The second circuit of the Blackwood Gallery’s exhibition series, entitled Take Care, confronts the systemic undervaluing of domestic employees in the workplace and in the public discourse. Societal emphasis on values such as independence leads to the marginalization of care work.

Last Wednesday, the gallery hosted an event as part of the circuit called “Carework as Choreography.” The event began with a panel discussion regarding each speakers’ personal experiences and advocacy in terms of care work. It was then followed by an exhibition tour and dance rally.

In collaboration with the UTM women and gender studies department, a roundtable discussion was one event in a four-part series called Feminist Lunchtime Talks. One of the speakers on the panel, Cynthia Cranford, is an associate professor of sociology at UTM. I found Cranford’s examination of tensions and compromises in how care is delivered incredibly thought-provoking.

Cranford’s research focuses specifically on home-based care, such as looking after the elderly or disabled. Cranford finds issues of respect and loss of dignity on both sides of the caretaker and caregiver relationship. She argues that the flexible nature of care work often establishes a deep insecurity or vulnerability in caregivers, to a point where their efforts and work is abused.

Pinky Paglingayen adds to the conversation of exploitation as a caregiver who has survived the brutal system. With courage, she shares her story of immigrating to Canada from the Philippines to work in child care only to be abandoned at the airport and unemployed before her care work started. Struggling as a non-status immigrant, Paglingayen faced the possibility of deportation. She quickly found a job in elderly care where she first experiences the caregiver’s workplace.

“I was treated as a disposable worker. Caregivers were not valued back then and are still not today,” she said, holding back tears. Paglingayen asserts that she believes care work is anti-feminist because of her experiences. She was fired right away and told to terminate her pregnancy as many other female caregivers did at the time. Now, as a doting single mother and permanent resident of Canada, Paglingayen is a settlement worker and public speaker, advocating for all caregivers and their basic human rights.

“Carework as Choreography,” currently displayed at the Blackwood Gallery, is both relevant and visually remarkable. I immediately noticed the collection of protest posters held up by bright orange and pink wooden sticks. The banners show a recurring figure, “Thunderbird Woman,” to symbolize standing on the frontlines of the protest against the installation of pipelines under indigenous lands. In combination with the bird-like silhouette, phrases such as “We are here to protect” were repeatedly written to visualize how they care for their environment and are showing up to protect it.

On the right wall of the gallery is a timeline dating back 150 years, illustrating the history of care work performed by Indigenous and racialized women in Canada.

A timeline depicts the history of care work by racialized women.

Kwentong Bayan Collective, the artist of the piece, emphasizes how caregivers have made invaluable contributions to Canada’s history, yet the structure of their work continues to create systemic oppression. The 1992 mark on the timeline stood out to me. It read “Live-in Caregiver Program: domestic workers can apply for permanent residence after 2 years of working in Canada. They must live with their employer until then.” As a caregiver, whose work is to solely provide aid to someone in need of it, living with their employer makes them uniquely vulnerable to abuse such as working overtime without compensation.

The event concludes on an inspiring, lively note with activist Marisa Morán Jahn leading a dance workshop. The routine she taught incorporated common actions of domestic work, such as sweeping and ironing. I think dance is an amazing medium to address care as it’s aestheticizing these overlooked rituals of care work into a visual and collective experience. Caregivers are often working and dealing with hardship alone, so rallying together through dance creates an undeniable sense of power and unity. By bringing a visual to care work, Jahn is making the invisible visible.

“As an artist, I try to create social change with my work,” she said.

The next event in the care work circuit is “Care, Automated” will be held on October 21 at the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology.