Caryma Sa'd holds up a mirror and reveals society's underbelly
Caryma Sa’d never asked to be a provocateur. The calling found her! Passionate about social causes, her personal online observations soon turned into a form of guerrilla gonzo journalism. Easily identifiable by her signature scooter, red-framed eyeglasses, and Mona Lisa grin (after a hit of Gorilla Glue), Sa'd turns up at local events to document them as they unfold, frequently sparking ire while exposing glitches in the fabricated narratives. She uses intelligence and humour to navigate the often-hostile encounters, but it’s her dogged determination to usher in positive change that keeps her focused on exposing the lies and revealing the truth.
Heads Lifestyle: Hi Caryma. Thank you for parking your scooter long enough to have a chat. Where are you now?
Caryma Sa’d: I'm just sitting alone in a park right now.
HL: It's a difficult time for women journalists. A recent UNESCO discussion paper points to a sharp increase in online violence against women journalists and reveals how these attacks are inextricably bound up with disinformation, intersectional discrimination, and populist politics. So how are you managing?
CS: The mental onslaught is a lot sometimes, but I suppose I've been training for this my whole life. The past year in particular has been a sharp learning curve, as far as learning how to manage, navigate and sit with and process attacks that come from all directions. On a physical level, you know, there are times that I've been concerned for my safety.
In the work that I do, when I’m out in public and following rallies, for example, I've learned how to modify my approach and presence to at least try to mitigate those risks. I don't think it's possible to bring them down to zero, but I feel fairly confident in some of the strategies I've developed. At this particular point in time, I'm not living in fear, but I can't say that's been true. I have lived in fear for parts of the past two years.
HL: When you say you've been training your whole life for this, can you elaborate on that?
CS: Well, I think I've always been a loudmouth and I've always asked questions and not been shy in that respect. I don't think that I am necessarily overbearing, although the persona that I've cultivated doesn't reflect that. From a fairly early age, I have been comfortable with being uncomfortable and just voicing what's on my mind. And I've always been visible, right? Whether in a classroom setting in elementary or high school, there weren't many of us who wore hijabs. Even the university I attended was not super diverse. So training in the sense that there have always been people who vehemently disagreed with me or wanted to silence me. That's just part of my life.
HL: For those who are inspired by what you do, and may want to raise their own voice, can you explain how you’ve overcome the discomfort?
CS: I’ve gotten used to it. I can't say that I’ve vanquished it altogether, but you lean into it. I’ll take myself out of a situation for a second and image myself watching it happen, and oftentimes, the situations I find myself in are absurd. So that's how I deal with things—through humour. It’s a coping/processing mechanism for me. And if I'm uncomfortable, whomever I'm face to face with, they may also be uncomfortable, and I think a lot of people have difficulty with that. So that becomes an advantage for me.
HL: You are the public face of @CarymaRules but you have support. Tell us about your team?
CS: It’s me and my cameraman, and we use an iPhone. There’s nothing fancy about what we're doing. At times we are together, sometimes we separate and sort of do our own thing and then meet back. I have a good sense of trust with my cameraman, and we can read one another well, even if we're not verbally communicating.
HL: Have you always been attracted to social causes or did you fall into citizen journalism?
CS: I fell into this particular sort of whatever it is I'm doing. We'll call it guerrilla gonzo journalism. Prior to law school, I studied International Development and Globalization. It was a multidisciplinary program, but not journalism in any real sense. Throughout my undergrad, I was involved in various groups and clubs that sought to promote social change. I've always been interested in social causes, so I would say that has been a constant theme.
As a kid, I was enthralled by talk shows. I really loved Jenny Jones. It's funny ‘cause I don't really watch a whole lot of talk shows anymore. But the idea of talking to people and getting to understand them—that's what I found appealing. And, you know, that was transferable to a career in law. What I'm doing now is kind of a mixture of these disciplines.
HL: So you've created your own career path?
CS: Something like that. It's something and it's mine and I like it. I've noticed there are mainstream journalists who have now adopted a similar approach: filming with an iPhone and providing crisp captions.
But this is really specific to the current moment in history, my own background and everything that's led me to this point. It wasn't part of any five-year plan, but I'm just rolling with it as it evolves.
HL: How has becoming so well known on social media affected you?
CS: I probably haven't really grasped the extent of it because it was a slow build and now it's just part of my daily circumstance. I'm just known to people, which I think not everyone appreciates, because attention is a form of power. I wasn't born into wealth and I probably will not achieve massive wealth in my lifetime with the economy and rental markets and whatnot being what it is.
