Winnipeg students experience Toronto social justice

  • May 22, 2009
TORONTO - The swine flu outbreak in Mexico gave four students from St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba a chance to discover social justice issues in Toronto.

“It was a real blessing,” said Lori Ryan, the national co-ordinator of Canadian Catholic Campus Ministry and Catholic Campus Students Association . “I felt that God strongly wanted us to do this. This trip speaks to the incredible work being done in Toronto.”

A dozen students from campuses across Canada were supposed to spend two weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico, through Global Connections, a program organized by CCCM to give students a chance to learn about justice, Catholic social teaching and how to positively influence the lives of people in developing nations. Heeding international cautions against travel to Mexico due to the swine flu outbreak, the much-anticipated trip was cancelled. But because they were supposed to fly through Toronto anyway, Winnipeg-based students and their campus chaplain joined Ryan for an eye-opening experience in Canada’s most multicultural city April 30 to May 13.

“It was interesting to learn about immigration in Canada — that once people get to Canada the difficulties don’t stop, they increase,” said Michelle Kehler, who studies social work at St. Paul’s.

Kehler said the trip has heightened her awareness of the problems the new wave of immigrants in her hometown of Brandon, Man., might be facing, such as unequal treatment and unfair wages.

“In social work, we talk a lot about policies and we talk about people falling through the cracks, but I’ve often wondered how do people fall through that crack,” she said. “By talking to people at Romero House and Justice for Janitors, for example, I began to see their faces and understand.”

One of these faces came in the form of a man’s story, related by one of the dozens of agencies they visited. This man had died in Canada from starvation because of a severe dental problem that was not covered under his temporary plan and which he could not afford to pay for himself.

“It’s not about this policy or that policy,” said Kehler. “Society needs to hold up its own.”

The group met with city councillor Joe Mihevc to learn about justice issues such as the environment and affordable transit, spent an evening with two former refugees who talked about homelessness and also attended a rally hosted by “No One is Illegal.” The week encompassed a street walk with Gateway Shelter and taking part in workshops and displays by other organizations. A highlight was spending time with past and present residents of Romero House, a Toronto refugee community, who threw a party and included the students in their festivities which included a dance.

“What’s interesting is they came here for freedom from hardship so they know how to celebrate and are very welcoming,” said Sr. Elaine Baete, the group’s campus chaplain.

Although there are no plans to make the impromptu trip a yearly event, Ryan said it will probably serve as a basis for developing local educational initiatives with students in their own cities.

In an interesting parallel, the group got to experience some aspects of arriving as an immigrant in the city. The group stayed in an unfurnished home with mattresses borrowed from Romero House and needed to use its budget wisely to acquire everything necessary for the two-week stay, from food, toilet paper and tea towels to public transit.

From experiencing some poverty themselves, to meeting the most needy of society, the group learned more than could have been imagined, said Adam Prokopanko.

“This experience sort of happened out of the blue,” he said. “It’s so interesting to see what’s going on right here in Canada. We wouldn’t have thought that we would ever spend two weeks in Toronto to learn about social justice.”

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