BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Respect starts here

Despite headlines featuring intolerance, diversity is being celebrated in the North Okanagan

Richard Rolke is a columnist and senior reporter with The Morning Star.

Richard Rolke is a columnist and senior reporter with The Morning Star.

In recent weeks, people of faith have been gunned down while praying and reported hate crimes climb across Canada. Across the border, there is talk of building walls and creating blanket bans whether individuals pose a threat or not.

With hatred and fear dominating the headlines, it’s easy to become demoralized about the world around us.

However, not all is lost, and specifically in the North Okanagan, there is reason for hope.

Case in point is RespectFest, which will celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday from from Sept. 18 to 24.

“It’s timely,” said Annette Sharkey, with the Social Planning Council, of the negative news happening around us.

And while the catalyst for RespectFest is the founding of our nation, it will go beyond the vision of John A. MacDonald and the gang.

“We want to acknowledge that there’s a history that pre-dates confederation,” said Sharkey.

And the reality is that this land was populated long before Cartier, Mackenzie and Cook. They were the Okanagan, the Shuswap, the Cree, the Beothuk and a multitude of other nations. They had rich and complex cultures, and ensured the very survival of Europeans who arrived on their shores.

We all know the history between natives and non-natives has dark overtones, particularly with residential schools. Much has been made of the Truth and Reconciliation process and it will cast a shadow over RespectFest.

“Those relationships need to go beyond government and need to look to the future,” said Aaron Deans, of the Allan Brooks Nature Centre, which will host indigenous activities.

RespectFest will also pay tribute to those who arrived in Canada without British or French blood whether they came from the hills of Hungary, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta or the sandy beaches of the Caribbean.

In fact, North Okanagan residents reflect 87 different national origins, and many, including the Japanese, Ukrainians, Chinese and Germans, have helped define the region for a century.

RespectFest will include one-day multicultural festival, while there will also be public art and heritage tours.

“The legacy is the relationships that will develop,” said Sharkey.

“We want members of the community to explore other cultures, and that changes people.”

Significant effort has also gone into throwing out the welcome mat in recent years for economic reasons.

“We need immigrants to come here so we can survive as an area,” said Juliette Cunningham, a regional district director, of the impact a shrinking birth rate and aging population is having on the workforce and the inability of some employers to fill jobs.

On top of the dollars and cents, a vibrancy comes as our new residents keep their traditions alive through special events or businesses like restaurants.

“It makes us richer as a community,” said Cunningham.

Will RespectFest solve all of the world’s problems, of course not. Intolerance will continue to exist, even here in the North Okanagan.

But just as we saw with the outpouring of sympathy after the Quebec mosque killings, we can be confident that the overwhelming majority of North Okanagan residents are committed to compassion and understanding.

RespectFest will be an opportunity to abandon the negative headlines, even if just briefly, and to celebrate what unites us.


Vernon Morning Star