I’m writing this in an upscale, downtown Ottawa hotel lobby. Familiar piano sonatas drift through the Starbucks-scented space while furred and hatted tourists pass in and out of the revolving doors, most of them toting ice skates or with little dogs en tow.
I arrived here after a day of multiple short flights and bus rides, from my university town in the hinterlands of the Canadian Midwest, to this capital of the arts, only to find that my room hasn’t been paid for by the university who sent me here to attend a conference on economic development in northern Indigenous communities. My meagre grad student salary hasn’t equipped me with enough of a savings account to cover the expense of the 3 night stay, nor do I have a credit card to use for the security deposit. So, I’m sitting here, waiting for the university to fix the problem, watching the people come and go, the fireplace flicker in the cozy faux living room, spying on conversations.
“Let’s go for a walk in the snow!” coos a well-dressed papa to his wailing infant. Two women, pulling on gloves and wrapping themselves in scarves, follow behind. “So – did you get a new nanny?” “She starts next week – I hope this one works out” and they disappear through the revolving doors.
I suddenly wonder how much their stroller cost. And I’m suddenly aware of the ironic nature of my presence in this place. I can “pass,” I know that. My arty-yet-tasteful clothes, my slightly-punk-yet-professional short haircut. My confident bearing, my ability to stare down the front desk manager, refusing to be flustered by these people who have the authority to throw me out on the street. I know that I have the power to fix my problem, that I belong here, that I will not be thrown out. I am accepted as one of ‘them’.
I click away at my laptop like the other business guests, looking important and unconcerned about where I’ll sleep or eat tonight. Comfortable, confident. And the truth is, I’m glad I am wearing arty, colorful clothes, I’m glad I have the confidence to carry myself in a way that makes people think I’ve been born to this way of life, that this opulence and luxury doesn’t faze me. I feel like I’m pulling a fast one on them all, and it’s exhilarating, every time. But I’m also just plain glad that I am comfortable in this setting, that I have an education that allows me to converse on an equal level with anyone in this room. I am glad I know the difference between Bizet and Mozart, Cezanne and Kahlo, Marx and Stalin. Which might be more than can be said for some of the highly paid professionals coming and going through those revolving doors.
But yesterday evening, 24 hours ago almost to the minute, I was in a very different place. A bus shelter, on a grimy, icy street, with a 20 pounds of groceries in my backpack and 50 cents in my wallet. And a boy walked up to me – a Native kid, maybe 11 years old, with a dirty unzipped coat and a cut lip. He asked if I could pay his bus fare. He said his feet were numb and he didn’t want to walk home. I said ‘the bus won’t be here for another 10 minutes. Your feet might get warmer if you walk’. His face got hard, and he rocked back and forth on his cold feet. Then he made his decision and stepped into the shelter with me. ‘It smells like piss in here’ he said. ‘Yup’. ‘You know what? People are stupid. I wanted to have a smoke the other day, and when I found out that recess was indoors and I wouldn’t get out to have my smoke, I said ‘fuck’, and then I got suspended for a week. You know what is even stupider? I’m suspended now for 20 days. Everyone here is racist. My teachers, they’re all white. I got punched by this white kid, and so I punched him back, but he didn’t get suspended, only I got suspended. At least here the homework is harder, where I was before, before I moved here, the work was so easy I was finished before everyone else. But here, everyone thinks it’s great to get suspended, but I actually want to learn because I have to catch up. It’s stupid, sending me home from school. But my teachers are all white and I always get suspended.’
What do you say to that?
We got on the bus, and 5 blocks later he got off, and I will never see him again. I’ll never know if he grew up bitter and angry and defeated, or if he fought back and demanded an education and demanded to be allowed to have a say in the formation of his world.
So when I sit in this lobby and watch these people in their furs and with their ice skates and I smile at their expensive tiny dogs, and when I revel in the thought of the hot shower and complimentary expensive shampoo waiting for me in my hotel room, I think about that kid. And even though I will never deal with the racism he will struggle with his whole life, it makes me think of all the times that I’ve eaten from food banks, the times that I’ve moved out of apartments and onto friends’ couches because my 2 minimum wage jobs didn’t pay enough to cover rent and groceries. I think of the times when being poor was just too heavy of a burden to carry anymore, and the weight of it crushed me so that I had no strength left to apply for any more jobs, or to apply to any more graduate programs, or even to get out of bed. And suddenly I ask myself, not ‘where do I fit in?’ but ‘why am I not asking myself, where do I fit in?’
I don’t ask if I belong with that boy, eating macaroni and hot dogs for dinner, or if I belong with these powerful people who shop at boutiques and browse used book stores with $6 lattes in their mittened hands. I don’t ask which group I belong in, because neither group is right. Neither group should exist. And I float above and between, and I morph and shape-shift seamlessly from one to the next, feeling at home in both places, and yet, separate from both. An observer, but also an unwilling participant.
My education will allow me to push for good things to happen, but it also costs money, and that money is spent on expensive hotels in expensive cities. My $6 latte and my vegan meal tonight will be reimbursed by the university that sent me here to talk about income gaps and social suffering and leakage of economic benefits from mining communities. And so, I write. I sit down on this faux antique lounge chair and I write to myself and ask myself, what is the role of someone in my position, what is my task? Is it to skip the latte, to pass on that trip to the book store tonight, to decline the invitation to this needless, expensive conference? Or do I forge ahead, and take all that is offered me, and do as much as I can with it to make some small change in this system that seems too big and too heavy to turn around?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I suspect there are many answers. I have friends who have chosen to farm, to build alternative systems outside of the educational and professional system. I have other friends who are travelling the world studying how people adapt to these inequalities, how they adapt to rising sea levels and shrinking glaciers. I dream of doing a little of each. But I definitely don’t know if there is a right answer. I just know that it is very very important to ask the question.