“I think it’s important to ask ourselves: who is invisible to us?”
These are the words of Madelyn Mackay, of the Nelson Refugee Coalition, following a second community meeting held on Aug. 17 to address racism. Approximately 30 people attended the discussion, which was held at the Front Room, and Mackay started by leading participants in a deep listening exercise.
“I’ve lived in Nelson since 1980,” Mackay told the Star. “And I think it’s fabulous that in our community we’re starting to dialogue with each other, because it’s so easy to let things stay invisible and to leave things unsaid and unheard.”
During the meetings, residents have been invited to share their experiences of racism locally, and this time around the discussion included Japanese internment survivor and Sideways author Diana Cole, who has experience with organizing race-themed community projects elsewhere in Canada.
And according to her and Mackay, there are many subtle levels to racism and discrimination that still need to be addressed locally. With a potential influx of refugees coming to the Kootenays, and some already here, she thinks it’s crucial that the community come together to ensure their safety.
“The question is: how do we create safety for each other here? There are many things that could make people feel unwelcome. In some ways, a glance can be more piercing than a knife.”
Mackay formerly hosted Japanese and Zimbabwean students, and learned a lot from observing their experiences. She said locals inadvertently put pressure on people who aren’t readily recognizable as Canadian.
“People will always ask them ‘do you like it here?’ and they’re forced to say what we want to hear. They have to say ‘I’m happy and I love it’ but quite often they’re missing their families, their communities, and in the case of refugees they didn’t even want to leave their country.”
Mackay acknowledged that there was some controversy following the first racism talk, especially surrounding the decision made to ask Police Chief Paul Burkart to return in civilian clothing. He was invited to the second meeting, but couldn’t attend due to other commitments.
He recommended that the group organizing the talks hook up with the Chief’s Diversity Advisory Committee.
“The last (meeting) we organized was on the topic of mental health and was the impetus behind the creation of the Nelson Street Culture Collaborative. As you may be aware that the collaborative has gone on to tackle the issues relating to mental health and the street culture, including the raising of over $90,000 to fund two, part-time outreach workers who will be starting in September,” he wrote.
“I wish you another successful and informative meeting and hopefully I will be part of the discussion in the very near future.”
Mackay believes these conversations, which will continue on the 17th of each month at 5 p.m. at the Front Room, are a good start. She said the dialogue created from the first talk has created positive momentum within the community that is already yielding results.
“I know we can do better. Let’s keep having conversations with each other and learn. It’s a lifelong process.”