Season 5, Episode 9 of the Root & Seed Podcast, Featuring: Samanta Krishnapillai

Samanta Krishnapillai

Anika Chabra

“I wasn't born in Canada to survive. I was born here to thrive.”

There’s something about Samanta Krishnapillai’s story that is familiar yet unique, destined yet delightful, average yet special. As the founder of On Canada Project, Samanta and her team are distilling information and dispelling myths so that Canadians can truly comprehend societal issues and happenings. Where does she get this drive? A mystery perhaps... or is this the result of her upbringing, early experience as a brown girl in a white world, her schooling, and most recently as a result of having a point of view on happenings during the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Unlike her parent's generation who were in Canada to survive, Samanta is on a mission to thrive, and in turn make an impact using her experiences, intellect, and now platform to institute change. 

About our guest: Samanta is the founder, managing director and editor-in-chief of the On Canada Project. She is a creative problem solver who actively challenges the status quo. Samanta strives to create critical and compassionate conversations while building and amplifying community around her. Her passion stems from her lived experience as a first-generation Tamil-Canadian and as someone who intentionally took time to focus on her mental well-being in her early-twenties. She pairs her lived experience with her Masters and Bachelors's education in health equity, trauma and violence-informed care, diversity & inclusion and system change, in addition to her professional experiences working in advocacy and community building at nonprofits, to passionately drive change. Sam challenges herself and the people around her to show up fully and unapologetically as their full selves.


Reminder to rate and review our podcast on Apple - it helps other like-minded people find our pod and grows this beautiful community! If you’d like to tell us your story or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.


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Episode Transcript


If you don't feel like you fit in yourself first, it's so hard to fit anywhere. And for so long I was looking outside for what I wanted on the inside and the moment it clicked for me internally through a lot of therapy and a lot of healing of that internalized racism and all that. Now I feel like it's quite easy to fit in with people and places because I fit myself.



Welcome back to Root and Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I'm your host, Anika Chabra.

It’s no surprise that in a season all about identity that we are meeting some people who have seen some success, not only in the world but in their self awareness and self definition. Perhaps the two are intertwined? We definitely think so.

Last episode's guest Dr. Jenny Wang set the stage for this episode’s guest and topic to take flight. We spoke to Dr. Wang about mental health yes, but also about the healing and empathy needed to invite in perspective. With that in mind providing a new perspective and helping people to navigate the firehouse of information that the media inundates us with, this interview with Samanta Krishnapillai will have you thinking a lot about the information you consume.

You see, Sam and her team have created a place for real conversations around societal and topical issues to occur. Making it a more accessible and inclusive place for everyone to take part and have a voice. The parallels with Root & Seed reveal themselves as we speak and we get to hear about the early experiences and family members who have influenced Sam to be who she is today. Here’s Sam.



Hi, I am Samanta Krishnapillai or Sam. My pronouns are she and her. I'm a first generation Tamil Canadian. Born in Montreal, raised in Scarborough and Markham. My parents are a Tamil immigrant and a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka. And I was really lucky to do my undergraduate studies and my master's at Western University in health equity and social determinants of health before the pandemic started and then I pivoted to creating the platform now known as On Canada Project and that's my accidental full-time hustle now.



Talk to us a little bit about the inception. You talked about it being accidental. Where did it all start? 



Yeah. So I guess it all started after the World Health Organization was like, well shit this is a global pandemic. And that was somewhere in March and I was wrapping up my master's and my master's happened to be in health information sciences and I just didn't understand how we were still carrying on as normal in school.

Like everything moved online, but I just didn't get why we weren't all stopping to address this global pandemic given that we were hearing such misinformation being spread. And then I think the Mayor of London, Ontario tweeted or he said something in the news about, if you don't wanna get sick, don't take public transit.

And I just, it broke my brain because I was like, do you think I'm up in someone's armpit on the bus because I enjoy this? It's because I don't have a car. Transit is essential to a city and then I was like, someone needs to explain what to do if you don't have privilege and there's like this pandemic going on. If you don't have a backyard, if you live in a multi-generational household like I did for so long. If you don't speak English, if you share a bedroom like I did for so long, how do you navigate Covid 19 and how do we set you up for success to make the choices that you need to make to keep yourself and your loved ones safe?

