Comment: How renting in Jasper awakened my empathy

I grew up in Jasper with an abundance of privilege.

                                                                   I was raised in a big Cabin Creek family home, with big south windows, majestic views and a backyard with endless, pristine wilderness. Eventually, I bought a condo here and continued to live an advantaged lifestyle. I loved frequenting the nature paths I walked as a child.

Life happened, then I moved away. Now, after living away from my home community, and after gaining an important shift in perspective, I’ve come back. I no longer own a home, but I’ve found the experience of finding a place to rent has allowed me to explore my privilege and awaken my empathy.

I work with the Mamowichihitowin Program (The Cree word for all working together), an initiative of the Hinton Friendship Centre. As a psychologist, I work with elders, grandparents, parents and children suffering from multigenerational trauma and oppression. This work has been a gift, but in 2008, when I started out, I was struck by my ignorance as to the history of the First Nations people of these mountains. Slowly, I began to chip away at my blindspots. Slowly, I noticed how my privilege had skewed my perceptions.

When I returned to Jasper in the fall of 2016, I struggled to find a place to rent. How different this experience was for me: from independent ownership, to renter; from privileged to displaced. Perhaps influenced by my connections to the Moberly family—the ancestors of whom were evicted in 1911 from what we now know as Jasper Park—I wondered if I too would have to leave Jasper. I started to imagine what it must have been like for these homesteaders on the day they left, and how their homes were decimated. I would never compare my experience to that of the First Nations people of this land, but I did feel more compassion and empathy for the displaced than I ever had before. I started to see how my previous privilege separated me from vital issues of Jasper, not only historically, but presently.My situation helped me see in a different way the paradox of Jasper: surroundings of unbelievable beauty along with pain, hardship and loss. This of course was true for many of the mountain Metis families who lost their homes, but also for those presently trying to find places to rent.

During one visit to Jasper last year, I had the opportunity to tour some of the higher end tourist accommodations. In contrast, the following day I met with a local woman struggling in the depths of poverty, oppression and multigenerational trauma. Over time, I also spoke with middle class families with kids who were trying to pay the mortgage while taking serving shifts. Then I noticed the summer employees with high rental costs working two jobs, as well as many stories of those living in cramped rental situations to make end’s meet. I heard of families scraping together extra income via AirBnB suites, and single parents barely staying afloat. As far as I saw it, there was no reason to travel outside of the park to see the rich/poor gap growing and even the middle class struggling. The juxtaposition of extreme high socio-economic status sharing the same community as those struggling to find basic structures in which to live bothered me immensely. I felt guilty by my own ignorance and lack of consciousness of this issue in the past.

As my elders and teachers say: “Surrender into the middle of the continuum and this is where mystery and grace can be found.” Some days, I can hold the paradox of wealth and materialism with the injustices in Jasper and this world. Rather than walking forward with anger and destruction, I try to find the middle. The middle, to me, means being present with both the beauty and underbelly of Jasper.

In a sense, my life has come full circle. Coming back to Jasper as a renter gives me more capacity to work with those in pain, and in my ongoing journey of exploring my privilege and experiencing having less, my empathy has been awakened. I still question if I can truly understand those that are marginalized, but I am thankful for this path of increased consciousness and I am grateful for the opening of my heart.

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