(Note: This is the extended version of the column written for St. Albert Gazette for Saturday, July 21. Read the published article here.)
Earlier this week I had an engaging discussion with the owner of a local business. He spoke about his previous employment as a tax auditor for the provincial government. Part of the reason why he left the job in 1993 to purchase his own business, was the ongoing limitations of being a visible minority. After 18 years of service, he had watched white people move up in seniority, while he remained in his position without recognition or advancement, even though he had some vocal support. In the end, rather than demanding his rights, he quietly left, and has since successfully served the St. Albert community for 19 years.
Our species is great at drawing lines. We compare, differentiate, separate, contrast and segregate. Inclusion does not come naturally to us, unless it has been established as a practice and expectation. Racial inclusion, like other forms of tolerance, is a learned behaviour. We are naturally attracted to people and ideas that we recognize, and welcoming differences is a conscious and intentional habit that we have to choose to adopt.
Canada is recognized as one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world. It is the the world’s little planet. We are loved and celebrated for the mosaic of people groups that make up our country. In our corner of this great land, however, St. Albert is an isolated pocket, practically devoid of diversity. This becomes apparent every time I visit the store, stroll the farmer’s market, or attend an event or graduation at one of St. Albert’s schools. As youth parade across the stage, the number of visible minorities is shockingly low. We are a remarkably homogeneous group – like a large batch of almond cookies.
Suburbia is typically less ethnically diverse due to the increased cost of living, less access to public transportation, employment, and government services. Immigrants tend to be attracted to neighbourhoods where an established cohort of their culture already exists. But this does not address the fact that many of the people we recognize as minorities are born and raised in Canada, and do not need the same resources that immigrants require. So are they hiding somewhere in St. Albert? Apparently not.
The 2006 Census shows Alberta consists of 14% visibly minorities. Edmonton is at 17%. A north Edmonton neighborhood I was involved in surveying, nears 33%. Pale St. Albert, however, is at 4%.
When I was a young farm girl, I was isolated from people from different ethnic backgrounds. I would occasionally hear someone with a different European accent, but people with visible differences were only seen in pictures.
At the age of 12 my family had the privilege of hosting a young man who had just moved from South Africa. His father is white, and his mother is Filipino. In 1948, when the National Party officially enforced apartheid in the country, his father lost the right to own property, to live with his family where he had always lived, and he was forced to move to an assigned area. He never saw his siblings again until the 1990’s when his sister’s will requested that all her family be reunited at her funeral.
It was into this world that Simon had been born. He had seen the worst of segregation and discrimination in his young life, including witnessing children his age being gunned down in the school yard simply because they were the wrong color. In his early 20’s, he came to Canada, and found a home on our farm, where we had never met a man of different colour.
My father is a principled man and took it upon himself to demonstrate true and meaningful equality in every possible way. Simon became my brother. He shared equally in the chores around the farm, as well as the benefits and rewards. As time went on, he began to learn the Canadian perspective of equality and fairness, and Simon’s life was altered. He now lives in Devon with his wife and children, and calls us his Canadian family. His healing during that significant time of transition in his twenties did not come from reading about diversity in a book. Rather, he learned it from fixing fences in our fields and eating pyrogies in our kitchen.
Now in St. Albert today, our children suffer from the lack of diversity in their social, recreational and business relationships. The perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination lie in the absence of being exposed to differences. Our children grow up assuming that the white world around them is normal. Further, since our children grow to understand St. Albert is a wealthy community, the corresponding logic is that those with non-white skin are not wealthy and successful. This is not true, and it is an unfortunate side effect of isolation.
Shocking as it may be, our children are missing out on a vital resource: multi-cultural diversity. Living in the community of St. Albert may bring our children many things – parks, recreation, the arts, events, safety, and education. It does not, however, bring them the practice of inclusion. Their senses have missed out on the joy of diversity. They do not see colour on the faces of their school friends. They seldom taste the flavour of spices and foods that don’t originate in Canada. They do not recognize the scent of sweet grass, nor hold the hand of a child with different skin tone. They do not hear the melody of different languages.
Can this be changed? Probably not. I doubt that St. Albert will ever approach the provincial average for ethnic representation. Social, economic and infrastructural systems work against this ideal. I do hope, however, that we grow towards it. Living next door to people of different backgrounds is a stretching, challenging and rewarding necessity in this shrinking globe.
Different cultures bring different perspectives, knowledge, experiences and practices. North American culture highly values individualism. Many cultures, however, operate in community, honouring family and relationships. Two of our daughters are dating men from Mexican and Egyptian descent. Our understanding of these cultures have gone far beyond what they eat or what people from their countries of origin wear. Rather, they have taught us the benefits of valuing family, living in the present, recognizing what we have, striving for relationship more and possessions less.
We are Canada. We are the little planet. Our multiculturalism is watched and respected throughout the world. Every step that St. Albert takes towards a multicultural community is an adventure into the world.