Image of a group of elders sitting around a table

Photography by Will Pemulis, courtesy of Buddies in Bad Times

5 places to learn from your elders in the GTA

Life experience is making a comeback. These projects celebrate the wisdom of seniors

Daniel Carter grew up in a conservative Catholic-Muslim household where he didn’t have much guidance on how to navigate life as a young LGBTQ+ man. “Coming to terms with my own queer identity was very difficult on top of just being a teenager.”

At a discussion group for queer youth and elders in Toronto (which he co-hosts), Carter listened to an elderly man speak about how he’d lived for decades in the suburbs, married in a heterosexual relationship, raising children and struggling to conform to expectations, and the young man was surprised by how much he could relate. As the gentleman opened up about his own experiences of growing into his identity, Carter felt he too could open up and learn from this elder’s journey. “I was talking to someone who was 60, 70 years old, but we had a very similar experience,” he says.

In Indigenous and many global cultures, seniors have traditionally been afforded respect for their experience and wisdom. Our modern obsession with youth creates a disconnect between generations that can leave seniors undervalued and isolated, and youth missing out on opportunities for mentorship. In recent years, several projects have been created in the GTA to elevate the role of elders and encourage intergenerational understanding. Here are a few programs to check out:

We’re here, we’re queer, we’re in our golden years
The Youth/Elders project was founded by Buddies in Bad Times, the 519, and the Senior Pride Network to create discussion spaces for queer elders (aged 55+ years old) and queer youth in downtown Toronto. The program of workshops, roundtables, knowledge-sharing and community conversations came about because many young people were complaining that they lacked support and guidance and many seniors were saying they wanted to learn more about issues affecting youth today. Some of the learnings from last year’s programming inspired the Youth/Elders Project theatrical production and the Youth/Elders podcast. Season 1 was recorded in 2018, and episodes will be released in September 2019. A second season of the podcast is in the works to capture some of this year’s conversations, pending funding. For the podcast, host and project facilitator Vanessa Dunn facilitated conversations on themes such as family, home and social movements. “Having those conversations and unpacking them is huge,” says Dunn. “The greatest benefit is a higher level of empathy, compassion and understanding.”

Photograph of two people sitting at a table making bracelets

Well-heeled elders
At the Bata Shoe Museum’s Manitobah Mukluks Storyboot School, experienced Indigenous artists and elders teach younger generations how to make traditional mukluks and moccasins using sheepskin and moose hide. Roberta Anderson, an artist who has been teaching for five years, says it’s important to pass on the culture. “It was starting to die out,” she says, “but I’m finding, since I’ve started teaching, some of the students I’ve taught are now doing things themselves, and they’re starting to teach other people—that’s pretty cool to see.” Classes run on Sundays and registration is required.

Life lessons at the library
The Toronto Public Library hosted its first Elders in Residence last fall. Community activists and residential school survivors Frances Whiskeychan and Patrick Etherington provided culturally informed programming and support to the library and met with the public one-on-one. The TPL plans to work with a new elder this fall at select locations, and anyone can set up an appointment or drop in to receive guidance on everything from personal matters to educational pursuits. The connection has been transformative for youth, but also newcomers, says Cynthia Toniolo, manager of adult services and program development. “[The elders] realized how important it is to talk to newcomers to Canada,” she says. “People are interested, they want to know the whole history.”

Hannukah hangouts
The Dinner of Miracles is an annual event hosted by UJA Federation of Toronto, where young adults in their 20s and 30s chat with Holocaust survivors over a three-course meal. Each table has its own moderator to help keep conversations on track. Now in its 15th year, the dinner is hosted in a synagogue in December, around Hannukah time. Tickets go on sale in November. Jodi Katzoff, Director of Engagement for UJA Genesis, says that survivors love being in the presence of young people. “They deeply believe in the next generation being bigger and brighter.” Young people are intrigued by the wisdom they can gain from survivors. “It’s a strong way for a young person to connect to their Jewish identity.”

Learning from the masters
As a way to connect multiple generations, Tea Base, a community arts space in Toronto’s Chinatown, hosted a Lunar New Year celebration and dumpling-making party this past February. A community member pitched the idea, because many young attendees hadn’t made dumplings from scratch before, says co-owner Michael Vu. It was also a good opportunity for intergenerational hangouts—part of Tea Base’s mandate. “Most attendees were in their 20s, but the presence of the generation above us—and the opportunity to share a meal with them—made the event especially meaningful.” Tea Base also regularly hosts Mahjong Mondays, a Chinese tile-based game at which elders routinely crush their young opponents.

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