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'They say integration, but they mean assimilation'
Last weekend in St. John's, École des Grands-Vents was buzzing with a hive of languages. Greetings were exchanged in a plethora of languages, including Arabic, English, French, Hausa and Swahili.
There was excitement in the air, as parents gathered for a one-of-a-kind session.
The parents came from far and wide: 16 different countries and, at the very least a dozen languages. The sheer amount of diversity in the room was astounding.
The parents — who identify as visible minority immigrant — were there for to learn about the Children and Youth Care and Protection Act.
They had also come to talk — openly and frankly — about what it means to raise children when most of the people around you are white, and you're not, and they grew up here, and you didn't.
Challenging the myths
You may not know the acronym VMI. It stands for visible minority immigrant, it applies to these parents, and it was a thread that ran through the day.
"[It is] a huge myth that black parents don't love their children. If my colour breaks laws, no one will support me," said one mother, Clemence Maluma, alluding to the perspective that black parents are seemingly harder on their kids, and that they believe society does not offer them a fair chance solely based on the colour of their skin.
Many times, this is perceived as black parents not loving their children, which could be construed as neglect and potentially might be reported.
The session was helmed by Lloydetta Quaicoe, chief executive officer of Sharing Our Cultures, and Paul Banahene Adjei, assistant professor of social work at Memorial University. One of the things that sparked this forum was new research into the perspectives of black parents about raising children in three cities — St. John's, Winnipeg and Toronto.
The study underlined how many black parents feel their abilities to maintain their parental rights are often undermined by child welfare practitioners and policy makers who often fail to recognize and respect cultural variations in child-rearing and caregiving practices.
Wading through unknown waters
Once discussed, the results prompted parents at the session to share some parenting styles which could be reported as neglect and abuse. Language, methods of showing affection and disciplining styles were some of the themes discussed.
"I use my language to communicate with my children. I want them to speak it with my mother and when we go back [to visit our country]," parent Zakiya Mohammed told the packed room.
"But, sometimes, the phrases I use in my language don't translate
well into English, and [this] can become [a] false report."
A South African mother who had lived through Apartheid described how she was grateful to have met Sulemana Fuseini, a Ghanaian-Canadian social worker, who was able to explain the ins and the outs of the Children and Youth Care and Protection Act.
"I was so glad to have seen you," she told Fuseini. "If there was any
problem and you walked through my door, I'd feel safe. You see, where I
come from, how do I trust a white person?"
Years ago in South Africa, she said, "You couldn't sit in the same chair as them. If they come home, where are they going to sit?"
She urged the provincial government and the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development to hire visible minority social workers who understood the cultural context that people such as her come from.
When 'inclusion' can cause problems
Fuseini, currently a doctoral student at the School of Social Work at MUN, had previously worked as a registered social worker with the Newfoundland and Labrador government. He felt that the current system needed to adapt to the changing demographic.
"I feel, from experience, that the system has a white European,
colonized way of doing things, and there is a need to shift from this
[existing system] to adapt to the changing and growing demographic," he
Fuseini emphasized that visible minority parents do not want to be "integrated" or "included" or "excluded" from the system, but merely want to contribute actively and have equal footing in the country they have chosen to call home.
Adjei told the forum that the word "inclusion" can have a harmful effect.
"Often, the word inclusion is being used in a way that suggests that
'this is our way and if you want to be a part of our culture, then it's
our way or the highway,'" he said.
"We ignore the fact that the system is built on whiteness and white hegemony. So, your crusade is only accepted as far as it doesn't rupture or maintains the status quo. The best example can give you is being invited to a Thanksgiving party, you show up and there are no chairs for you."
'You have to conform'
Quaicoe, who has been an active organizer in the St. John's community for more than two decades, said most people in power are neither immigrants nor visible minority.
"They say integration, but they mean assimilation. I see integration as a two-way street. It is not 'you conform and that's it'. There doesn't seem to be that room even for negotiating," she said.
"When I think of inter-cultural dialogue, two cultures are coming together and there is a dialogue [about] how can we work together for the good of the child. But as it is now, you have to conform."
Quaicoe and Adjei both indicated that various community organizations and the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development were made aware of the information session.
However, their presence — either in the form of information guides or in person — was not evident.
Need of the hour
Many VMI parents, some of whom have lived in Newfoundland and Labrador for years, had no inkling of the existence of the provincial legislation, let alone the consequences they may face.
Sadly, parents only become aware when there is concern that requires protective intervention with their children or when they are not following the principles of the Children and Youth Care and Protection Act. There is no prevention system in place, merely an intervening body.
In addition, VMI parents may have an additional obstacle in the form of a linguistic barrier. The Act, currently offered in English on the government's website, can be incomprehensible, specifically for non-English-speaking parents, include refugees.
The need for sessions to navigate the child protection, health and education systems (from pregnancy to post-secondary education) was demonstrated for both VMI parents and children.
In addition, parents felt that support groups, tailored to the needs
of VMI parents and children and in their own languages, would help them
navigate uncharted waters.
Both Quaicoe and Adjei stressed that empowering VMI parents with appropriate information in an accessible fashion is a key step in ensuring that a child is receiving the right care and protection.
Visible Minority Immigrant Parents listen intently to Sulemana
Fuseini deliver a presentation explaining the Children and Youth Care
and Protection Act. (Prajwala Dixit)
This would conserve valuable resources, like time and money, that could be directed towards children in critical need of intervention.
The sentiment that echoed, loud and clear, was that, irrespective of the country of origin, the end goal remained the same — to raise a healthy, socially and economically contributing, citizen.
Understanding that there are multiple ways to reach this goal and recognizing the culturally different parenting practices would make this enormous load considerably lighter — for parents and the system.
Prajwala Dixit is a freelance writer living in St. John's.
She is an engineer by education, a full-time mother by profession and a
writer by passion.
6 August 2018