Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/7/2017 (892 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NEEPAWA — The Land of Plenty has an abundance of welcoming citizens, according to Neepawa residents decrying a recent graffiti spree that turned the town’s slogan into a racist decree.
During the long weekend, the Welcome to Neepawa sign on the east side of town was defaced with a derogatory term used to malign Asians, particularly of Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese descent.
The graffiti has been perceived as a slight against the community’s fast-growing immigrant population, particularly directed at Filipinos. In recent years, HyLife Foods made a major push for immigrants, specifically people from the Philippines, to work at its hog processing plant, transforming the community of 3,200 to more than 4,600 people today.
Officials at the Neepawa and Area Settlement Services believe one-quarter of the community’s population is now Filipino.
Neepawa residents, however, have refused to let the racist remark define them, a town booming because of the arrival of immigrants. Businesses and residents alike have stepped up to offer donations to rid properties of the graffiti.
Before Neepawa Mayor Adrian de Groot had the chance to investigate the welcome sign for himself, a business leader called to offer whatever assistance possible.
"We don’t want to give them the satisfaction of glorifying or acknowledging what they did, trying to put our community in disarray," de Groot said. "That’s not happening here. People are stepping forward and assisting, saying, ‘That’s not us.’"
By Wednesday, the graffiti on the welcome sign was removed, along with tags on buildings at the Neepawa Lions Riverbend Park and the town legion.
One of the markings told Asians to go home. The other slurs were targeted at the government and British monarchy, Spruce Plains RCMP acting Staff Sgt. Mark Morehouse said, who explained that police have increased patrols in the affected areas.
Knowing the welcome Rochelle Unico felt when she emigrated from the Philippines nine years ago to become a nurse, she was taken aback by the defaced sign.
Her 14-year-old daughter Sofia had to research what the term written on the sign — "g—ks" — meant.
"She was disheartened as well, she was sad, and at the same time she was wondering why," Rochelle said. "She’s never had any racist remarks in school because all her friends are Canadian."
Sofia said there was one other time, waiting for her mother at the hospital, when she noticed racism. Two elderly men, who thought she didn’t understand English, made derogatory slurs against Filipinos.
These slights, her mother describes, are like a rotten tomato in a garden of fresh tomatoes.
To root out the problem, Rochelle, treasurer of the Filipino Association of Neepawa and Area, plans to hold a private community meeting with Filipinos to discuss what they can do.
She wants to show that while "some people might think that everybody feels this way (in Neepawa), they don’t."
Longtime residents are kind and, she said, Filipinos are involved in community life, volunteering with numerous events, fundraising for a new church roof and selling spring rolls to raise money for sick kids.
"We’re normally not that active of a group, but if I tell them, ‘We need to do this,’ we’ll be there," Unico said.
Amid an afternoon rush of customers at Tim Tom Asian Grocery on Mountain Avenue — a store run by Filipinos — manager Ayma Amora was saddened by the graffiti.
It’s not the Neepawa the recent immigrant has come to know. The people "smile at you, they greet you," she said.
Kris Dionzon, a meat cutter at HyLife, made Neepawa his home five years ago.
Sitting back at the grocer with a coconut water in hand, Dionzon smirked when asked if people are friendly here.
"Even the old men and old women are welcoming," he smiled.
In terms of the integration of Neepawa’s newcomers, Myla Ignacio is as knowledgeable as anybody.
Arriving from the Philippines in 2013, she is employed as a settlement worker with Neepawa and Area Immigrant Settlement Services.
At first, she didn’t believe such a racist comment could be scribbled in her new home.
"There is this hurt," she said, pointing to her heart. "We were horrified. Who could ever do this?"
"But this town is just so welcoming," she added right after. "We know that this doesn’t represent the whole community."
She has since been floored with messages of support following media reports, even phone calls from people she doesn’t know.
"I’m now having goosebumps, just hearing their reaction," she said. "It’s just that those words, those slurs, it is not used often, so when you see that, you say, ‘Wow, this person really knows the word that will pierce through the heart of Asians.’"
In fact, she feels Neepawa has laid out the welcoming mat so well she couldn’t think of ways the town could improve.
Welcoming groups are established, churches go out of their way and a cooking class is run for newcomers.
And starting this year, Ignacio began teaching a conversational Tagalog class, helping educational assistants, medical professionals and whoever else learn a language spoken by nearly every Filipino citizen.
People have signed up, solely so they can converse with their new neighbours.
Rrain Prior, director of programming at ArtsForward, organized the class after enough people asked for it. The class costs only $5 per person due to business sponsorships.
People in Neepawa were so impressed by how Filipinos took to the English language, they "wanted to be able to return the favour," Prior said.
"I’ve heard stories from people, who were in the very first class, having conversations with their neighbours. And then hearing how surprised (the Filipinos) were to being addressed in Tagalog," she said, adding she hopes to expand the class this fall so more people sign up.
"I love it, I think it’s fantastic."
Ignacio is in full agreement.
She sacrificed to be in Neepawa, separated from her husband for four years as they waited for the necessary approvals to bring their entire family over.
He found work at HyLife. She, a teacher by trade, latched onto a different form of teaching, showing other people how they, too, can settle in Neepawa.
She reminds all her clients their journey to Canada did not start with a plane ticket, but a dream for their future.
"I’m always teary-eyed when I think about it. You leave something behind to come here, but this is not for me, this is not for my husband, this is for our children," she said.
"So when we saw that sign, somehow there’s a little bit of fear. What is going to happen to our kids? We thought this is a safe zone, but wherever you go, it’s clear this is just an isolated incident."
» Twitter: @ianfroese