August vacation days of sunshine and water play are upon us, and in Winnipeg, we can top them off with an evening trip abroad.

While many fortunate people are off at the cottage or on vacation, those of us who are still in town can tour the world vicariously through Folklorama, the annual festival that celebrates our diverse cultures. Perhaps it's a souvlaki and coffee at the Greek pavilion, or a taekwondo demo along with bulgogi at the Korean pavilion, but we can experience aspects of travel affordably by going from one pavilion to the next. 

A group of refugees and asylum seekers in Winnipeg chose to use the opportunity to ask for others' help and support.

These men from Ghana chose to stand outside Folklorama venues, asking people to sign a petition. They want people to know about the discrimination, violence and police harassment they have faced. They want others to acknowledge the lack of rights for LGBT people in Ghana.

They're pointing out that things aren't OK in their home country, even as some of them still express love for Ghana.

Folklorama's response includes an expression of disappointment: 

"It is disappointing that individuals find themselves in a situation where they feel the need to use our celebration of culture and diversity, one that has maintained a long-standing apolitical policy, for their own political purposes."

I've attended Folklorama events in the past. However, this public response dampens my enthusiasm for the whole enterprise.

How is it that we can hop from country to country to celebrate culture and diversity, and ignore the fact that in some countries, people are killed because of their sexual orientation? Are LGBT issues concerning one's physical safety really only "political" in nature?

If that specific threat to people's love and autonomy wasn't enough, one has to wonder where this "disappointment" approach ends.

Something better

What if a Folklorama pavilion represents a country that is systematically starving, killing or harassing some of its citizens? Should we ignore that? Should we just enjoy their version of beer, coffee, and pastries and move on? Why isn't it acceptable to Folklorama's organizers to peacefully assemble outside such a pavilion to express one's protest?

Winnipeg is lucky. Our population is diverse, with newcomers from all over the world.

Many people came to Canada because they sought something better. Perhaps they fled oppression, famine, war, or even just wanted more economic opportunities. Many seek a better life for their families.

This doesn't mean we can't celebrate our home countries or mother tongue — but Canada offers us something much bigger.

In Canada, we have free speech. We're allowed to mention human rights violations, crimes against humanity, extreme poverty or disease. We're allowed to speak up and hope for more.

'When we travel, we don't just see great works of art and architecture, or eat interesting foods'

Peaceful protest is a pillar of democracy and a way for individuals to acknowledge our right to diverse opinions.

Our festivals offer us a chance to become exposed to a bigger world, without leaving our somewhat geographically isolated Winnipeg. However, we can't leave our consciences behind.

One great value of travel is the chance to see how others live. When we travel, we don't just see great works of art and architecture, or eat interesting foods. We also see poor beggars on the streets, or evidence of drug addicts' struggles. There may be signs of police brutality or unrest.

As tourists, we may not feel safe enough to address these issues. Every travel guide would advise a tourist not to speak out of turn, not to hang out in an area of a city where dangerous things might happen. However, as Canadians at home, we can express our opinions, about politics and more.

It's one thing to ask Winnipeggers to avoid riots, physical confrontations or political diatribes during festival season. It's another thing altogether to ask people to stop thinking critically about the countries and cultures they're celebrating.

Canadian values

When we acknowledge our heritage and countries of origin, we need to do it warts and all. It's not acceptable to dance about on stage and forget famines, slavery, ethnic massacres, desperate poverty or physical threats because of one's sexuality.

We need to learn about the whole culture rather than just its shiny bits.

In an effort to make Folklorama apolitical, we can't allow cultural celebration to become amoral as well. It's not ethical to whitewash over the true challenges of cross-cultural exchange.

A true learning experience is one that asks us to think critically and act according to our beliefs.

We can't ignore the Ghanaian protesters and call them a "disappointment."

In truth, they are acting the part of real Canadians on this stage, speaking up for Canadian values — activism about things that matter, such as human rights for all and the right to safe protest.

Perhaps we could all learn from their example.


Joanne Seiff is a freelance writer and knitwear designer who has written several books. She lives in Winnipeg.