Beyond white dresses and tiered cakes

Canada's wedding industry is starting to catch up to the diversity of the people who are marrying
By TVO Current Affairs and New Canadian Media - Published on March 13, 2017
henna design on the arm of an Indian bride
As more immigrants settle in Canada, they’re looking for planners who can help plan weddings that incorporate all aspects of their cultures. (Nishanth Jois/Creative Commons)

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The following stories are the product of a partnership between TVO.org and New Canadian Media, an online publication that offers news and commentary from an immigrant perspective.


By Renée Sylvestre-Williams

When Toronto-based lawyer Anjli Patel and her husband, Parambir Keila, were planning their Sikh wedding ceremony, they wanted to keep it simple and have it downtown. But they didn't look specifically for a South Asian planner familiar with their cultures. 

“We found our wedding planner through a listing on Wedluxe.com,” says Patel. It wasn't necessarily the norm for Patel to have a planner. She says traditionally South Asian weddings were organized by families and, in some cases, the entire village. But since her 2012 wedding, she says having a planner instead of relying on family has become more accepted in South Asian communities. 

“There are South Asian wedding planners, like Sapna [Weddings], but we went with our planner [Melissa Haggerty from Spectacular Spectacular], even though ours was their first South Asian wedding, because we wanted to get married in a downtown venue, and our planner had a lot of experience planning events in downtown venues.” Spectacular Spectacular has planned a few South Asian weddings each year since.

That choice, and that distribution of knowledge, wasn’t available 10 or 15 years ago, when Vicki Singh was planning her wedding. She was inspired to start her own wedding planning business after trying to find suppliers who could cater to the South Asian market.

As more immigrants settle in Canada, they’re looking for planners who can help plan weddings that incorporate all aspects of their cultures. With the Canadian wedding industry worth $5 billion and catering to an average of 160,000 couples annually (according to a survey in Weddingbells magazine), the industry has evolved beyond the white dress. And while it's easy for many people to find a planner who understands their wishes in their countries of origin, it can be difficult to find planners in Canada who fully appreciate clients’ varied needs and cultural sensitivities.

“This year will be our 15th anniversary [of the business],” says Singh, who has published two books on the subject, Cultural Weddings and The South Asian Wedding Planner. “This issue kept coming up. Finding suppliers who wanted and could cater to Indian weddings was a challenge. Instagram wasn’t as prevalent, so there were fewer ways to find out about new services and ideas. We were counting a lot on word of mouth to find people to do video, makeup — and the referrals weren’t always of the best quality.”

“We helped plan a Sikh wedding last year where the photographer had never done this kind of wedding before,” Singh explains, describing one typical example. “She was adamant she knew what to do, but there are certain things you need to know beforehand that she never got to: in a Sikh wedding you remove your shoes, cover your head, et cetera, during the ceremony. She came to the venue not knowing any of that.”

Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells, says couples who've wanted a diverse wedding have been chronically underserved by the industry, but that is changing. “Diversity has always been a key factor in Canadian weddings, and with more and more couples wanting to incorporate their cultures into their celebration, there has definitely been a shift in the wedding marketplace … Offerings are more multicultural today than ever before, and it is now not as difficult to find a wedding planner specializing in specific cultural celebrations.” She also said that wedding shows — often the place where couples find vendors and suppliers — are becoming more varied, offering services specific to different cultural backgrounds. 

Danielle Andrews, co-founder of the Wedding Planners Institute of Canada, has seen firsthand how the industry has changed. “I don’t know that multicultural weddings themselves have necessarily increased,” she says. “What I’m seeing is more wedding coordinators getting involved. We’re seeing a shift towards having a wedding coordinator handling the [culturally specific] details — and not necessarily always a wedding coordinator of the couple’s culture.”

What has changed, in other words, is that wedding coordinators are educating themselves about different cultures. They might have training in (and until recently, cultural familiarity with) western wedding mores, but now they’re expanding their expertise and range of services.

Andrews says they’re seeing more weddings that blend eastern and western traditions — “more western-style weddings with the Chinese tea ceremony included," for instance. "It’s not heavy on customs, but it’s definitely incorporating customs.” Couples are picking and choosing which customs they want incorporated into their wedding.