And I realized that was the one thing that I could offer to this fight. If Canada went to war, I have no upper body strength. I'm out, but this particular issue, I was like, I've got this, I can help unpack public health in a way that's conversational and compassionate and invites other people to make safer choices.

And I think from that this like side hustle that I was doing, I pivoted into the larger framework of On Canada Project now, which is like any social issue that a Canadian or someone living in Canada might wanna discuss. So, it really went from like this how do we address this information gap in a pandemic to how do we address the information gaps that we need to solve to see the change that we wanna see in the world today?



I love it. So unpack the information gap to me. There's big media out there, people have a platform that they can say anything on now with social media, like what is the gap that you're filling?



Yeah, so I'm not a journalist, but I do consume a lot of news. But one thing I've always found quite frustrating with the Canadian media landscape is that you have to already know what they're talking about in order to understand their update on the issue. So if you don't understand the context around it, there's no like briefer or an intro to the subject that you can easily access to now participate in the conversation.

That seemed really unfair to me. That's really what OCP is trying to kind of pinpoint, is everyone deserves to be a part of these conversations because all of our insights are required. to create the change we need to see and to create systems that include all of us.

But if only some of us are invited to the conversation just by like that capacity information, like we just don't have the knowledge about it. Or we are working two jobs or we have a family or we're a caregiver. When you have all those things that you're juggling, you have to also keep up with the news and what's going on in our country and be well informed and all. That's impossible to me. So bridging these information gaps to us is inviting people to participate in these conversations and to engage because our democracy needs these people to participate in it, in order for us to see the progress that we want to see.

And it shouldn't just be people who have time, which are often people with privilege in these conversations.  And I guess that's really what we're trying to address is to bridge that. So our hope is a news story drops in Canada and we're able to offer you a contextualizer around it so that as more news stories drop, you've got a good briefer to help you figure out the update on a moving story. Like hearing a non-neutral context around what's going on. So that's really what the media side of our organization does. And then on the other side, we do this like consulting thing where we're bridging information gaps in a different way by helping corporations, nonprofits, governments address something that they find sticky or difficult to deal with. We bring our decolonial, anti-oppressive practices into play here to unpack some of that stuff and that consulting money is what funds are media sign.



Okay. I love that. That totally makes sense to me. So Samantha, do you come from a long line of people who have made change, activists? Like, is this in your blood?



No, not even a little bit. My mom's side of the family was quite wealthy, my dad's family not as much, but they met here after the 83 riots. My dad left and my mom left separately and they met here. I have an aunt that is kind of like, I wouldn't have known it, but she was telling me recently that she's a little bit of a rebel.

That she would go and stand and protest the army in Sri Lanka because they were killing Tamil people. She'd stand in these protest lines against them and I was like, oh shit maybe that's where this is. Most of my family is a very put your head down, work and be grateful you're in Canada. Work within the systems, not outside of the system has always been what my parents have told me. Right. Don't make waves. And I get it, like after generations of scarcity and surviving to come to Canada and finally have what feels like an equal shot.

Of course, we know it's not, but like as close to one as maybe they've ever experienced. I get why they wanted me to be quiet and work within it, but I wasn't born in Canada to survive. I was born here to thrive. And if that is what I'm meant to do, to have that audacity of someone born in Canada, I have to use that to the full extent. And that's why I think I'm a little bit of a disruptor in how I present stuff and how I unpack stuff. But at the same time, I don't know of any relative that is like a disruptor or like a social change advocate. I will say that in the same way that I believe that we can have internalized intergenerational trauma passed down, I do think we can have intergenerational aspirations and I think that someone in my line must have been like this for it to feel so intrinsic to me. It's so easy to lean into this work and to show up like this and I think it's because someone was either a writer or someone was a believer of these things or wanted to do more, but didn't know how, given the oppression and systems that they were working within. So I do believe that I carry my ancestors with me. I think about that all the time.

