This blog post was written by SP Saskatoon Intern, Ruthie Wu.
After three days of painting and repainting the same canvas, I was ready to give up. I dropped the paintbrush onto my paper-plate palette and sat down, tuning into my surroundings for inspiration. On this typical Friday afternoon at the House For All Nations Drop-In Centre in Saskatoon, Canada, the room was buzzing with talk. The usual guests filled the space, sipping coffee and talking about the latest crazy thing that happened to them.
Amidst the lullaby of chitchat, a two-year-old girl ran up to my painting and me. She stared at me between each move she made, watching to see if I would stop her. She picked up a brush and plopped yellow paint onto the canvas. Her dad tried to pull her away, but I let her stay. She easily painted what I couldn’t capture: beauty on the westside of Saskatoon, a sprawling city where I have been interning for the past five months with Servant Partners.
Growing up in the States, I was aware that I did not look like anyone I read about in history books. My experience as a child of Chinese immigrants made me especially attuned to others who are similarly marginalized. One of the most underrepresented groups in North America is the Indigenous peoples, and I have always wanted to learn more about and from them. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, student placements for the Human Needs Global Resources (HNGR) internships, expanded to include Canada. When I heard about the opportunity to live among First Nations people, I knew I was interested.
I live with my host family on the west side, which has a larger demographic of Indigenous people and refugees than the east side. My primary work entails visiting local organizations and volunteering at the House For All Nations drop-in center. The center opened during the pandemic when decreased capacity in shelters put more people out on the streets than ever before. Its purpose is to be a space to warm-up in the winter and cool-down in the summer with free drinks and snacks. Guests stay to also chat, read and use the internet. The regulars include Indigenous and white people. However, the neighborhood also has many Karen (immigrants from Myanmar), Nepalese and Black refugees, folks who do not frequent the space. The staff was curious as to why the center seemed to attract a certain demographic and decided to start a listening project to find out how it could better welcome the whole neighborhood.
I arrived just as the listening project was starting, so one of my first tasks was going door-to-door and receiving feedback from community members about the drop-in center. We went to the houses nearby and many residents sat on the steps outside, taking in the summer sun and the sounds of children playing. There were mixed responses to our work. Most people were excited about the center, but we also faced some language barriers. Once, a door was shut in our face.
We concluded that part of what could make the center seem unwelcoming was its decorations, which depicted mountains and landscapes disconnected from Saskatchewan—the land of prairies. As such, I volunteered to make a painting that would better represent the multiethnic neighbourhood where the center resides.
I had no experience in community art except for a program I did in high school. During shifts when three people ran the drop-in instead of the usual two, I took my time painting in the back of the room so that guests could see and comment as they saw fit. My guiding question for the painting was, “What does shalom look like on the west side of Saskatoon?” Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, but better translated as the complete picture of God’s kingdom where everyone is represented and cared for.
I tend to think the best is in the past, so I began with an idyllic painting of what Saskatoon might have looked like years ago, with native plants, animals, and landmarks based on symbolism found in the treaties between First Nations people and the Canadian government.
Saskatoon is Treaty 6 territory, which means that First Nations chiefs and European settler leaders gathered together and officially decided to share the land through a traditional ceremony and written document in 1876. This fact is verbally recognized before many public gatherings to recognize First Nations claims to the land. In the treaty, elders said the agreement will hold “as long as the sun shines, the river flows, and the grass grows,” which are the symbols I drew inspiration from in the painting pictured above. Remembering the words and teachings of elders and calling for government accountability for the treaties is part of what it means to respect First Nations culture.
When I showed these early attempts to my host mom, she graciously pointed out that this side of town has more concrete than trees, so the painting was an unrealistic vision to strive towards. Instead, I needed to find shalom in what already existed. So, instead of sitting back down and trying to tackle this alone, I asked my Servant Partners team to send in photos of moments they had seen shalom in the community. I combined them with photos I had taken on my walks through the neighborhood to create a picture of what flourishing looks like in west Saskatoon.
Once I started paying attention, I found sparks of shalom everywhere I looked: the voice of a guest as he followed his granddaughter in and out of the drop-in saying, “You’re the boss!”, the impromptu round dances that broke out between protests to Cancel Canada Day by the river, community sharing circles and cleanups, team dinners and retreats, the list goes on.
It turns out that finding shalom is a lot easier than imagining it from scratch.