Patel and Keila chose not to include extravagant Sikh or Hindu traditions into their wedding, which often include a week of events leading up to the ceremony. Instead, she and her husband kept the wedding small, celebrating at the Art Gallery of Ontario with 150 people, and even skipping the cake. She says working with Haggerty might have sounded risky, but it worked out: “We had a South Asian officiant and we all met a number of times to review the ceremony in detail. We had many design meetings where we discussed the big-picture look and feel and details as well. Having said that, our vision was never beyond her comprehension because we have the same aesthetic sensibility. We were always on the same page.”

Singh, the one who started her own wedding planning business, may have had trouble finding suppliers who could help plan weddings, but now, people can get her books everywhere. “We have brides who get our books at the Bay or Bed Bath and Beyond. And [then they] will have their nieces use it — a progression of people.”

Renée Sylvestre-Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Canadian Living, and Quartz.

a couple walking up the aisle on their wedding day


A tradition of thrift

By Lucy Slavianska, New Canadian Media

Victoria Bechkalo, a social worker from Ukraine, and Aleksandr Aksenov, a bank analyst from Russia, had only five guests at their Toronto wedding — the groom’s brother, his wife and children, and a family friend. Since their home countries were at war with each other, dividing their friends, and their parents couldn’t make it to Toronto due to visa issues, Bechkalo and Aksenov couldn’t plan a big wedding.

Still, they say their ceremony at Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral was the happiest moment of their lives, because what mattered to them was not the number of guests, a drive in a limo, or a lavish reception, but the decision to create their family in peaceful, tolerant Canada and their ability to do this by blending traditions from their respective homelands with those from their new home.

One of these traditions is affordability.

There is a long history of church weddings in eastern European communities, not just because of the opulent atmosphere — the candles, richly decorated altars, clerical vestments, murals, and iconography — but because the churches make a point of keeping costs down.

Many churches, for instance, charge more than $1,000 for wedding ceremonies (the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto charges $1,500 for a wedding, and the Anglican St. Clement Church charges $1,725), but eastern European churches tend to have much lower fees. Some, like the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church and St. Mary’s Polish Roman Catholic Church, charge between $100 and $500, but if a couple cannot afford to pay, even those charges may be waived. Others don’t charge for weddings at all, though couples often make a donation. 

Elena and Joseph Peccoreli chose to marry in the same Russian Orthodox cathedral as Bechkalo and Aksenov. Before the ceremony, Elena bought a small icon and her wedding ring from the cathedral’s shop. “These things are cheap [there] and everybody can afford them,” she says. “I chose a white gold ring that was brought to Canada from a Russian monastery. But in general, the crosses and the rings don’t have to be golden. The idea is that nobody should be stopped from getting married because of money.”

Aliaksei Androsik, originally from Russia, and Julia Gorbunova, from Belarus, had been wanting to get married for more than a decade. “We met when I was 13 and she was 14 years old,” Androsik says. “At that time we were both attending school in Poland, and she told me to wait till we grew up. We lived in different countries for years, keeping in touch over the internet, and we finally decided that she [would] come to me to Canada.”  They married in a small Belorussian church in Toronto, with 40 guests in attendance. After the ceremony, there was a party in the church hall with cake and vodka, and then the couple hosted a barbecue at home.

This is very much in keeping with cultural beliefs shared throughout eastern Europe. Salaries are significantly lower there than in western countries, so frugality is generally valued. Eastern European priests here presume that young couples, and especially new immigrants, might not have much by way of savings. There is also a widespread belief that couples should use their money for more practical purposes, such as buying a home or providing for future children. Priests emphasize that saving is righteous, and they discourage couples from going into debt over a day of celebrations.

Archpriest Vasily Kolega, from Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral (which doesn't charge for weddings), considers the overspending that's so common unwise: “In Canada, we see a lot of couples who use up their savings or borrow money and spend a lot on big weddings, and then spend years paying [it] back.”

By contrast, he says, couples like Bechkalo and Aksenov (whom he married in the summer of 2016) have a different perspective when it comes to celebrating their wedding. “Such couples who come to us believe that the wedding ceremony is much more significant than a big wedding party or than going to Mexico or somewhere else to spend money. They start their family life. They declare their love for each other, take their vows very seriously, and believe this more important than the material sides of the weddings.”

