Belleville: An inclusive city

In a world where some people talk about building walls, people in the City of Belleville are attempting to break down barriers – and the Inclusion Committee helps move things along

Belleville – It’s a city full of different races and religions; different foods, different fashions. It’s a long-time home for some, and a place of new opportunities for others. But, however it applies to you, you are welcome in Belleville, a Bay of Quinte region city of about 50,000 people nestled in Eastern Ontario along the Highway 401 corridor.

In the spring of 2014, the municipality launched an Inclusion Committee formed by community leaders representing the municipal, law enforcement, immigration services and social services sectors, among others. The benefit of this committee’s work is becoming more visible every day.

The committee’s student designed logo – showing smiling crayon faces of different colours – has been plastered around shops and public buildings. The committee’s work has led to leadership summits to discuss diversity, celebrations of multi-culturalism at local worship centres and even public displays of unity. Following, the January 2017 attack of a Quebec City mosque, committee members helped mobilize hundreds of people for a candlelight vigil in support of Belleville’s Muslim community.

“Our community is strong and more resilient because of our diversity,” Belleville Mayor Taso Christopher said, at a recent celebration at Bridge Street United Church. Community members had gathered at the church, a beacon of downtown Belleville, to mark the fourth anniversary of the Inclusion Committee forming. Christopher, who was wearing a sticker of a Greece flag to honour his own heritage, later added the city is working with committee members and the United Nations Association Quinte Branch to “make racism vanish.”

The drive to make Belleville renowned as a multi-cultural, inclusive city dates back beyond the launch of the Inclusion Committee. Former Mayor Neil Ellis, now Member of Parliament for the Bay of Quinte riding, started working with top city staff about a decade ago to make a plan to bring new Canadians into the city, knowing that a push on immigration would, not only enrich the community culturally, but also lead to the population growth needed to build the economy and generate a stronger tax base.

It wasn’t easy. When the plan went public, he got one nasty signed letter; a moment he describes as an “all-time low” in his time as mayor. But he quickly learned that people who oppose multi-culturalism in this region are a dying breed. The vast, vast majority of people he sees support diversity. Events like the recent fourth-anniversary celebration re-enforce that truth.  “You’re going to need a bigger building next year,” he said, looking at the hundreds of people, representing a range of cultures and faiths, who had packed the church’s auditorium.

The anniversary event also included a performance by a choir made up of students in English language classes at the Loyola School of Adult and Continuing Education. The school, run by the Algonquin & Lakeshore Catholic District School Board, has a Belleville campus, which is renowned for helping new Canadians – including many recent Syrian refugees – adjust to Canadian life. The uplifting choir performance (much like the ones held at Loyola’s annual June graduation ceremonies) was tear-jerking and brought the crowd to its feet. Later two Bhangra Dancers gave an energetic performance that brought the crowd to another roaring applause. The evening started with a performance by Jonathan Maracle, a Mohawk musician from neighbouring Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, whose musical act is called Broken Walls. It was born out of his desire to, metaphorically speaking, break down the walls that divide visitors to the land and First Nations people.

Singers from the Loyola School of Adult and Continuing Education.

Jonathan Maracle delivers a musical performance at the Inclusion Committee anniversary event.

Two Bhangra dancers brought the crowd to their feet with an energetic performance. Bhangra dancing is a style of dance, native to India.

They were all fitting acts for the evening. In a world where some people talk about building walls, people in the City of Belleville are attempting to break down barriers. And in a world where clashing cultures can bring about conflict, Belleville chooses instead to celebrate multi-culturalism. “This is a non-political event,” said Christopher, re-iterating the city’s stance to embrace each and every culture that makes up the community’s fabric. “When we walk into this door, we are one.”

— Written and Photographed by Stephen Petrick