By Rose Gilbert
When the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) opened in a predominantly indigenous neighborhood in 2016, it created tension between Canada’s oldest and newest residents.
“We essentially came as settlers,” said Dorota Blumczynska, the IRCOM Executive Director. She explained that before IRCOM moved in, the apartment building housed local indigenous families. IRCOM received fourteen million dollars in government funding to renovate the building to house immigrants and refugees.
For many local residents, the shiny new IRCOM facility seemed to prove that the government was overlooking their community’s problems in order to take care of the newcomers. IRCOM’s mandate does not extend to providing services (like subsidized housing, childcare, money-managing, and job search help) to the local indigenous population, which adds to their hostility. Blumczynska said this resentment “leads to some tension and aggression,” and occasionally, violence. She said the building has been tagged, there have been minor thefts, and once a group of children pepper sprayed another in the building’s courtyard.
But this animosity is not one-sided. According to Blumczynska, most refugees and asylum-seekers don’t know much about indigenous people when they come to Canada. They are often exposed to negative and oversimplified portrayals. She said that IRCOM works to educate the newcomers about the indigenous people in Canada. The IRCOM website includes a guide for newcomers, which give a brief overview of the history of indigenous people in Canada, as well as a list of tribes, their languages, location, traditional community structure, spirituality, and traditions. Rayne Graff, IRCOM Volunteer & Community Services Executive Assistant, is a member of the Long Plain First Nation. In this role, Graff helps to build relationships and a sense of community between IRCOM residents and the surrounding neighborhood.
IRCOM isn’t the only one trying build bridges between these two communities. Rita Chahal, the Executive Director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, said that the push to foster a sense of community between indigenous and refugee communities is a “sector-wide” effort amongst resettlement organizations.
Indigenous groups are also working to connect with refugees and refugee claimants. Karyn Pugliese, Executive Director at Canada’s only aboriginal television network, said there have been welcoming ceremonies organized by indigenous elders, while others have collected money and other donations for refugees. Pugliese stressed that every individual has a different opinion.