-proud queer person trying to effect change. This is very problematic for people of colour, especially queer people of colour.”
Community work, Saini says, has always been a big motivator for him and was part of why he became a clinician. “When I completed the program [at McGill], I felt I had the tools to do good.”
This fall, Saini will return to his alma mater over Homecoming Weekend, to accept the 2017 Alumni Award of Merit for the School of Communication Sciences & Disorders, an honour that, this time, one hopes, will come as a surprise to no one.