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Amid Tensions, Refugees and Indigenous Canadians Seek Common Ground

Canada’s support for refugees has created resentment among some Indigenous communities already contending with poverty and racism. Now, Indigenous and refugee leaders are working to bring their communities together.

Written by Rose Gilbert Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A person holding a “Welcome to Canada” sign at Pearson International Airport in Mississauga. Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Canada has a reputation as a welcoming haven for refugees. But for some Indigenous Canadians, public support and funding for displaced people stands in stark contrast to their own communities, which remain impoverished and overlooked.

Last year the nation welcomed 300,000 newcomers, including about 43,500 refugees and asylum seekers. Faced with President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, thousands of migrants have left the United States to seek asylum in Canada.

Many arrived in Manitoba, whose capital Winnipeg has the largest Indigenous population of any Canadian city. The city also faces problems with violence, drugs and homelessness.

Refugees in Winnipeg often settle in low-income and predominantly Indigenous neighborhoods. Many of the residents fear they will be forced to compete with their new neighbors for resources that are already scarce.

Last year, a group of Indigenous children pepper-sprayed a group of young refugees outside an Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) housing facility in the mainly Indigenous Centennial neighborhood of Winnipeg.

The building previously housed local Indigenous families before IRCOM moved in during September 2016, after receiving C$14 million ($11 million) in government funds for renovation. To many neighbors, the shiny new facility is another example of the government overlooking their needs and problems in favor of taking care of newcomers.

“We essentially came here as settlers,” said Dorota Blumczynska, IRCOM’s executive director. This perception has resulted in “some tension and aggression,” she said, including graffiti, minor thefts, threats and the pepper-spray incident.

Jenna Wirch, 26, an Indigenous woman from Winnipeg and a community development worker at IRCOM, works with both communities. She is also the youth engagement coordinator for Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, an organization working in Winnipeg’s North End.

“It’s further colonization,” Wirch said of refugee resettlement. “We [Indigenous people] are further being displaced from our lands, from our food, from our waters. And it’s wrong.”

Canada is only just beginning to deal with its legacy of colonialism through initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was created to address the abuses of the Indian residential school system that remained operational until 1996.

Advocates within Canada’s Indigenous communities consider these initiatives well-intentioned but ultimately insufficient gestures that fail to tackle their communities’ more concrete problems, such as poverty and substance abuse.

Wirch understands the resentment this generates, but argues that the two communities cannot allow themselves to become “pitted against each other” by the actions of the government. Their shared colonial history is one area of common ground: “Damn, we’ve all been colonized by the British,” she said.

One of Wirch’s newest projects is a neighborhood patrol made up of members from both refugee and Indigenous communities, which aims to increase the safety of the area and give residents a stake in their community, while increasing the visibility of the newcomers. The project builds on a strong tradition of neighborhood patrols in Indigenous communities.

“Damn, we’ve all been colonized by the British.”

James Favel, executive director of the Bear Clan Patrol, an Indigenous group in Winnipeg that focuses on conflict resolution and de-escalation, found himself mediating the tensions between local Indigenous and refugee communities after a Syrian family’s home in his neighborhood was vandalized with hateful graffiti in September 2017.

When he heard about the vandalism, Favel went to check on the Hamrasho family, armed with a tote bag full of children’s books and granola bars. “I just wanted to go over there and reassure them that this was not representative of our community,” he said.

Favel increased Bear Clan patrols in the area and a few weeks later, the group held a barbecue for the Hamrasho family. The family ultimately decided to relocate to a different neighborhood in Winnipeg, but before they left, they reciprocated by inviting the Bear Clan to a Thanksgiving barbecue, which Favel counts as progress.

“The fear of the unknown is ever present,” he said of the animosity between the Indigenous and newcomer communities. Social media can also spread misinformation and negative stereotypes, he said, noting a recent rush of anti-refugee sentiment on social media after the first refugee students arrived at a local high school.

Both Favel and Wirch also warn that some refugees arrive in Canada with prejudices against Indigenous people that are passed on by resettlement workers. (Canada’s federal refugee resettlement authorities declined to comment.)

“It’s fucking disturbing,” said Favel. “They’re being preordained to think negative things about Indigenous people. It frustrates the heck out of me.”

“They are taught: Don’t talk to Indigenous people because they’re drunk and homeless,” said Wirch of the newly arrived refugees. “They don’t understand the root causes of why we are like this.” IRCOM has been advocating for the government to change its guidelines on educating newcomers about the history and current reality of Indigenous Canadians.

This kind of misinformation also frustrates refugee leaders who are trying to help others to understand and settle into their new homes.

Syrian refugee Nour Ali described hearing fellow Syrians calling Indigenous people “red Indians.” He compared refugees’ attitudes about Indigenous people with the shock some felt at the relative visibility and openness of Winnipeg’s LGBTQ community.

His partner, Maysoun Darweesh, said refugees’ racism toward Indigenous communities often reflected Canadian attitudes. “These people, not only Syrians, but all the newcomers, I can find an excuse for them because many of them come from rural areas, they’re uneducated,” she said, “But people who were born here, who grew up here, who were raised here, they still call them ‘Indian.’ That’s what I call racism.”

In Syria, Ali and Darweesh were an unconventional power couple. She was a journalist and Ali was a prominent self-made businessman – roles that repeatedly put them in danger from the Damascus government. So they fled Syria and eventually resettled in Winnipeg in 2012 with their two daughters.

In Winnipeg, they’ve become important leaders of the city’s emerging Syrian and Kurdish communities. They founded the Kurdish Initiative for Refugees (KIFR), an organization that aids Kurdish and Syrian newcomers and helps to sponsor refugees to be resettled in Winnipeg. Through both the KIFR and Darweesh’s work at the resettlement agency, Welcome Place, the couple have helped hundreds of their compatriots reach safety and resettle in Winnipeg.

Friendships are growing between Indigenous and refugee advocates. The KIFR helped organize the Hamrashos’ Thanksgiving barbecue, for example. “They’re right here, they’re part of our country, part of our economy,” said Ali of Indigenous Canadians. Members of the Indigenous community such as Wirch and Favel might well say the same thing about Ali, Darweesh and the rest of Canada’s newcomers.

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