On the immigration beat with Nicholas Keung

The Toronto Star’s veteran immigration reporter talks about the unprecedented Canadian response to the Syrian refugee crisis. By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor Nicholas Keung has a lot of empathy for the people he covers daily as the Toronto Star’s immigration reporter. Just over 20 years ago, he was himself a newly arrived immigrant in Canada.…

The Toronto Star’s veteran immigration reporter talks about the unprecedented Canadian response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor

Nicholas Keung has a lot of empathy for the people he covers daily as the Toronto Star’s immigration reporter.

Just over 20 years ago, he was himself a newly arrived immigrant in Canada. Born in Hong Kong, where he lived until he went to school in the United States, he eventually joined his family in Canada in 1994, where, unable to find employment because he didn’t have a professional network, Keung worked in a food court for a year until he was hired as a general assignment reporter at Sing Tao Daily, a Chinese newspaper in Toronto.

While out on assignments, he met Toronto Star reporters who told him about the newspaper’s internship program. He was accepted in the late ’90s. After working general assignment, he was assigned immigration—a new beat—in 2003.

He’s made waves there—in 2015, his colleagues awarded him with the Mary Deanne Shears Award, an internal Star award for reporters whose work “exemplifies great reporting set by the Star’s former longtime and legendary managing editor, Mary Deanne Shears,” according to Star public editor Kathy English. It was poignant for Keung—Shears hired him in 1997 while she was city editor and was there to present him with the award.

J-Source spoke with Keung about what he’s learned covering the beat and the unprecedented response he has witnessed to the Syrian refugee crisis. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

J-Source: You’ve really seen changes in immigration policy, living through it for the past 12 to 13 years.

Nicholas Keung: And on top of my own experiences during my own resettlement here in Canada. So, some of these issues are not foreign to me.

We are very fortunate that Toronto is the hub of immigration in Canada. In Ontario, we’ve got 100,000 newcomers settling down here a year. They are really full of stories.

Because I’m based in Toronto, the stories usually come from the people who actually breathe and live in that reality of immigration. I think that’s more grounded and more real.

J-Source: Do you think that’s important? Because people may not understand how complicated the immigration system is and the different immigration paths that people can take to come into the country.

NK: Immigrant communities, even though they are proficient in English, have a tendency to rely on their own community media outlets, especially now with online news.

We need to educate the—quote unquote—the mainstream multi-generational Canadian readers who may have very little exposure to the immigration process.

For any education story or crime story, readers may have a good sense of how the system works, but when it comes to immigration stories, just explaining a program, explaining a process—that would take me two to three paragraphs.

J-Source: And then when you are looking for that human element, do you find that it’s easy, or is it hard to find people who are willing to talk to you about their immigration experiences?

NK: It’s actually really hard.

A lot of times they are still in the process of applying but they are caught up in limbo and they are afraid to speak out, to be identified, not to mention being photographed for a story. That process of locating and identifying a subject is usually the most time-consuming and labour intensive.

So often I receive anonymous calls and anonymous emails, but I cannot really proceed with a story because they aren’t willing to come forward.

With a lot of immigrants—I cannot generalize, but they don’t know how the media works here in Canada. Also, where they come from they may not trust the media. I have had people asking me, “How much do you charge if I want my story in the paper?” That could be shocking for some Canadians but that’s the reality.

There’s also the issue about language. I have had experiences where I needed just a friend or a contact in a community organization to translate or to interpret for me. Whenever interpretation or translation is involved, it takes twice as much time to finish an interview.

J-Source: What have you found that has worked in terms of getting people to open up to you so that you can tell their stories?

NK: You need to come in with an open mind and make sure you ask all the questions without being judgmental at all and be really sensitive in terms of when you ask your questions. Don’t make any assumptions or presumptions. Be a good listener because the person may not speak fluent English. You really have to be patient.

I remember when I was doing general assignment, covering crime stories involving victims or suspects who are minority background or immigrant backgrounds. I think there are some tendencies for people to make assumptions.

Also because the person is not fluent in English, we tend to be impatient. Sometimes even when a question is being asked, it comes across as condescending. So I feel that sensitivity definitely helps.

I’ve had numerous occasions when I need to try to convince the person to come forward with their story. There is so much back and forth and you arrange a place to meet and you get there and the person doesn’t show up.

It’s happened many times before. They’ve changed their mind and are too afraid to say no.

J-Source: The Syrian refugee crisis has been happening for many years. When did it first come onto your radar and how did you find the public was initially reacting to these stories?

NK: The Syrian refugee crisis started to be on my radar about 2012. I do have some contacts with the Syrian-Canadian community and that’s something we had talked about from time to time. I think since 2012, the Syrian refugee crisis has been highlighted in [the United Nations High Commission on Refugees] annual reports. But I think the actual coverage in Canada has been on and off.

Really, what finally put the crisis on the Canadian media radar screen was the little boy, Alan Kurdi, whose body was washed up on the beach in Turkey back in September, because of that Canadian connection.

It’s sad to say a lot of times, but I think the media responds when it is more immediate and closer to home—then it will get more attention and more coverage.

J-Source: Is that frustrating as an immigration reporter, knowing that there is this thing going on and that for whatever reason, it isn’t really picking up with Canadians?

NK: It’s frustrating, but also I can understand. I remember I did a couple stories based on the annual reports from the UNHCR. Those stories get viewed and people read them, but they are sort of distant from the readers.

When the Kurdi image emerged you see a lot of people commenting, “This could have been our child.” People who are parents, when they saw that photo it really resonated with them.

I think a lot of times people are more concerned about their immediate environment. They want to respond to things that they could have an impact on.

J-Source: Since then we’ve had this shift of daily multiple stories about refugees arriving and all the efforts to fundraise and bring people here. Have you ever experienced anything like this in your time as an immigration beat reporter?

NK: We are talking about 1.42 million Syrian refugees displaced, so in terms of scale, that’s unprecedented.

The response is unprecedented. I honestly believe that the image of Alan Kurdi was the turning point in terms of both the media coverage and in terms of Canadian response

J-Source: Do you think that people are missing some of the critical things that we need to be looking at? Because a lot of the problems that exist with Canada’s immigration system still persist.

NK: Definitely. The new government was elected on Oct. 19 and the new cabinet was sworn in early November. Immediately there were a lot of requests from people hoping to get the new immigration minister’s attention on their issues. A lot of the time people were actually blaming the Syrian crisis from taking away the resources and the attention of the new regime.

It’s kind of natural. Everyone sort of thinks from the “me, me, me” perspective and their issues and their problems with immigration are the most important problems within the immigration system.

At least from what I can see, since the Liberals came into power, they really actually working to fulfill their election promise of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees.

Sometimes you just wish people could think outside the box and look at the world from others’ perspectives because I think sometimes that’s an issue.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.