Participation over integration

Sarah Smellie
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RIAC Summer Culture Festival set for Bowring Park Aug. 25

Jose Rivera (left) and Esteban Rivera (right), executive director and projects co-ordinator with the Refugee Immigrant Advisory Council. — Photo by Sarah Smellie/Special to The Telegram

Esteban Rivera is all smiles, even as he describes the latest challenge he faces in planning this year’s Summer Culture Festival.

“There’s a guy in Vancouver who is cycling across the country to raise awareness about the violence in West Papua,” he says.

“His project is called Pedaling for Papua. Somehow, he found us, and he’ll be in St. John’s for the festival. So we are trying to have him participate in a way that doesn’t compromise his message or the festival’s message.”

Esteban smiles and leans back in his chair.

“These are the kinds of challenges that come with our work,” he says.

“We don’t want to make any compromises; we want to make sure everybody fits in and has their own space.”

As RIAC’s projects co-ordinator, Esteban, who is 24, is steering the festival into its second year. The daylong event will take place on Saturday, beginning at 2 p.m., at the Bowring Park Amphitheatre.

Though it’s still so young, the festival is already turning a big corner.

The festival originally began as one of RIAC’s fundraising events, and to provide a venue for immigrant musicians and dancers. This year, the roster is much different, and the festival is funded, rather than a fundraiser.

This year’s performers represent many, if not all of the different cultures in St. John’s. They include the four-piece West African drum group Konkoba; the salsa dancing group Salsa Floreo; flute, bouzouki and guitar player Dan Mills; guitarist and singer-songwriter Shawn Beresford; and blues rock trio Vireo  who have members from all over the world.

“After last year’s event, local people who were interested in our cultures wanted to participate,” he says.

“Now the event has become a mix of newcomers wanting to show their cultural heritage, newcomers with an interest in local culture, and Newfoundlanders showing an interest in foreign cultures.”

The purpose of the festival, he says, is to encourage participation of all of St. John’s cultures, and highlight the interest newcomers have in Newfoundland culture and the interest that Newfoundlanders have in international culture.

“I listen to CBC Radio all the time,” he says.

“Every once in a while, the issue of immigration will pop up and people will call in and talk about it. Several times, I heard callers being concerned about Newfoundland culture being replaced with these foreign cultures. The first time I heard it, I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I mean, Newfoundland culture is so strong, with such incredible artists and writers and musicians. And a lot of newcomers become very enthralled with Newfoundland culture. But if people are expressing that on the radio, they feel that it is important. So I explored the option of having a venue showcasing all of these cultures, and the interest amongst them all.”

“Newfoundland culture is a very welcoming culture, but it can also be very intimidating to participate in,” he adds.

“If we make it easier to participate in, then there’s no reason why it would become isolated or alienated.”

The idea of cultural participation, rather than integration, is one that both Esteban and his father, Jose Rivera, RIAC’s executive director, have thought about a lot, and continue to discuss with the newcomers they meet through RIAC.

“We push for participation here,” says Jose. “We don’t integrate people. We participate. We share.”

The idea has come about as RIAC’s role has evolved over the years.

“RIAC was officially incorporated in the late 1990s,” says Jose.

“Back then, the organization was more about getting refugees and newcomers supplies, like clothes and bed linens. Then we moved into helping with the nitty gritty problems of the bureaucracy, sorting out legal issues, education, health care, things like that. We advocated and helped asylum seekers, and those who had been rejected.”

In 2004, when Canada signed the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., people were no longer able to apply for refugee status in Canada if they had first landed in the U.S. This, says Jose, drastically reduced the number of refugees and refugee claimants in Newfoundland.

“We went from receiving hundreds each year to receiving three, four, maybe five,” he says.

“So our goals had to change. There is still no immigration lawyer here, so we do help with legal problems. But now we are educators and promoters of diversity and participation.”

The work is no less important, says Jose, and it’s needed by many people in the city and in the province, especially as the province looks to immigration to address projected labour shortages.

“We have these high-paid immigrants coming here, and they are bringing their spouses, their children, their parents, their grandparents,” he says.

“There are issues of language, and cultural misinterpretation. For example, the issue of parenthood and how you were taught by your parents to deal with your kids, and then you come here and you are taken into custody and told by a judge that what you do is wrong. Or a kid who comes here from India and is put into the school system here. In India, students cover more material, so here they are bored, and they drop out. We’re dealing with those issues.”

And in a place that is still so new to significant immigration numbers, he says there’s no other way to deal with these issues than by learning, talking, and encouraging everybody to do the best that they can.

“And that,” says Esteban, smiling again, “is another theme of the festival.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing putting this together. No clue.” he laughs.

“Last year, I had this huge list of things I wanted to do, but I couldn’t do most of them because I didn’t know how, and I didn’t have the resources. This year, I have more people, I have more volunteers. I’m learning, and everyone who is involved with this is learning. And that’s really what’s happening when it comes to immigration and the cultural side of things. We don’t know how to integrate these cultures. We don’t even know if integration is really the right word. But we’re learning.”

For more information, see http://summerculturalfestival.riac.ca/.

Organizations: Bowring Park Amphitheatre.Though, CBC Radio

Geographic location: Newfoundland, West Papua, Vancouver Canada U.S. India

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