Event promotes equality for migrant workers
Two warrior princesses and Indigenous human right activists changed the way a group of people understood history on Sunday in a bright, sunny classroom at the old Virgil public school.
Patty Krawec and Celeste Smith from the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre invented a “dirty land pirates” interactive game, to “educate and to demonstrate colonization and immigration,” says Krawec. “This is the history of colonization, slavery, forced migration — and it’s unfair. The game is fixed.”
The event was organized by Niagara #UniteAgainstRacism; the goals were admirable and included resident status and family unity for all migrants and refugees, $15 minimum wage, universal access to public services, Indigenous self-determination, gender justice, and an end to racism.
Sonia Aviles, organizer and migrant rights activist, says Virgil was chosen for the event because of the nearby concentration of migrant workers, and on a Sunday because it is their only day off. She also said her group has had reports of racism against Jamaican workers in Niagara-on-the-Lake, with alleged name-calling and shoving.
As one way to create a more tolerant society, Aviles says the event is “a gathering with migrant workers, the Indigenous community, and local residents sharing interactive activities to create tolerance and understanding.” She continues, “We are all human beings. We don’t want racism for our children, our community, or anyone.”
Krawec and Smith sort the gathering into four teams, each assigned a colour. Black represents Africa; white is Europe; red is Indigenous North America, and green is Indigenous South America. Each team sits at a table around a large piece of coloured bristol board, and is assigned a pile of matching Lego blocks.
The teams have about five or six members each, ranging in age from toddler to senior, and representing many colours of the human rainbow.
The first round is simple: Use your “resources” (blocks) to build a tower. The objective of the game is to have the tallest tower, individually or as a team.
“Every 10 minutes the rules change,” says Krawec with a smirk. “It’s going to get interesting.”
In round two, trades begin. Europe and Africa can make an exchange — but Africa can’t say no to Europe’s offer, no matter how unfair it is. The red and green teams can trade equally. “We traded corn, food, stories,” says Krawec. “We traded songs and dances. We have the alligator dance — but we don’t have alligators, so how did we get that song and that dance? Through trade. They gave us that dance so we could save it and make sure it would survive.”
“How are we doing over there, black team,” asks Krawec. “Not so much, not so much,” comes the discouraged answer.
Players have markers, pencils and crayons to write their feelings on the bristol boards as the game evolves. Every 10 minutes they open a new envelope with new instructions. The mood is playful, the room laughter-filled, but there is an edge of discomfort as people realize the game is jarringly realistic.
Card three represents colonization. “White team, you get resources: Take half of the black blocks,” say the game leaders. And with colonization comes displacement. “You’ve been displaced; off to the mat,” says Krawec, picking people at random to sit out the rest of the game. They are given a yellow board and are encouraged to write what they’re feeling on it. “Unwanted,” writes one, in black marker.
“Some people are very good at being white,” notes Smith as she observes one member of the white team amassing a disproportionate number of blocks.
Card number four: Slavery and residential schools. “Slavery moved labour and knowledge from Africa; residential schools were where colonial government worked at disrupting relationships,” says Krawec. She tells a white team member, “Go and get somebody from team black to do your work.”
One of the white team members says, “I’m not proud of this one.”
Krawec adds to the yellow team: “You’ve been displaced because you have to make room for labour,” she says, pointing at a few more people at random. And now the white team is moved to the table between the red and green teams, displacing even more people and taking their resources.
Krawec speaks to the dejected-looking yellow team members. “You might be displaced, you might be in jail, you might be in residential school, but you have knowledge,” she says encouragingly. “How do you feel about that knowledge?” “it’s empowering,” says a young woman. Krawec agrees: “They couldn’t take everything from you — you still have that knowledge. As an Indigenous person I am absolutely empowered by the knowledge I have of my culture,” she says.
At the end of the game, the room in disarray and emotions taut, each team is asked how they’re feeling.
A black team member says, “We sort of gave up. During displacement we lost our resources, and had the feeling of the power being taken away from us — it’s a real loss.”
“We saw how others were growing and we were shrinking. We felt without rights, felt greed around us, people capable of doing bad things.”
“It feels powerless, makes you doubt yourself.”
Red team members feel disconnected. “It was nice to be red at first, but then when colonization happened we got the boot,” says one.
The green team lost their way at slavery.
A white team member says, “I didn’t want to do what we were doing. I didn’t want to take stuff from Africa. I would have been a very poor colonizer, taking advantage of everyone else.”
Krawec uses this moment to deliver the real message of the exercise: “You could have stopped the game,” she says. The room goes silent. “You could have started a revolution. You could have stood up and said ‘Enough, I’m not doing this.’ Who are we to tell you what to do?”
She continues, “At some point we have all allowed ourselves to do something bad because we were ‘following the rules.’ We made people feel sad and displaced.”
“I never thought of calling the game,” says the member of the white team, in awe.
“We are all complicit in how these things work,” says Krawec. “We need to be critical of a system that makes us do things we know are wrong. We have a responsibility to make things more fair for people. Just because there is a system in place doesn’t mean it’s right.”
“It was the first time we did this,” says Smith. “I have to admit it was completely effective. You had complete control the whole time but you didn’t say ‘stop.’”
“We need to make new rules, which is what we’re doing in this room,” says Krawec. “We hope you feel more powerful so you can say, ‘I can change things.’ There can be change.”
Ragaia Warrag, a member of the black team, says she is glad to have the opportunity to experience this event. “I am a community worker, and I am hoping to connect to more people and connect ideas,” she says. “Everyone brings their own experience. Some people don’t know where or how to start with issues like child care, housing, employment. When we work together we are more powerful,” she says. “We want the future to be bright for our children and for everyone. It’s good to have this event, whether the focus is big or small. We are honouring the issues.”
If you would like to know more about migrant worker rights, and upcoming events, visit migrantrights.ca for more information.