A friend of ours, he's one of the co-founders of Future Ancestors and he talks about how one version of your ancestor is your direct lineage and the other version of your ancestors is a community. And so, I am the descendant of all women and I am the descendant of all Tamil people and I am the descendant of all writers. They had to all exist for me to get to this moment here and to show up like this. These are all the things that are always in the back of my head and I think that because of that I'm able to show up. And then understanding this line in which I represent the next piece in it is what allows me to give it my all too because I would want whoever comes after me to give it their all as well.

My connection to my religion and my culture came quite late. My mom tried to the best of her ability to make a good brown girl out of me and I wanted to be white so badly. I wouldn't have called it that at the time, but I can name it as that now. And I so desperately wanted that and then through a multitude of events that kind of got to the point of having a really big mental health crisis and needing to ground again in self and start healing. I began reconnecting with my spirituality and my culture and my religion, but by my own terms and in doing that, a big part of it was I get to define my relationship with these aspects and as long as I'm true to them, then that is what that is now. And it has given me permission to love my culture as I have defined it versus how my mom's generation would've defined it.

There are parts of it that's super sexist, super classist and I don't like any of that, but I get to also reject all of it and leave it in the motherland and start a new here and define it as I choose.



Did you ever feel this way? So I felt rejected by my own community growing up because I felt like there was a box I needed to fit into. I needed to speak the language, I needed to be able to cook X, Y, and Z. I needed to do all these things in order to be like a real Indian and South Asian. And I felt actually rejected by my own culture. Like I felt like I didn't even fit into my own culture



A hundred percent. That's why I wanted to be white because it was like, I know how to do that. I can see it on tv, it's easy to access, but defining what being Tamil enough meant versus like, I am Tamil, so it's already enough.

Like I could not care about my culture at all. I could not watch any Tamil movie, not eat any Tamil food, and it would not change the fact that I am 1000% Tamil. You don't get to say someone is or isn't enough when that's a fair identity or a heritage, right? But I didn't know that or have that language in high school and instead, I felt hyperfocused on the parts of the culture I hated. And that coupled with people who were like, oh, you didn't watch this Tamil movie. Oh, you don't speak the language. You are not Tamil enough or you're like a coconut, brown on the outside white on the inside, or an Oreo or whatever the hell.

I'm not ever going to be that traditionally viewed as  Tamil girl, but that doesn't change the fact that I am Tamil, that I am Hindu, that I am a big fan of my culture. I understand that feeling of I don't do this and it's not enough. You don't feel like you belong here nor there and you read about people who go back home and don't feel like they fit in perfectly and people who are here and were like, we don't fit in perfectly here either.

But I think like, if you don't feel like you fit in yourself first, it's so hard to fit anywhere. And for so long I was looking outside for what I wanted on the inside and the moment it clicked for me internally through a lot of therapy and a lot of healing of that internalized racism and all that. Now I feel like it's quite easy to fit in with people and places because I fit myself.



Feels like a fitting spot to pause and let that sink in. You are enough. Someone make a bumper sticker, shout it from the rooftops, make it swag, whatever the cool kids are doing these days and while we could have ended things there, it felt just right to ask Sam about her upbringing and any vivid memories of herself growing up that shaped who she became next.



Yeah, I had a really complex childhood. My parents are really incredible, but I now have complex PTSD also recently diagnosed ADHD. 

So my childhood as I heal I can see it for the positive moments and also recognize there was difficulty as well. And I do think all of those come together to make the version of me that exists now, but when I think of standout moments in my brain of things that stick out,  growing up I was trying to be white, but I also didn't have access to brown.

I didn't have access to brown stories or brown television or brown novels. What did exist though was books about the Holocaust. So the Holocaust and understanding about the struggle Jewish people have historically experienced really helped me. Understand systemic oppression and at a young age, like 10 or 11. I was wondering to myself, how could people stand by as something like this was happening? 

