In our bed and breakfast guest room there is a little basket with a unique contraption tucked in amongst a collection of loose photos.
The stereograph was a gift from my husband years ago, a low-tech wonder. It possessed the ability to immerse the 19th century viewer into the unheard-of experience of viewing the splendour of Niagara Falls in 3D.
After some experimenting I was excited to create my own multi-dimensional photos. I trained myself to “see” how to set up the best shots, working with light, shadow and depth of field to breathe life into a photo. It was fascinating how training myself to see differently offered a fresh perspective on everyday ordinary sights I had taken for granted. A simple daisy against a background of lavender was outstanding, literally.
One morning, after an hour of searching for ideal settings in our late summer garden, I took a break to walk the dog. We headed down the path into the forest along the Four Mile Creek, and to my surprise, the trees, the winding path and eventually the creek came into view, all in 3D. It was a scene I encountered almost daily, yet somehow due to my photographic exercise my brain’s depth perception evolved so that a walk in the forest became a delight in 3D (and no, I was not smoking magic mushrooms). From that time on I started to focus and pay more attention on my daily forest walks, savouring the beauty in the details I had formerly passed by.
A few weeks later we held a garage sale. A number of Mexican women walked by when I was ready to clean up and I offered them whatever they would like for free.
One of them spoke a bit of English and told me she had been working in my neighbourhood for nine years. She became a good friend in the following months, visiting weekly to practice her English. During one of our conversations she said the hardest part of her experience in Niagara-on-the-Lake was to be invisible in our community. People would walk by on the sidewalk or in the grocery store, ignoring her presence, and avoiding eye contact, a comment I was to hear repeated many times by our Jamaican friends.
I realized I was one of those people who failed to acknowledge their presence with even a simple greeting.
It was not intentional on my part and I wondered if I had trained my eyes not to see.
An event occurred that caused me to refIect further.
Michael was a faithful attendee at the CWOP church service on Sunday nights (the Caribbean Worker Outreach Project). He was thoughtful and quiet, but quickly warmed up in good conversation.
He had been working and living in the same neighbourhood for more than 20 years. Every week he rode his bike into Virgil to buy groceries and send money home to his family. One Thursday at the grocery store he felt nauseous. As he struggled to ride his bike home, he lost consciousness, close to the arena on Four Mile Creek Road. He made it back onto his bike before shortly passing out again on the grassy boulevard. This happened four times before he finally reached his bunk house on Line 4. What should have been a 10-minute bike ride took more than an hour. Despite it being a busy evening in Virgil, nobody noticed or stopped their car to see if he needed help.
His coworkers called an ambulance immediately upon his return. He barely made it to the hospital, where emergency heart surgery saved his life.
I visited him when he was recuperating and asked why he didn’t call for help at one of the houses he passed. He looked at me incredulously and then away, embarrassed.
“They wouldn’t have answered the door. We know what they think of Jamaicans. They would have called the police and I didn’t want to get in trouble. I’d get a black mark on my name and never be able to come back.”
With 60 per cent damage to his heart, he will never be able to work again.
I had so many questions after our conversation. Why did no one “see” him as he laid by the side of the road?
I couldn’t forget Michael’s story.
I began to see interactions in public places directed toward our friends that were derogatory or rude. I felt powerless to intervene without adding to their embarrassment. After visiting their families and churches where they were active members in Jamaica, I wrestled with the lack of respect they faced in my home town.
I started to observe the more complex layers of our community that existed outside my world of privilege. I could no longer “unsee” certain conditions or attitudes that built the framework of their daily life in the same community in which I lived.
It became the inspiration to start the spring welcome concerts in 2007, following our first trip to the island. The goal was to honour our Caribbean men and women who worked on local farms. We invited farm workers, employers and locals to celebrate a night of joy-filled, world-class music.
In 2010, the concert gained the attention of CBC, which evolved into a five-part radio documentary called Working Man, set in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Grower John Thwaites and one of his long-time employees, Paul Chambers, were interviewed, explaining how the event was helpful to break down social barriers and “see” each other in a new light.
The Niagara Workers Welcome concerts continued to grow, until 2016 when we reached capacity at 800 concert-goers and had to move the event to Southridge Community Church in St.Catharines.
It was time to explore new ways of how we could include the growing number of Mexican men and women who wished to attend. In 2017, the first Peach Pickers Picnic was held the Sunday night of the Peach Festival. The increasing attendance by our offshore neighbours and growing level of community engagement clearly indicated this was the direction to continue. We are currently planning and raising funds for our third picnic to be held at the Market @ the Village on Aug. 11.
The lens through which our Caribbean or Mexican neighbours are portrayed by the local media, the pulpit, the classroom, even family conversations over dinner, are key to creating a community that is welcoming and safe for everyone. How do we as parents, grandparents, teachers, people of faith, employers, and neighbours train our eyes to see the possibilities of a warm and welcoming community?
By perpetuating certain stereotypes in our circles of influence we are creating one-dimensional images that flatten and diminish the humanity, not only of our neighbours, but ourselves as well.
I was disappointed to see the most recent example of “not seeing” in a local paper recently.
An article about an upcoming event featured a photo of a good friend. He was nameless, simply labeled “ a migrant worker.” What was the message being conveyed by ensuring he remains nameless?
To so many of us locals the migrant worker does have a name. Liebert Dawson is the gentleman who greets you during asparagus season at Thwaites farm. His enthusiasm and welcoming smile will brighten anyone’s day. I met him at the CWOP service almost 12 years ago where he is a regular attendee. Fellowship time with Dawson and some of his coworkers is still one of the highlights of my week. He is not only a wonderful ambassador for Thwaites Farms, but also his home country of Jamaica.
It was a privilege for my friend Jodie Godwin, her daughter Leah and I to meet up with Dawson and his wife Joan in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s become a tradition for us to meet our Jamaican friends at Devon House for their world-famous ice cream the night before we fly home. We had often seen the faces of their loved ones in well-worn photos in their wallets or tiny cell phone screens, but the warmth of their hugs changed forever how we saw them. Our relationships with them back in Niagara were brought more clearly into focus, becoming more meaningful, and yes, treasured.
Now when I meet our Jamaican neighbours in the grocery store or bank I not only see them but I feel the joy of our shared experiences, whether in Jamaica or here in Niagara.
Note – the interviews from CBC’s Working Man series were incorporated into videos to be used as a community resource. The link — Watch the Story — can be found at the top right corner of the Workers Welcome website here: https://www.workerswelcomeniagara.com/.