So it's a form of power that is made accessible to me through social media platforms. And to my merit, I started at zero followers. It's never been my goal to just collect people as followers. The primary objective is always just to do what I find interesting and convey it. If anyone wants to listen, great.
But I also get a lot of demands that are out of pocket from people to whom I have no obligation. That's weird, and I don't know that it will get any less weird.
HL: What do you mean exactly by “demands?”
CS: Why aren't you covering this? Why haven't you commented on that? Why are you smiling here instead of punching the Nazi in the face? Just nonsense, right? Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but no one is entitled to dictate how another private citizen lives their life.
HL: So what is your primary objective? Are you trying to reveal the truth or shine a light on the darker corners of society?
CS: There are elements of both. Initially, it was curiosity that got me out talking to people. Then it was a concern that I wasn't seeing this movement, which I understand to be a right wing populist movement, being covered in the media. I don't pretend to fully understand what's going on, but reporting was either very basic or nonexistent. I saw a potential threat and that's what drew me in further.
Like I said, I take a comedic satirical approach. As a result, you have to take [my reporting] with a grain of salt. I like people to form their own conclusions. In my earlier coverage, I did a bit more spoon-feeding—here's what this means, here are my thoughts on it. I have not backed away entirely from that approach. If I'm offered an opportunity to do media commentary, which happens quite frequently, then that's my forum to share my thoughts. But now my goal is to document and it's not a comprehensive documenting of everything. It's documenting what I find interesting. Then I put it out there for people to take in and react to. People have all sorts of different opinions about me and what I do. But I think the collective gathering is really to capture this moment in history.
HL: Have you gotten a lot of pushback?
CS: I get a lot of flack about my motives: Oh, she's just doing it to make a TV show or a book or whatever. It's interesting that the type of criticism I get centres on the assumption that I have ambition, and that is somehow wrong or problematic. So part of putting myself out there is just me existing, and people react to my existence and thereby expose themselves. I hold up a mirror; I can't control the reflection.
HL: So what do you think is going on with all of the protests and rallies and fringe groups? What accounts for the rise in fascism? Have we lost our collective minds?
CS: Yes, we have. I mean it's been a slow burn. The pandemic exacerbated many things, including the decline of civility, consideration and common sense.
I believe, at the root of everything that's happening, are people worried about their material conditions either because they are in fact changing or they perceive a threat. There's a disconnect between institutions, leadership, legacy media and the general populace. And I think that is being exploited by groups who see an opportunity to feed easy solutions—that may or may not be practical or tethered to reality, to stoke fear and division, and really whip up a frenzy. To what end? I'm not 100% sure, but there's a definite anti-authoritarian theme to everything that's happening. I suspect that their end goals are quite bleak from a progressive point of view.
HL: So there are real issues underlying the rise in discontent?
CS: I think that's what it is. People were terminally online for two years, because that was really the only option for connecting. They consumed a lot of junk and there was a lack of critical thinking in assessing the validity of it. The actual rallies have been a way of building community for the people who attend. I believe there are all sorts of needs—social needs, material need—that are driving the phenomenon and it's not being addressed in a way that they find palatable or actually get to the root of the discontent. Not all discontent is rational, right? Some of it is and some of it isn't, but that doesn't make it any less real.
HL: How do you split your time between your legal practice and your advocacy work?
CS: My weekdays are more dedicated to actual legal work, that's when I have hearings or meetings. The rallies are pretty much just on the weekends, the exception to that was Ottawa.
HL: Who inspires you?
CS: A lot of people. My circles inspire me—my family, my friends, mentors who I’ve picked up along the way, whether in the legal community, the cannabis community, or the antifascist community. I take direct inspiration from those who surround me. On a broader level, I've always been drawn to the teachings of Malcolm X.
HL: You mentioned the cannabis community. Tell us about your relationship to cannabis?
CS: That's what keeps me safe through all of this. You know, people are always asking, How do you stay so calm? Well… I was a late bloomer; I didn't even try a joint until my last year of undergrad. Then when I started law school there were some seminal constitutional cases that touch on interpreting our rights vis-à-vis people who were caught up with cannabis. I always found it interesting because the term of law enforcement seemed very clearly to be worse than the actual consumption of the plant and the negative externalities of gang involvement and drug trafficking that are all a direct result of it being illegal.
