In the week since Kiera Sangster, a member of the town’s inclusivity committee, spoke to council about their progress and a recent survey they conducted, she has received “quite a bit of backlash” from her presentation.
It has made her more aware than ever of some of the problems the town is facing, and the importance of the work of the committee.
“Things are percolating under the surface in town,” she said. “When you bring them to the surface, people start speaking out both for and against. What we do has to be done with care. We have to take our time — these are sensitive topics.”
Going through the results of the online survey launched by the committee earlier this year, and finalized to be presented to council last week, Sangster told councillors almost half of the people who responded see Niagara-on-the-Lake as neither diverse nor inclusive.
Those who have offered their comments in the survey “are taking a risk letting us into their feelings and opinions. We have to be mindful of that,” said Sangster. “It’s a delicate time.”
The survey findings indicate there is work to be done to improve the diversity and inclusivity of the NOTL community, work that will be done through the formation of focus groups to look at four particular areas of concern as identified by the survey and its accompanying comments.
And in the days since the presentation, she said, she has heard some positive comments, and some very negative ones, reinforcing the need for the committee, the work it is undertaking, and the importance of being sensitive and meticulous with what is presented to council.
Sangster explained the survey, launched through the town’s online Join the Conversation page on its website, was intended “to provide a lens into diversity and inclusion in NOTL, offering insights into people who make up the community, people’s experiences, and inclusion and diversity issues in the community.”
She explained to council members that the results of the survey, which drew 173 respondents, will allow the committee “to develop meaningful, well-defined priorities, and provide informed guidance to counsel staff and council members, with the ultimate goal of making NOTL a more inclusive and welcoming community.”
Only 8.1 per cent of the respondents said they believe NOTL is both diverse and inclusive, Sangster said, and 97.6 per cent said NOTL would benefit from diversity and inclusion.
While 72.1 per cent of those who responded said they feel they belong in NOTL, almost 28 per cent feel that they do not belong in town, some or all of the time.
Twenty-four per cent indicated they have felt unwelcome as a customer or an employee in a NOTL business, or have witnessed or heard about discrimination in a NOTL business.
Out of 12 respondents who identify as having a disability, five indicated they have experienced exclusion or accessibility issues.
Thirty-six per cent of those who answered said they have experienced hostility or felt unwelcome treatment as a result of how long they have lived in NOTL, and 18.5 per cent indicated their socio-economic status has made it difficult to access programs, activities or events in NOTL.
Eighty-two per cent said they are interested in learning about issues related to diversity and inclusion, including racial, gender, ethnic, sexual orientation or religious identities.
“To develop a deeper understanding of these issues, we need to understand why people responded in the way they did,” said Sangster.
“This can be achieved by exploring specific areas of concerns identified in the survey, best accomplished by conducting focus groups.”
As a result of comments received, four areas of concerns were identified, she said.
One is marginalization and discriminatory treatment of seasonal farmworkers, with some of the comments from those who took the survey put together for councillors. “I am appalled at the stories I have heard about people of colour having racial slurs hurled at them, or things thrown at them, based solely on the colour of their skin. The prejudice specifically towards migrant workers is unacceptable and needs to be called out. We need to expose this unacceptable behaviour and ensure the whole community knows it will not be tolerated,” were the comments on that issue.
Discriminatory treatment of racialized residents, workers and visitors was the second area of concern. “It is particularly troubling to see the way field workers, Shaw’s artists, hotel workers and our other more diverse local workers are treated by some locals, and how they assume they are not residents or are lesser as renters, despite directly driving the economy of the town with their work,” were some of the comments from that group.
Negative treatment of Shaw Festival artists and employees by landlords and business owners was the third concern, with these comments: “NOTL is a difficult community to get ‘in’ and as someone who cannot afford to live in NOTL or belong to its social clubs, even though I work here full time, I often feel like an outsider. I would say racism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, religious discrimination, sexism are all prevalent in this community. But also classism. Classism is very real in NOTL.”
Lack of accessibility for people who use mobility aids or are visually impaired was the fourth identified issue, with these comments: “A lot of businesses are not accessible by wheelchair or other assistive equipment. That needs to change,” and “more accessibility is needed for people with visual impairment.”
Other topics of interest include lack of diversity among town leaders, said Sangster, lack of community resources, little to no attempts to keep young people in town, Torontonianism, out-of-townism, resentment toward new residents and visitors, treatment towards individuals who identify with LGBTQ2+, diversity and inclusion education and outreach, lack of transportation and affordable housing, social and economic bias, and classism.
Survey respondents were asked whether they wanted to participate in future focus groups, and about 90 people said yes. Over the coming weeks they will be contacted, and the committee will determine the best options for organizing focus groups, which will be virtual in light of the ongoing pandemic restrictions, says Sangster. She is expecting two focus groups for each of the four topics brought forward from the survey, with eight to 10 members in each group.
From the beginning of her work with the inclusivity committee, she says, she has felt the weight of the responsibility for what the committee is trying to accomplish.
She has felt a lack of acceptance herself, and would like to know that others “will never feel that way again.”
It’s a huge task, she says, “but if we start now, we’re ahead of the game. If we don’t, we’ll be waiting, and waiting and waiting. And it will never happen.”
We’re at a time when there is a “wave happening, and we have to get on board. We have the support. We’re not just this small town at the end of a street. This is happening around the world.”
Sangster says she feels optimistic for the future.
“Humans are resilient. We have hearts. We have families, and we all have the same base. There is no reason we can’t do this as a community.”
After the conclusion of these focus groups, the committee will present information and suggestions from each area of concern to develop a final report and recommendations for council, hopefully by June or July.
“Inclusion and diversity are once again changing how we look at ourselves, and the world around us,” said Sangster.