Vancouver festivals elevate cultural awareness and empathy and help counter growing xenophobia

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      Trumpism and its Canadian mutations have taken some of us by surprise.

      Five years ago, who would have thought that a rising tide of xenophobia would wash over parts of the world, fuelled by populist demagogues who delight in highlighting differences to advance their political positions?

      In a lecture at SFU Woodward’s earlier this year, international-affairs commentator Gwynne Dyer recited a long list of elected authoritarian leaders—Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Mihály Orbán among them—who exploit people’s fears over job security just as it feels like robots are taking over the workplace.

      Populism has a great deal of appeal in Canada, too. A recent poll conducted by the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue revealed that almost a quarter of respondents believe Canada is offering too much protection for minority rights.

      In Quebec, a shocking 48 percent of respondents said they feel there is too much freedom of religion.

      Fortunately, in Vancouver there are many multicultural festivals that are countering people’s lack of understanding of their fellow citizens and other countries.

      For instance, when the Richmond World Festival was created in 2015, nobody ever dreamed that it would be a useful counterweight against Trumpism and bigotry.

      But that’s been its effect in our community by bringing diverse cultures together from around the world for a weekend of intercultural arts, food, and music. It’s actually helping to counter xenophobia in Metro Vancouver.

      The Labour Day weekend celebration of TaiwanFest in Vancouver is another event that has served as a channel to bring together diverse cultures.

      This year’s 30th-anniversary event had the theme Riding the Waves With Vietnam, which saw the organizer, the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association (ACSEA), team up with the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Society (SEACHS). This was the fourth installment of TaiwanFest’s Dialogue With Asia series, which previously engaged communities from Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines.

      Charlie Wu (far left) assembled a large team to help him with this year's TaiwanFest.
      Charlie Smith

      One of TaiwanFest’s hallmarks over the years has been to educate Canadians about Indigenous peoples who lived in Taiwan throughout the centuries when it was being colonized by the Dutch, Spanish, Han Chinese, and Japanese. Another has been to educate Vancouverites about sustainability in Taiwan.

      The visionary behind this festival is Charlie Wu, managing director of the ACSEA. He’s not interested in creating an ethnic silo only for Taiwanese people. Wu’s objective is to form deep and lasting bonds with people from a multitude of cultures. Wu is also the brains behind LunarFest, which is where the Straight caught up with the only Vancouver police officer of Mauritian ancestry, Const. Darren Ramdour. He’s part of the VPD’s diversity and Indigenous-relations section.

      “I’m trying to spread unity,” Ramdour said at this year’s festival. “I’m trying to learn about different communities and I’m trying to spread what I learn within the communities and within the department. The more we know, the richer we are as a person.”

      He and Wu are not alone in this regard.

      The Indian Summer Festival also promotes tremendous cross-cultural dialogue and music, bringing together Indigenous, South Asian, and East Asian artists, comedians, and writers in a smorgasbord of events. One of its curators is Jarrett Martineau, who is Nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) and Dene Suline from Frog Lake First Nation in Alberta. He is also the host of CBC Radio’s Reclaimed and the City of Vancouver’s cultural planner for music, and he likes creating points of encounter between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. It’s not fusion; it’s interculturalism in which artists do not give up their identity. And it’s helping to promote an appreciation for other cultures.

      Indian Summer was created nearly a decade ago by the husband and wife team of Sirish Rao and Laura Byspalko. Their goal is not only to educate people about India’s thriving arts and cultural scene but also to introduce festivalgoers to the best of what’s being offered by other performers and writers. As an example, they put on a concert at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts this summer that brought together a Grammy-winning Jewish American classical guitarist, Sharon Isbin, and Amjad Ali Khan, an Indian Muslim and one of the world’s most celebrated classical sarod players.

      Paula Murillo is the executive director of Latincouver, which puts on the annual Carnaval del Sol festival.
      Charlie Smith

      Carnaval del Sol is yet another example of interculturalism, drawing performers, artists, and chefs from Mexico to Chile and Argentina to a memorable Latin American plaza.

      The brainchild of Colombian-born Paola Murillo, executive director of Latincouver, the annual event at Concord Pacific Place reflects a region of more than 600 million people.

      Like Wu, Rao, Byspalko, and the organizers of the Richmond World Festival, Murillo has ensured that the Indigenous people of Latin America haven’t been overlooked.

      In fact, the Indigenous and African roots of the region occupied centre stage at several events during Latin American Week.

      These Vancouver residents probably don’t think of themselves as cultural warriors taking on Trumpism.

      But in a way, they’re doing their part to help Vancouver become an example to the world as a city that rejects the type of small-minded, bigoted thinking that’s become depressingly common in so many other places in 2019.