I always realized that you could be lulled into this sense of well, thank God it's not me. And then I think I grew up in a time period where saying that's so gay was really normal. In my high school, I was one of the earlier people to be like, ooh, this is probably not the right way to talk. But I, also remember not speaking up enough. I knew that love is love, but then I didn't show up for them and so I reflect on that quite a bit to be like, you knew better, but you did nothing because you didn't wanna be the weird one. It's not the same as watching the Holocaust happen, but it's how people can know better but not show up and do anything.



And you're saying that with self-love and compassion, now that you've been through therapy?



Sure. And I think I didn't really have a strong sense of self. My cousin's generation who's now in high school, first year of university that kind of age range.

They're so much more progressive and I think every generation is going to be that's how it has to be, right? But she's so sure of who she is in a way that I had zero access to at that age. I just didn't know who I was and what I wanted to be as a person, not even career wise outside of what I knew was like a good girl.

That's something I really admire about that generation is more of them seem to understand where their values are and how to live them. But I didn't have that yet. So that's sort of a moment that sort of sticks out as well. When I look back at my childhood and my life, I see a lot of this is what that meant and a lot of this is what I didn't know yet to label. And when I know that all now how do I have that inform the choices I make going forward?



Absolutely! We need to be having conversations about these things. I have major anxiety about things ending because my mother went through partition. It's no surprise she had a really hard time saying goodbye. 

That is something that I want to have stop in my generation so my daughter can go and flock the nest and do her things without the baggage of my feelings. I still respect my feelings, but I want that kind of generational trauma to end here.

But I do that in a way that respects my mother and the experiences of her family and the experiences of that time. And I feel like even as provocative as you are, as provocative as the discussions that you're having and instigating, you're still doing it in a respectful way.



Thank you. Yeah, I mean, part of it is respectful. The other part of it is as people of colour we don't get permission from society to be angry. So choosing to be angry in what we write, I know will discredit the project immediately because I'm not a white man being upset. 

So part of it is yes, my family values and like showing up, but the other part of it is like in order to sustainably do this long term, I can't burn, the project to the ground by engaging in anger which is unfair because there's a lot to be upset about and we should be allowed to be angry. 



Actually to me, it's even less about respect. It's more about just empathy for, like I said a different time, different place, all the things that come with it. 

I wanna do something slightly fun.



Yeah, of course.



So you took our cards, which was great. Can I ask you a question from it? It always ends up being the question that you're meant to answer because that's just the way the universe works.

This is a family stories one. The question is, who is an important person in your life?



I'll say that aunt her name's Jaya and she has had a profound impact on my life she was really there for me during the worst of my mental health stuff and I think also she is resilient, passionate and doesn't stop because of someone else telling her to stop. Like tenacious, very goes after what she wants, but all in a very of that generation kind of way. She's not aggressively out loud a feminist, but everything she does is very feminist. She wouldn't name herself a feminist, but she a hundred percent is and that has always impressed me there like subtle aggressive feminism. 



This connection between aunt and niece is just so heartwarming. There definitely feels like there are some similarities and Sam reflecting on her aunt’s attributes feels like she might be looking in a mirror of sorts.

It struck us that what Sam and her team have done with On Canada Project is to provide just enough information while dispelling myths and misconceptions so that one can have a foundation to understand the story and then develop a perspective. We then thought, what can our Root & Seed community learn from this? Is this something that we can translate to the experience of understanding your family stories and narratives?  That unless you understand the stories that came before you, you don’t get the chance to understand why people are the way they are, why traditions came to be and why what happened happened. With that type of knowledge it feels like the possibility to have a perspective is opened up so that the seed that you plant for the future can take root. We leave you with that to chew on.

From a storyteller who reveals the facts and context of a story to a storyteller of a different sort up next time. Charlene SanJenko believes that storytelling can be regenerative for the teller and the audience and that it's an act that can be done in an equitable and sustainable way. We are releasing Charlene’s episode during National Indigenous History Month, a fitting way to end this beautiful season on identity.

Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and edited by Emily Groleau and Camille Blais. Bye for now.


Episode Credits

Hosted by: Anika Chabra

Brought to you by: Root & Seed

Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel

Editing by: Emily Groleau

Sound Editing by: Camille Blais

Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN

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