After I graduated and finished my articling, Toronto was a hotbed for dispensaries leading up to legalization. I spent a lot of time figuring myself out at the Hotbox in Kensington and a couple of other lounges around the city. That's where I developed a real love for the people involved with the plant. When we think about legalization and who the real beneficiaries are and who has yet to cash in—that's a driving interest of mine.
HL: During the pandemic you took on the role of Executive Director at NORML Canada?
CS: Yeah, I held that role from 2020 till 2021. It was the pandemic and a very uncertain time. We put some pressure and reacted to some of the cannabis policy that was coming out, especially at a provincial level, regarding what would be open, what would be closed, what was essential. Questions related to delivery and curbside pickup. We're lucky to have organizations like NORML that bring like-minded people who are passionate together.
HL: What is the role of NORML moving forward? What work still needs to be done in Canada to optimize legalization?
CS: I think there are still a lot of areas where input needs to be provided to tweak legislation or policies to make it more inclusive, a better reflection of the diversity of the cannabis landscape that existed informally. There are historical injustices that have yet to be righted. There are gaps, lots of little discrete things if we want to get into the nitty-gritty like why is there a 30-gram possession limit? Why are certain offenses bearing a higher penalty than pre-legalization? Who is sitting at what table and what interests are they actually pushing? Does it make sense to have part of the portfolio within Health Canada and part of it situated elsewhere, because currently cannabis is being regulated much more harshly, I would say, than other substances. I think that those are all issues that still need to be tackled. I haven't given up on cannabis advocacy.
HL: Let’s talk wrestling. What do you love about it?
CS: Oh, everything! Well, that's not entirely true—wrestling is highly problematic in a variety of ways. I love the pageantry, the show of it all, the storylines. Really it's distilled into good guy versus bad guy, and then complicating factors are thrown in. Wrestling is life in a weird way. And certainly that has inspired the way I approach dealing with people at political rallies, the way I do coverage, the way I will sometimes shoot videos speaking to no one in particular. I find it sensational. It's violent but not really, it's more theatrics. It also has popular appeal whether people want to admit it or not. It’s kind of dorky, but for many of us, there's still nostalgia tied to it and just raw appeal to the way things are portrayed.
HL: How did you get into political cartoons?
CS: I love art and symbols, and cartoons are a way to communicate with people that doesn't necessarily rely on words. Initially, I started dabbling in cartoons when I ran for bencher with the Law Society of Ontario in 2019. I put out daily comics to try and convey platform ideas and things that I thought needed to be addressed, and the reception was pretty positive. I didn't ultimately win a position, although I came very close and that was a respectable performance for a young solo lawyer.
I really liked putting these things out—conceptualizing them and providing artistic direction. I'm not an illustrator so I work with a couple of great illustrators. I started putting comics out about cannabis in Canada, and then that morphed into a wider range of political topics, in part because the pandemic hit. I was like, Oh, well, the world's ending, so I might as well have fun with this while we're still here. It was a way of capturing a particular moment in time. I don't set out to cover every single issue; I focus on whatever piques my creativity.
HL: Tell us about your scooter?
CS: Best purchase I ever made! Hands down! I don't actually have a driver's license. I don't drive. So this has been a source of independence and mobility around the city. I wouldn't be able to cover rallies in the same way without it. There's no gas; it just plugs into the wall. And it's fun!
HL: All right, I have a couple of quick fire questions:
What is your favourite legal movie or series?
CS: I would say based on the fact that I've seen Legally Blonde as often as I have, that probably has to win by default.
HL: What is your favourite cannabis strain?
CS: I'm not overly discerning but I do enjoy a good Gorilla Glue.
HL: Do you have a favourite munchies food?
CS: I’m generally more drawn towards salty snacks so I’m a big fan of Hickory Sticks.
HL: Excellent! That is old school. So when you’re not scooting and documenting and trying to make Canada a better place, what do you do to relax? Smoke Gorilla Glue and eat hickory stick?
CS: I wouldn't say that it's relaxing, but I do find what I do enjoyable. I wouldn't do it if I didn't. I mean, apart from doom scrolling on Twitter. I spend a lot of time in parks. I really enjoy just being out in public, not having to consume anything, and watching people. I suspend judgment and just observe people in their natural habitat. That’s definitely my summer pastime. So I guess that boils down to: I'm a creep who sits on park benches.
HL: I cannot thank you enough for taking the time. It's been an absolute privilege and pleasure talking with you.
CS: Oh, the pleasure was mine. Thank you so much for featuring me.
Caryma Sa'd's website
Caryma Sa'd on Instagram: @carymasad