The third All Our Neighbours Community Roundtable took place at the City Centre Library in Surrey. All Our Neighbours’ goal is to bring together Lower Mainland neighbourhoods to discuss how immigration has affected their local communities. The Surrey Roundtable followed a similar format to the past event in Coquitlam. People from across Surrey joined small groups to answer questions that were voted on in advance. Despite answering the same questions as the Coquitlam Roundtable groups (how to build inclusive communities, where anti-immigrant attitudes come from, and whether they knew anyone who felt excluded for not being an immigrant), the folks in Surrey offered fresh perspectives based on their own local experiences.
The Surrey participants frequently praised the wealth of cultural festivals supported by the City of Surrey: events like the Fusion Festival and Vaisakhi, which people of all ages and cultures gather to enjoy. Sharing community kitchens was also considered a great way to help neighbours bond over their love of food as they share their different ethnic cuisines.
The problem, many argued, was finding a way to push people outside their cultural comfort zones when there aren’t any events or celebrations. Often newcomers naturally gravitate toward communities that remind them of home. Breaking the ice is difficult with a language barrier, but without pushing themselves to intermingle, newcomers can accidentally enter a cycle of isolation where they only spend time with people from their original country. At one table I saw a woman reach out to take the hand of another woman seated across from her and say, “I think we all need to be educated. Not just me about your culture, you about my culture.”
Sometimes the sentiment that people are keeping to their cultural niche can drive a wedge between communities, who blame each other for not reaching out, but the Roundtable contributors were eager to find solutions. One resident suggested the government could provide funding for better programs to help integrate newcomers. Another proposed hosting free language classes at community centres, which could be billed as “travel languages.” Free classes might attract more people to learn the languages most commonly spoken in their neighbourhoods, like Cantonese or Bengali.
At one table, a resident named Connie Waterman shared a memory where she had overcome a language barrier in her own way. She recalled meeting her new neighbour for the first time. The wife of the family came to the door to greet her, but the two of them quickly realized that neither spoke a word of each other’s language. So Ms. Waterman began to sing. “It was beautiful”, she said. “We just sang back and forth to each other.”
The final question of the night discussed a comment that had been left on the All Our Neighbours website. Its author said they felt undervalued because they were born in Canada, like they had missed out on an essential life experience. As in Coquitlam, there was a range of different responses. “Knowing who you are is part of Canadian culture”, offered one woman. “I feel like this person doesn’t know where they’re from.” Others were sympathetic as well, with one person anonymously commenting, “I think they feel they are not being listened to, that their feelings, thoughts, fears, opinions are not acknowledged or valued.”
Not everyone agreed. Another anonymous respondent at the Roundtable wrote, “Immigrants come with a goal in life to do better than the country they are coming from… People today don’t want to work hard or do menial jobs, but they despise immigrants for achievements from working hard and their success.”
Different opinions abounded, but the goal of the Roundtables is not to debate. Rather, the event is designed so that all who participate can come to better understand one another. By drawing on personal experiences, the attendees of the Roundtable can share stories rather than arguments, and come out of the discussions equipped for the task of building their neighbourhood into an inclusive home for everyone.
More information about the Community Roundtables can be found on the official website.