Lucy Slavianska is a journalist and editor who has lived and worked in Canada, Japan, Bulgaria, Venezuela, and the Netherlands.


a bridal party posing for photos

When bigger is better

By Tazeen Inam, New Canadian Media

For 21-year-old Mahnoor Baig, who grew up in Mississauga, the guest list for her wedding came as a shock. It included many people she had never met before, and numbered in the hundreds. But her parents insisted they wanted to invite people from every corner of the world to their only daughter’s celebration.

Though younger Pakistanis tend to be more modest in their approach, older generations see weddings as an once-in-a-lifetime affair, to be celebrated extravagantly. Industry insiders say that community members compete to outdo each other in a bid to wow attendees, designing events to be remembered and discussed long after the couple has returned from their honeymoon.

What followed were intense negotiations between parents and daughter. “The final list had only 5 per cent [of guests] that I had not met before,” Baig says. Her husband, Farhan Khan, a physician, is also not very fond of crowded weddings, but understood why so many were invited. “It’s a social gathering that reunites people who’ve been separated for a long time. It was a new experience for me, and in the end, I didn’t mind it as I met lot of people from both sides.” 

They wound up hosting 350 guests at their reception at the Burlington Convention Centre, with some coming in from other parts of Canada, Pakistan, the U.S., and the U.K.

Compared to the average cost of a Canadian wedding — $30,717, including honeymoon — Pakistani celebrations can run between $50,000 and $200,000, according to Roxy Zapala, founder and creative director of Art of Celebrations, who has been planning weddings for 15 years

For Baig's parents and others like them, a month-long celebration is a small investment to mark the beginning of a lifelong commitment, much like making a down payment on a house. Days are spent shopping, finalizing vendors, and dropping off invitations, while on the weekends close family and friends are invited for tea or dinner. They play the dholki — a large-skinned drum that is struck with a metal spoon — sing traditional songs extolling the bride and groom, apply henna, exchange gifts, and plan for the big day. 

Shahnaz Shah, an obstetrician and gynecologist who immigrated to Canada from the U.K. in 2000, blew her son Rehan away with a grand reception held at Toronto's Casa Loma.  “I knew that my mother [was] going to do something extra for me," Rehan says, "but I never expected it to be this grand.”

“We had bhangra [music], belly dancers, a dance floor, and piano playing too. It was a combination with exquisite decor, to keep my guests occupied with fun-filled activities," Shah recalls. "People are still talking about how well it was organized.”

Other than lavish food and entertainment, the bridal dress (typically red) and jewellry consume a lot of the budget. Yellow or white gold is embedded with diamonds, pearls, or precious stones, and usually customized to match the wedding outfit. Special dresses for the immediate family, outfits for the groom, and an exchange of presents between the families add to the costs.

Competition to provide these services is intense. “There were only a few shops in the Toronto area when I started business 20 years ago," says Erum Ahmed, owner of Erum’s Creations, and a dress designer who caters primarily to the Pakistani immigrant community. "Now there are more than 50 good designer outlets selling traditional, customized bridal dresses.”

Makeup and hairstyling add to the budget as well. Makeup artists such as Aneela Gardezi, who has many years of experience working with Pakistani-Canadian families, says completing a bride's look in the traditional style can cost anywhere between $1,000 and $1,500. “Pakistani makeup is famous for its heaviness," she explains, "so those who opt for total transformation of complexion and features need extra material.”

Baig went for a natural look that suited her pastel outfit. But she had to pay extra for her hijab and dupatta (veil). “Everyone is not an expert on setting bridal hijab," she says. "I called someone at the makeup studio to do the job for me, and obviously I had to pay her extra.” 

All this preparation needs to be documented too. This can include drone cinematography to provide a 360-degree aerial view of the wedding, which can run between $1,500 and $4,500 per shoot, according to Zapala.

Khawaja tried it out at her choreographed Burlington Convention Centre event. “It’s like creating virtual reality for us and for those who missed parts of the wedding. The drone costs us a bit more, but it lent a new perspective and thrilled my guests.”

It's just the latest trend as a community attempts to meld tradition with modernity in a new land.

Tazeen Inam is a freelance journalist with New Canadian Media and Muslim Link.


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Main photo courtesy of Nishanth Jois and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)

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