After three days of painting and repainting the same canvas, I was ready to give up. I dropped the paintbrush onto my makeshift paper-plate palette and sat down, tuning into my surroundings for inspiration. The plywood wall closing in the checkered floors was still waiting for a door replacement after a car had driven through it four and a half months earlier. 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 this lullaby of chitchat, a two-year-old girl ran up to my painting, which was propped against the wall with a long plastic table. 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. I smiled, reminded of my two-year-old niece back in Virginia, who has regularly sent me scribbled masterpieces while I’ve been in Canada. Her dad tried to pull her away, but I let her stay. She easily painted what I couldn’t capture: beauty on the west side of Saskatoon, a sprawling city where I have been interning for the past five months with Servant Partners, a faith-based movement that offers resources to neighbors in need.
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 or First Nations people, 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, usually limited to the Global South, expanded to include Canada, where Indigenous activists are shedding light on First Nations history and culture.
When I heard about the opportunity to live among First Nations people, I knew I was interested. Thanks to international refugee placement and the growing number of Indigenous peoples leaving reservations for the city, Saskatoon is the fastest growing city in Canada. I live with my host family on the west side, which has a larger percentage of First Nations people and refugees than the east side.
My primary work has been to visit local organizations and volunteer 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. It serves as a space to warm up in the winter and cool down in the summer with free drinks and snacks. Guests also chat, read and use the internet. A mix of First Nations people and white settlers soon became regulars. However, the neighborhood also has many Karen (immigrants from Myanmar), Nepalese and Black refugees who do not use the space. The staff was curious as to why the center seemed to attract a certain demographic and started 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 jobs was going door-to-door with other staff, getting feedback from community members about the community center. We went to the houses around the drop-in, which were incredibly different in shape and color. A number of residents sat on the steps outside, taking in the summer sun and sounds of children playing. There were, of course, mixed responses to our work. Most people were excited about the center, but we also had 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 neighborhood where the center resides.
I had absolutely no experience in community art except for a program I did in high school, but I was never one to turn down an opportunity to create something. I started by making thumbnail sketches and listening to people’s suggestions but soon jumped right in with paint to see where it would take me. During shifts where there were three people running 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 this: what does shalom — the Hebrew word for peace, but better translated as the complete picture of God’s kingdom where everyone is represented and cared for — look like on the west side of Saskatoon?
In art, it is always difficult to represent others’ stories when my own background inevitably influences the work. For example, I tend to think the best is in the past, so I started off creating 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 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 referred to in the painting. Remembering the words and teachings of elders is respecting First Nations culture as well as continuing to call for the British crown (which Canada accepts as symbolic head of the Commonwealth of Nations, of which it is a member) and the Canadian government to be held accountable for the treaties they have signed.
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 and 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.
It turns out finding shalom is a lot easier than imagining it from scratch.