It is a January Saturday afternoon and I am being told that because its -37 with the wind chill today in Winnipeg, this may impact the attendance of today’s parent group. Martha, one of our Sexuality and Reproductive Health Facilitators, is setting up for this afternoon’s group in the basement of a local church that is well known in the newcomer community. As she and her colleague Erika, who is in training, set up, she explains to me some of the basic facts of the group:
-There are about 10 families who attend, some with 7 children
-The attendees are predominantly from West Africa and largely speak Swahili, Kirundi and French; and are assisted by our interpreter, Asunta.
– This program (which is funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has a number of partners and they are a key to our success:
• Aurora Family Therapy Centre –Roselyn provides recruitment and group support
• William Whyte Resident Association- Bashir provides recruitment and group support- including bringing the all-important food!
• Knox United Church- Provides space and support
The group is set to start at 2pm and families are trickling in but we already have our first major hurdle: there has been a double booking of the area we use for childcare- which cannot be relocated due to specific requirements. After many phone calls and discussions, the other group agrees to move to a different room and the crisis is averted. As I see the sheer volume of children arriving it is clear it would have been a big challenge to do this group without childcare! It’s evident the amount of coordination that goes into just one of our groups; I take a call from our Coordinator Blandine, concerned about the childcare problem, and I happily inform her that Martha has solved it.
The camaraderie in the group is apparent immediately and I am greeted by many smiling faces, laughter and interest in me as a new guest in the group. I am impressed by the skill of both Martha and our interpreter in settling folks down, which does take a bit of time as there is lots of post-holiday and new year catch-up between participants.
The group has been covering important Canadian topics such as rights of the child and sexual and reproduction health rights and norms. As it is our experience many newcomers arrive to group often having already heard of Child and Family Services (CFS) and with concerns that their children will be taken from them for some reason, so a great deal of time is spent on these areas in the beginning. The goal today is to delve further into children growing and specifically puberty.
We begin with a review of the last topics discussed on sexual and reproductive health, on in the area of equality of the sexes and what that means legally in Canada. The group is very interested and amused to hear that in Canada girls may ask boys out and that in the case of marriage it is not uncommon for no one to ask for parental permission. I am captivated by the speed of the dialogue and the expansive gestures and facial expressions utilized by the interpreter.
From gender equality, the topic of LBGTQ* rights in Canada begins to be broached, with the information shared that it is legal for people of the same gender to be married in Canada and individuals and couples are protected under Canadian law regardless of sexual orientation. Martha asks them to consider this in the context of their children- how might they respond if their son or daughter shared that they wanted to date someone of their gender?
At first I think there will be little discussion, and I watch for a response. Then one woman shyly puts up her hand and shares that this would not be acceptable to her, due to her Christianity. This becomes a very big discussion quickly: the majority of participants are of the same view. One participant indicates doubt that in Africa there are gay people, which creates a very big debate about the veracity of this claim. The facilitator is able to draw on her own experiences to talk about what a country may be like if there are laws against homosexuality and therefore it is underground.
Questions are asked: How do they have babies? How do they have sex? How do their families support this? The facilitators are able to offer information on adoption and options in Canada. Martha shares that like for all people, sex is what feels comfortable and right for that couple. It is clear there is now much pondering. This is when I hear two of my favorite comments from the session as stated by the interpreter: “Where does this love come from?”
A question that I think so many of us must ask ourselves in the course of our lives, regardless of sexual orientation. What makes this love that we feel? The facilitator acknowledges that this is the same love-that love is love.
Then, a second comment: “If you feel love, you cannot take this away- it is inside.”
There are many comments and questions about, whether love is a choice. Slowly the comments begin to change to acceptance: “This is the way in Canada, I will accept” and, “I can tell them (my child) about where they come from and why it is different, and that is all I can do.”
It is clear not everyone is convinced, however, it is powerful to watch this shift, and to hear in their words the enormous respect and love that they hold for their new country, the one that they chose to make a better life for their children. Astutely Martha brings them back to where the group started, focussing on their shared love for their children, and their hopes for a joyful and safe future for them in their adopted homeland. One that happens to include the freedom for their children to love whomever they choose.