Folklorama is here and with this festival we celebrate cultural diversity in Winnipeg. And that's a good thing.

What has always worried me though is that this highly popular festival is often mistaken for a model of harmonious integration and multi-cultural paradise.

The Israel Pavilion

The Israel Pavilion at Folklorama. (Dr. Tse Li Luk)

What I've seen in my years volunteering and working with refugees and immigrants is a very different reality. Things like segregation. Isolation. Sadness. Despair. Loneliness. Racism. And fear.

The lack of a sense of belonging, imperative for a happy life, is an issue not often talked about.

For about five years I worked at Welcome Place (Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council), Manitoba's largest refugee settlement agency, and there I met people from all over the world. I learned that Winnipeg is unique because the world lives in this city.

Here we have a wealth of cultures, languages, and life experiences. What a wondrous place it would be if we'd start interacting a little more with each other.

Instead, there is often a tendency to look the other way when we see someone who looks or sounds different than what we're used to.

I've thought a lot about what it means to embrace cultural diversity. I mean really embrace it, not the Folklorama kind.

Hope to be welcomed

I mean the kind where people of various cultures and backgrounds get to know each other and become part of each other’s lives, in real ways, like sharing food and conversation at the same table — becoming friends, family even. Taking time to understand each other.

Manitoba has a consistently high number of refugees and immigrants arriving every year but how many of them are part of our lives?

It's hard enough coming to a new country where the language is different, the cultural traditions and practices different. But to face all of that without the support, friendship, family and community that many of us take for granted, well that's just really hard. Painfully hard.

Imagine what it would feel like to be transported to another country far away (not always by choice) from everyone and everything we know and love and understand. I find the thought kind of terrifying.

The only way I could think of that would make it manageable would be to have locals help get me through. I'd hope to be welcomed, to be invited into the homes and the hearts of the people. I'd hope to make friends, to be understood, to live without fear, to belong.

Now that's not to say that that doesn't happen here. It does, sometimes, but not often enough.

Is it because we're afraid, uncomfortable around the unknown, thinking we might not have anything to talk about, that we might not be able to understand through the accent, that we might offend or be offended? Is it something else?

Folklorama: 'us' and 'them'

Folklorama provides an opening into what we may be curious about, a kind of voyeuristic way to begin to learn a little about our new neighbours’ culture. But it's still very much an 'us' and 'them' kind of view — and a distant one at that.

At the end of the day, how many real friendships are made? Will we be sharing a meal and a conversation together at the table anytime soon? Or ever? Is cultural diversity worthy of attention and celebration only when it’s deemed to be entertainment? 

I don't dislike Folklorama. In fact many of my friends take it in every year, and many others are active participants in the pavilions. But there's a whole lot of room for improvement related to inter cultural communication and understanding.

There are many stereotypes and biases when it comes to immigrants, and a tendency at this end to want to keep things from changing. The connection between bias and allowing injustice to another is a large part of what’s wrong with this world: conflict, war, racial profiling, genocide.

Until we really get to know each other, there will always remain a long list of issues left to tackle.

And ignorance will breed more of the same. And wars big and small will happen. And racism will continue to prevent progress and understanding of any kind.

A big part of the solution I think is to treat everyone we meet exactly the same way, equally, and with respect and compassion, no matter where they're from.

Throw away all of the stereotypes and biases and get to the heart of the people. Invite them over for dinner. Talk. Listen. Talk some more.

To some that may sound crazy, to others naive. The learning is immense, for everyone. And that's how friends are made and peace is created. And that's when cultural diversity really becomes something to celebrate.

Maybe then we won't even need Folklorama. But for now, I think I'll head out to a few pavilions.

Janine LeGal is a ​Winnipeg writer and community activist who thrives on being overcommitted, especially when in the company of creative and intriguing people trying to make the world a better place.