Breaking barriers between the Police and the immigrant community

Breaking barriers between the Police and the Immigrant Community.
Article published in Cultures West Magazine, Vol.32;Spring 2014 AMSSA

In 1976, I arrived in Victoria BC as an immigrant from Chile. Since then, I have been learning about the complexities of cultural understanding. As an Applied Theatre practitioner, I have dedicated most of my professional work to open avenues of communication between different groups and cultures.

There have been great advances in regards to the positive integration of immigrants from diverse backgrounds into Canadian society. Their participation in all aspects of their new society has improved substantially, and examples of blatant discrimination are less frequent. But there are still many opportunities for misunderstandings, prejudice, suspicion, resentment, and other negative feelings arising from ignorance about other customs and cultures. Achieving intercultural understanding is a complex task, and I believe it will be an ongoing process for a long time. In doing research for a project called Police and the Immigrant Community, we encountered instances of the lack of awareness that still exists and that make relationships difficult and tense.

Police and immigrants usually meet in moments of crisis, and it’s important for law enforcement officers in a position of power, to be sensitive to certain cultural aspects. For example, in many faiths religious structures are woven into the daily life: there are specific requirements regarding prayer rituals: location, timing, a need for purification before prayer, strict dietary restrictions, etc. People’s days are organized around their faiths.  If these requirements are ignored situations might be aggravated. In many cultures, rites of passage are considered very important and are strongly tied to their faith.  Birth, coming of age, marriage, death—all the significant moments in a persons’ life, are occasions for religious celebrations that may seem strange and might not be respected or considered offensive. For instance, in some cultures bodies are prepared for burial in ways that are completely different from the ones used here, and might be considered peculiar and cause confusion. Being informed in depth about faith/cultural practices and accommodating them would go a long way towards softening confrontations and bringing about peaceful resolutions to conflicts.

Sensitivity is also needed when dealing with traditional family structures. Members of the family are protected, disciplined, addressed, and encouraged in ways that may be different from what’s traditional in Canada.

It’s important for the Canadian Police to be aware of the extent to which many immigrants fear them, because they come from countries with repressive regimes where the police torture and murder. I came to Canada from Chile at the time when we had a severely repressive military government, and when encountering a policeman here, my fear was intense. No matter that my mind told me “that it was different here,” my reaction was visceral: all I wanted was to get away from the uniform in front of me. The extent of the damage caused by life in an oppressive country shouldn’t be underestimated. Careful acknowledgement of the facts is needed, and thoughtful strategies should be devised to cope with this situation. There are also countries where it is normal to bribe policemen; this can lead to awkwardness and huge misunderstandings. However these experiences should not be generalized: they do not happen in all countries where immigrants come from, and care should be taken not to prejudge.

Throughout our project we have found, in our dealings with the police in Victoria, enormous good will, openness, and talent. I’m certain that much progress can be made.
The situation improves further when immigrants themselves take an active role in creating an atmosphere of positive understanding.  When we come to live in this country it’s wise for us to learn about Canada and the existing traditions, customs, and history of the country. We have to learn about Canadian laws that protect us all. It’s also important to pay attention to this country’s prevalent standards and values, e.g. corporal punishment of children, acceptable in some cultures, is not accepted here and it’s illegal, therefore it can have serious consequences for the family.

It is necessary for all cultures that live together in Canada to examine their own traditional background and consider which practices they want to keep, and which should be left behind, because they do not conform with the customs and laws of the new society: practices that are not life affirming, and in many cases were so oppressive that made us abandon the homeland in the first place. One of our deeper challenges is to find out how to open ourselves to the new culture without losing our own—what to retain and what to reject from the rich cultural baggage we bring with us.

Lina de Guevara

 In 2013/14, I facilitated together with  Victor Porter  the Applied Theatre project “Police and the Immigrant Community”, which uses transformational theatre techniques to foster positive relationships between communities. (Produced by the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria, B.C).