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Close encounters of the urban Aboriginal and multicultural kind

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Meenal Shrivastava, Athabasca University
Guest Contributor

This blog entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on ‘interculturalism and pluralism’.

One of the first things I noticed on my earliest trip to Canada in 1998 was the presence of remarkable Aboriginal art in so many public places. For years after that I admired and bought gifts of Canadian Aboriginal art as the most appropriate Canadian souvenir. As a tourist to Canada, I knew about the historical and contemporary injustices that the Aboriginal people have been subjected to, but my first real life brush with the harsh urban reality of the Aboriginal experience came a week after I officially became an Indo-South African-Canadian.

I live next door to an Aboriginal family with fourteen children, and several grandchildren. They are renting in this very middle class neighbourhood in the eastern part of Edmonton, where the houses are owned by a huge variety of people ranging from professionals to tradesmen.

I moved into my house in the Fall nearly two years ago and for months never saw or made acquaintance with any of my neighbours. Ironically, it was not until my dogs arrived from South Africa that I felt ’visible’ in the neighbourhood with people smiling or stopping to chat to my oversized pups.

Shortly after, the Aboriginal family moved next door and this led to even more neighbourly interactions for me. People began making complaints against the Aboriginal family next door to the police, the bylaw offices, social services, among other places. They complained about noisy trucks, unsupervised children, and delays in cleaning snow off the side walk. The tenants before them did the same things but were Caucasians and nobody came to me to ask me to file complaints against the former tenants.

I was beginning to resent the pressure that I felt to file complaints against the family next door. Not only did it feel hypocritical and clearly discriminatory, it also made me feel that it prevented me from having a normal sociable relationship with my next door neighbours. For instance, if the kids were noisy or broke something in my yard, I felt awkward to approach them fearing that it would seem like I had joined the vocal minority that clearly wanted this family out of the neighbourhood. Living alone and working from home only made this situation worse for me and I was seriously considering moving elsewhere.

Out of an innocuous Friday morning breakfast get together with colleagues, came a suggestion that was extremely useful. I learnt about the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre (MRJC), which provides assistance for conflict management for individuals and groups. The very helpful staff told me that I need to get all the parties to agree to come to the table for it to be an effective process. So I wrote the letter below to my neighbours and distributed it door to door.

“Dear Neighbour,

In the past little while we have experienced some disagreements regarding our expectations of peace and propriety in our neighbourhood. I am concerned that these disagreements should not lead to a situation of conflict in our peaceful neighbourhood. Our houses are very close to each other and we all have a stake in making sure that we live as a harmonious community of people.

We have had several formal and informal complaints going back and forth in the past few months. However, the outcome has been unsatisfactory for all involved. It is my humble opinion that we have not had an open channel of communication to resolve our problems.

I am no expert in mediating or negotiating but following the advice of my colleague, who is a law professor, I contacted the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre for help. This centre can provide professional facilitators to help us resolve our problem as amicably as possible.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to phone the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre at 780-423-0896 (Extn. 200) to speak freely about the problems you are encountering in the neighbourhood. Please quote the reference number xyz for the sake of continuity in our conversations. Once they have heard from some of us, they will decide about how best to facilitate mediation.

Their hours of operation are:

9 – 4.30 (Mon, Wed, Fri)

9 – 7.30 (Tue, Thu)

In the best case scenario, we will be able to resolve our differences and continue to live in our quiet and harmonious space. In the worst case scenario, we would have at least tried to resolve our differences in the most civilized way possible.”

Before I handed out the letter, I approached my next door neighbour to find out if he would be willing to participate in such an intervention. We had often exchanged pleasantries and once I had reluctantly told him about some broken solar lights in my yard, but this was the first time we had a proper conversation.

I told him that the mediation will only be effective if both sides can have their say and thus he should not hesitate to state his complaints too. He told me that the reason he has chosen to bring his family to live in this neighbourhood is so that they can see that another life is possible. He was determined to give his children a fighting chance in a place where check-out clerks can choose not to serve him and get away without any censure; where he gets shadowed and watched suspiciously as soon as he enters a store; where people pull their children indoors if they see them playing with his grand kids; where the police surrounds his house in the middle of the night because some neighbours complained about loud music but the party was happening in the house across his back alley. I was struck by this man’s humility and generosity when he said that he will be happy to talk to the MRJC staff but that he had nothing to complain about from his side.

