PERTH COUNTY – The Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron found a way to respect Ontario’s Stay-at-Home order while showing up to the county courthouse in Stratford for an anti-racism demonstration on Jan. 15. People from all over the county sent shoes to represent their support while five Association representatives showed up in person to speak.
The shoes symbolized the support of people from 89 different countries who live, work and raise families in Perth County.
The peaceful protest got underway with a song performed by Hira Dhariwal, a Punjabi singer who lives in Tavistock.
“The Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron demands the creation of a diversity and inclusion citizen’s committee,” said Amina Musa, a Multicultural Association volunteer. “In Stratford, Ontario, Jan. 15, the Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron appeals to Perth County council to establish a diversity and inclusion citizen’s committee to address the challenges faced by Black, Indigenous and racialized people living in Perth County.”
For years, the Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron has worked in Perth County to support newcomers and their participation in civic life, integrating newcomers into society, assisting them with finding employment and encouraging them to find a voice.
“Without fail, each newcomer has expressed their challenges with integrating into the county due to overwhelming experiences of racism and discrimination,” said Musa. “Action is needed in Perth County.”
Musa said the need for a committee on diversity and inclusivity is beyond just a need to create a policy.
“Real people are affected daily by the racism and discrimination,” she said. “We are demanding a change. We are demanding that all voices of the residents living in the county are heard and reflected in the government.”
Clinton Springer Sr., a Multicultural Association volunteer, spoke by phone, so the Multicultural Association could follow the Stay-At-Home orders.
“Talking about diversity and racism – this is not a Black issue, it’s not a white issue, this is a community issue,” he said. “An injustice to one is an injustice to all. Any issue like this that we face, it affects the whole community.”
He asked what this situation says about all the residents of the county as Canadians. He talked about how councillors said they were too busy for a committee to study diversity and inclusivity in the county.
“The issues of racism were in the community before COVID, people are being exposed to racism during COVID and racism will continue to exist after COVID,” said Springer. “We feel like we need someone to deal with it.”
He said he wants to see people come together to speak and educate each other about issues.
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people… the council have got to learn they are… elected to represent the people and to represent the issues and the needs of the people and they may not want to hear it but we are also part of those people,” said Springer. “Racism isn’t waiting for anyone. It continues to spread and it will be here long after COVID.”
Gezahgn Wordofa, founder of the Multicultural Association, said he has been disappointed by recent actions of council.
“We were very sad when the council… tried to exclude us, they tried to take our voice,” he said. “This council, we voted for them… they try to avoid our voice.”
Wordofa said newcomers have a right to vote in Canada and it gives them a voice, but he has been disappointed by council.
“Most of the immigrants are working for farmers, for factories,” he said. “(They were) invited by church groups (and)… by the Canadian government… we want to be included in the committee, we need to be included, we need to be part of the community but we do not have a voice.”
Wordofa thanked the community members who have been helping new Canadians.
“This is a time to live, to support and to help each other,” he said. “We are one community, one culture and I want to say thank you so much… We are here. We are as equal as anybody. We are human. We need our voice.”
Musa said after the Multicultural Association became aware Perth County council dismissed a motion to create a committee to look into creating an inclusivity and anti-racism charter they wrote an email to the Ministry of the Solicitor General which they sent on Dec. 6.
“They didn’t respond to us until three weeks later – just before the holiday,” she said. “They said they cannot interfere with the decisions made by the municipality and they referred us to the Anti-racism Act of 2017.”
The Ministry of the Solicitor General told the Multicultural Association there are grants available for inclusiveness and racism.
“We felt that email was not good enough because we have an issue here and they decided not to get involved with it,” said Musa. “That’s why we decided to come out so that our voice is heard.”
Over the last three years, she said a lot of newcomers have settled in the county.
“They were either brought in by church sponsors or they were brought in by the Canadian government,” said Musa. “Some moved from the City of Toronto to come to this area and they have all been complaining about the same thing – nobody is listening to them and they have faced some discrimination in the streets, someone… got told ‘go back to your own country’ so we feel like people need to be educated about inclusiveness and diversity.”
She pointed out there are no People of Colour on council, but they are okay with that because they realize they are under-represented in the community as well, they would just like a committee so they can be involved in discussions.
“This is a beautiful place, people love it, they want to stay here, they want to work, they want to do everything but we’re having a different effect, people are moving out because they don’t feel welcomed so we want somebody there to be our voice,” said Musa. “We want our voice to be heard and we want a committee that… should also include other people.”
She asked for diversity in the makeup of the committee including people with disabilities.
Economic Development and Communications Officer Sarah Franklin reached out to the Multicultural Association recently. Musa said that is a positive thing.
“We are willing to work with them,” she said. “We want to create something. We want to work together. We want to build together. We don’t want the people moving back out of the county.”
Maria Aweng Lual, a Multicultural Association volunteer, spoke of the poor treatment of newcomers by some sponsors.
“Some of the families are facing issues with their sponsors,” she said. “I believe it is a lack of education and awareness of where people are coming from and their cultural background.”
She said some of the relationships with sponsors end badly.
“I believe it’s a cultural thing, not understanding each other and it needs to be addressed,” said Lual. “Sponsors need to be educated. They need to be given time to understand the family they are receiving, where they are coming from, what is their issues.”
She said many sponsors want the family to follow their way of living, instead of understanding the needs of the newcomers.
According to Lual, the fear for the newcomers is no one will listen to them or support them and then they’ll end up stranded.
“From my personal experience we were left knowing nothing about… things like services or education,” she said.
When Lual found herself in this situation she was lucky to get help from the Multicultural Association.
“Some families when we speak with them they are like ‘no, we don’t want problems. We will just wait for the year to end and then we will just figure something out with other people.’ So it’s an issue,” she said.
Musa said this is a problem with Immigration Canada.
“We need families… to help us bring the newcomers – there are a lot of refugees who are stuck in the refugee camps and we do appreciate families who… agree to sponsor those families,” she said. “Having said that the issue becomes the settlement. When people come here then the sponsors don’t realize these people are coming from very hard places… so there is that breakdown of communication between the sponsors and the newcomers.”
In this area, both Lual and Musa agreed many newcomers are being brought in specifically as a source of labour.
“So you can imagine the impact it has on a newcomer to the country – you are first hit with culture shock and then you don’t have support from the sponsor family,” said Musa.
Lual is educated but she was told by her sponsor she was not able to go further with her education. She was told she did not have that right, which confused her.
“I was so furious about it… for me, I took the right step looking for information but what about other people – what can they do about that,” said Lual.
Musa said Immigration Canada is becoming aware of the situation and has set up a department to do random checks on sponsor families to see if they are treating the newcomers well.
“So I believe it is not only Maria who has been going through it,” she said. “Other newcomers are also going through it but at this point right now in Perth County, we need help from council. We need support for education. We need support from the families. People want to come, it’s a good place, people want to sponsor, we don’t want to make it sound like we do not appreciate the families who are sponsoring the refugees, we do appreciate it very much but we also want them to be aware or be educated about different cultures.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner