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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 10: Our town, their town

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 27, 2003

On a Friday night in May, the social options for Brooks's young and single are limited. There's one aging movie theatre, the bowling alley is closed except for group reservations, and the Brooks Bandits have packed their pucks away for the summer.

Brooks offers many routes to Jesus (but no mosque), and at the Victory Church of Brooks on the edge of town, you could take in a 30-minute sermon weighing the discipleship of Peter against the idolatry of Britney Spears. The people in theirs 20s there, all white, will passionately debate how they should get to pray in class, if their teacher gets to wear a turban.

It's a different crowd, though still mostly white, at the Oxford Hotel, a dark, dingy place that everyone in town calls "the Zoo." A least it's not Wednesday afternoon, when the main game is to throw coins at the strippers sliding around on the dance floor. On weekends, they have a band, and the place is filled with young locals dumping cash on cocktails.

Among them, monitoring his slurring, slopping friends, is Errol Sturgeon, 23, home for the summer from studying nursing in Hamilton. "Anxiety is contagious," he observes when asked for his assessment of race relations in town. He says people who have been away are easier with the "new scene" - he plays pickup soccer with a few guys from Sudan - but he's still careful.

"It becomes very awkward once you get a black guy and white guy in a room. You don't know how to act. You never know if you're going to say hello and he's going to snap, if he's one of the black guys who's been harassed by white guys. Even though I have nothing against him, I don't know what he thinks of me."

What is striking is how the uneasiness stymies even the young adults most open to change - on both sides. The wary circling seems based on fear, either of experiencing racism or of being perceived as racist.

"It's like when you come close, they don't want to be near you," says Kongolo Kebwe, who just turned 30, and is originally from the Congo. "After a few years, it becomes normal. Before, I tried to understand it. Now, I don't see it."

"By the time we've evolved enough," says Larissa Stone, a 20-year-old from Brooks, "it will be too late - because they will have been hurt."

A survey conducted this spring by The Globe and Mail and the Centre for Research and Information on Canada found that rural people in their 20s expressed a similar openness to diversity as urban 20s. They were slightly less comfortable hearing different languages on the street - but then, they experience it less. Other studies have suggested that an urban-rural gap on ethnic tolerance can be explained in large part, by education level: Where you live matters less than what you've learned.

But in a small town like Brooks, Mr. Sturgeon and Ms. Stone explained, there are fewer mixing opportunities. There's no university to facilitate it, and the young Sudanese tend to save their money, not going to restaurants but spending their free time learning English instead. People party with the friends they have known from high school and plan their eventual escape from town.

It will be better, Ms. Stone suggests, for the next group, growing up together.

But that doesn't mean she feels comfortable with the split she sees now. "I worry that because they put up with it from some people," she says, "that they will think I am the same."

Consider Ezzie's, she suggests, the infamous hip-hop club across town, with the metal detector at the door and the bouncers linked by headsets. Its clientele is about as mixed as you get in Brooks. It has a reputation for fights, but usually, customers and staff say, it's just a stupid scuffle between two drunks of the same race - a few years ago, police pepper-sprayed a rowdy crowd watching two white guys pummel each other outside.

Cowboy hats may be replaced by backward baseball caps, but there is an invisible line drawn, and the black clientele hangs out in a corner, by the DJ booth and the shooter bar. On the dance floor, there is the odd mixed couple. Often, the black guys dance alone, their eyes closed.

Ms. Stone remembers how she used to chat with the Sudanese women about clothes in the washroom, but that doesn't happen any more. The mood has turned frosty. "I think they've put up a wall," she says. "The ones that still walk around [the nightclub], I think they're new to Brooks, they haven't experienced being treated like shit."

At Ezzies tonight, Ms. Stone grabs a black guy walking by and hauls him out under the disco lights. She might have danced with him anyway, but she also knows she is being photographed. His name is Motie Shekata, a 22-year-old Ethiopian, who works at Lakeside.

"I don't like it here," he says, standing outside later. The women, he says, can be friendly, but for the most part people look right through him. "If you say hi to them, they are strangers to people. Their minds are closed."

Under twinkling icicle lights and a stuffed version of the Elks Community Hall's namesake, the Sudanese of Brooks are having a party as if the world outside - with all its uneasiness - doesn't exist. A group of women worked all night cooking bucketfuls of traditional Sudanese food, and now the buffet table has been emptied.

A few community leaders give political speeches, updating the audience on the situation in Sudan, and celebrating the May anniversary of the birth of the Sudanese people's liberation movement. (The community is itself occasionally divided by politics - Christians outnumber Muslims, forming a majority they don't hold back home.)

Then, in black-and-white costumes, a group of young men and women step out in front of the large hall and perform a flirting, taunting tribal dance - a love song, traditionally performed at weddings. One man videotapes it so it can be distributed to parents who want to teach their culture to children with few memories of Sudan.

This gathering stands in contrast to the boisterous town party two weeks later, the Brooks Rodeo, where a mostly white crowd will watch mutton busting and steer wrestling.

There are several hundred people at the hall, and this is one reason why so many of the discussions about race in Brooks centre on the Sudanese: While other nationalities have kept a low profile, the Sudanese are organized. The weekend before, with some funding from the town, they officially opened their own community drop-in centre.

"Personal contact is not working here," says the head of the Sudanese-Canadian Association of Brooks, 30-year-old Atek Monydhar. "What we understand in Canada is that if you don't unite yourselves, no one will listen to you."

You could count the white people in the room on your fingers. The pastor of All Nations Harvest Church, Dean Southern, has brought his family, but along with many of the younger families, they leave before the disco ball and dry ice comes out for dancing.

There are a few young white women hanging out with Sudanese guys, including two who are a few months from having babies with their boyfriends. But just about the only white man present, sitting quietly at one of the long tables, is blond, blue-eyed Cameron Segaert.

He comes from Saskatchewan, works in the boiler room at Lakeside, and has fallen in love with Nyaibol Deng, 25. She sits beside him in a fancy evening dress. They met one night at a laundromat where Ms. Deng was unhappily doing her roommate's laundry, and between the wash and dry loads, Mr. Segaert struck up a conversation, and offered to drive her home. "I'm from Saskatchewan," he assured her. "You've got nothing to worry about."

She was surprised. Most white guys, she says, were too intimidated even to say hello. When he phoned repeatedly, she finally gave in and said yes to a date. Last Christmas, he took her home to meet his parents. They moved in together a week ago.

At first, Mr. Segaert says, some of the Sudanese guys were jealous. Ms. Deng was asked why she had to date a white guy. "There aren't many single Sudanese women," he explains. "But I used to work in the patch, so I don't scare easily."

At a wedding in Medicine Hat, Ms. Deng says, some of Mr. Segaert's friends weren't that friendly. "But some people from my country aren't friendly either. So it didn't hurt my feelings."

They get looks when then go out, and Mr. Segaert notices that he gets treated differently when he is by himself. "But it is unspoken."

In a back room before services at All Nation, two boys stand on a chair, playing basketball on an old arcade game. Their names are Mayar Mayen and John Curlew, both 5, best friends, and fond of teasing the girls in the kindergarten playground - as if it were the most natural thing in the world that a Sudanese boy might become friends with a truck driver's son in a small town on the prairies.

In a few years, the children of Ms. Deng and Mr. Segaert might be on that playground. They are the promise of the place Brooks could be, in time - the place that, in its heart, it wants to be.

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