The timing of this conversation was very significant for me since it had been exactly one week since I had taken my oath of Canadian citizenship in what proved to be an emotionally wrenching experience for me. I found the ceremony my most intense first-hand experience of the power of symbols, identity, and boundaries. My grandparents had fought for the independence of India, which made this a very poignant moment for me.  Although I know the difference between identity and citizenship and have struck deep friendships and relationships in my new home, at that moment I could not shake off the feelings of betrayal, loneliness, and the loss of generations of belonging.

During the ceremony, I was sitting next to a woman from Sierra Leone who was brimming with joy since now she can try to bring her five children who were still trapped in a conflict zone to Canada. It was a profound and timely reminder of the value of this country called Canada that jolted me out of my personal angst. The incidence in my neighbourhood similarly revealed the juxtaposition of the inherent good and bad in all our experiences.

When the issues started to emerge in my neighbourhood, I was struck by the verbal and emotional aggression in the conversations I witnessed. People denied equally vehemently that they had any racial prejudices, while at least one person suggested that I must have a higher tolerance for such nuisance because of where I come from. There was clearly a class dimension too, adding to the ’othering’ of the Aboriginal family, since they were renting in this street of home-owners. I suspected that I was relatively more acceptable to my neighbours because of what I do, despite ‘what’ I am. To put it mildly, this was an awkward situation where I found myself warding off the pressure to complain on one hand, and on the other hand feeling indignant for myself and the Aboriginal family next door.

I was sceptical about the impact of external mediation, but I was wrong. Very few of my neighbours phoned the MRJC staff and the most vocal voices actually chose not to engage with MRJC. According to the MRJC staff, the ideal scenario would have been to get everyone to talk face-to-face in a session facilitated by a professional mediator. Despite their best efforts, only one person was willing for such a session and another was willing to talk to the neighbour directly.

However, there were a number of indirect benefits of the involvement of the MRJC. I heard back from some of the neighbours who spoke to the MRJC staff and it was clear that they were seeing their perceived problems in a very different light. Aside from the conflict management tips provided by the excellent staff at the MRJC, I believe that the very idea of external mediation gave them a reason to pause and reconsider the source of their annoyance. The failure of the more aggressive people to engage with the process exposed their unwillingness for any solution other than the removal of the Aboriginal family. This clearly separated the majority of the neighbours who were now willing to reconsider their previous position on how bad the situation was and prepared to take their issues directly to the Aboriginal family, as opposed to the small minority whose prejudices have been exposed and who have retreated into a sulky silence, for now.

This may not be a dramatic victory of multiculturalism in a tiny suburb of Edmonton, but there are a number of lessons that are worth sharing. Firstly, we need to admit in this so called post-industrial society that there are many tools of ’othering’ which are used to essentialize difference, and serve to create and maintain hierarchies of humanity. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ is constantly being redefined through real or perceived ethnic, socio-economic, and other differences. However, this is not just happening in North America, but also in European countries, South Africa, India, China, nay all over the world. Secondly, being a disengaged bystander is not a choice and does not absolve us from the responsibility we bear as members of a community to stand up and speak out against an injustice. Most importantly, it is vital to remember that we are not alone when we do choose to wade into such a battle. There are wonderful people – friends, colleagues, neighbours – and institutions like the MRJC within the system that can offer help and guidance.

Finally, perhaps the person was right in noting that my country of origin had something to do with how I handled this situation. I was born in India whose images of grinding poverty and dense population are well known. What is not so well known to the outside world is the fact that it is also home to all the major religions of the world; it has more than two thousand ethnic groups; it is a country that is more diverse than Europe in terms of linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity; it is also home to the world’s largest middle class, which has learnt to survive and thrive despite the murky politics, archaic institutions, and corruption that permeates everyday life. South Africa, my second home, has also taught us that it is possible to confront the truths of our histories and policies and move on to become a Rainbow Nation.

Multiculturalism is not an essentially North American phenomenon; there is a much longer history of nations managing their deeply vibrant and significantly multiple ethnic demographics all over the world. None of these experiments are perfect, but the long histories and unfolding stories of places like India and South Africa can only enrich our understanding of multiculturalism in North America.

For now, our little suburb is quiet again. I have no illusions of permanent peace or battles won, but the incidences of the past several months were a catalyst for revealing significant aspects of the people and the place I have chose as my new home. It also got me closer to understanding what I try to learn and teach as I traverse the fledgling field of Global Studies. Right now I feel cautiously optimistic.

Meenal Shrivastava is an associate professor and the Academic Coordinator of Global Studies and Political Economy in the Centre for Global and Social Analysis at Athabasca University in Alberta. 

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Equity Matters

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Interculturalism and pluralism

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