By Emma Pietrobon
Growing up in suburban Orleans, I have been sheltered from many things. For the most part, seeing the effects of homelessness and poverty was not a part of my everyday life. I was usually surrounded by wealth, whiteness and privilege – most of my friends lived in big, suburban homes in a comfortable lifestyle. My sheltered bubble of privilege changed in the summers of 2017 and 2018 when I began working for a summer program in Ottawa. The program involved travelling across the city to visit parks and administer free activities to children for 1 hour time slots. For 3 days of the week, we would visit parks in the east end of the city – mostly wealthy areas with updated parks and structures. However, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, we would visit parks in the west end of the city – parks that were often in low-income areas, with old structures and unkept field areas.
My experience between the east end parks and the west end parks were vastly different. In the east end, the children were often uninterested with our activities and would rather play on the structures or engage in an activity outside of the program. This was normal for me, as I grew up around most of these parks and was used to this kind of normal. There were rarely big groups of children at these parks, as most attended summer camps. On the other hand, at the parks in the west end of the city, the children would flock to us as they saw our van drive up and participate in our activities for the full hour that we would administer programming to the park. This comparison is not to highlight the differences between the children – I am comparing the two to highlight the difference of privilege between lower income and higher income areas in the city of Ottawa, and how sheltered these areas can be from other realities in the city.
One park in particular that we visited in the west end, Sandalwood park, always stood out to my colleagues and me. The park was located off of Heron road and consisted of mostly a large field with a small, outdated play structure and a basketball court. The park was located next to Heron Gate Village, and it was almost always full of neighbourhood children playing or looking for something to do during the summer days. When we would come to Sandalwood park, we would have almost 30 children joining in the crafts and games; we would often run out of supplies due to the number of children looking to participate in the program. For the first few weeks, going to Sandalwood park was overwhelming to my colleagues and I, as we were not used to administering the program to so many children at once in the east end of the city. However, by the end of the first summer we grew a connection with the Heron Gate community children and visiting them became a bright part of our weeks.
Heron Gate Village is an affordable housing community in Ottawa, which housed mostly immigrant and non-white families. I experienced first-hand the sense of community that had been created between the residents in this area. During these two summers, I was able to spend time with the children of this area and see into a portion of the lives of the Heron gate community children, challenging the preconceived notion I had of low-income areas in the city. This community was inclusive, caring and tight knit, always looking out for one another. I remember always seeing a large group of caregivers in the community gathering in the park with young children, creating a network of dependable people to the residents needing childcare in the community.
Unfortunately, the Heron Gate community is no longer the community I experienced in 2017 and 2018. Since then, development plans for luxury residential housing have displaced the Heron Gate Village residents with no alternate living options to fall back on. By the second summer administering programming at Sandalwood, construction had started to develop the 3 condo buildings near the park. The construction was noisy and dangerous and had taken up a portion of the park with construction equipment and workers. Most importantly, the development company began sending out eviction notices to the residents of Heron Gate Village, disseminating the once vibrant Heron Gate community. Families had been given eviction notices and were forced to find alternate living situations with little to no support. and since then, almost all of the residents have been forced to leave the community.
The displacement of low-income, predominantly non-white neighborhoods in order to create housing which will cater to high-income earners in Ottawa highlights a form of systemic racism that exists in Ottawa, and more broadly in Canada. This marginalized community was not involved in development plans and were given little to no support in finding alternate affordable housing. The treatment that this community faced is extremely disheartening considering the challenge to find affordable housing in this city. This once vibrant community of Heron Gate no longer exists due to overdevelopment of the city which benefits the rich, with no care for marginalized communities in general.
Living in the sheltered bubble of suburban Orleans, I rarely experienced life outside of wealth and privilege. My experience at Heron Gate during the span of those two summers allowed me to experience a raw sense of community and togetherness that existed in Heron Gate. More broadly, it allowed me to change the narrative I previously had of low-income areas in the city. It allowed me to look past my surroundings and see a community of people coming together to support one another, regardless of race, income or living situations. My experience at Sandalwood park highlighted the systemic racism against marginalized communities in this city, and how easily these communities get displaced for profit, while also highlighting the bubble of privilege that I had experienced most of my life. I will always value the time I spent at Sandalwood park, as well as the understanding of the realm of privilege I live in every day.
Emma is a recent graduate from Carleton University’s Communication and Media Studies Honours program with a minor in Psychology. She is excited to expand her career in the field of communications, and is currently working on a communications team within the Government of Canada. Aside from her studies and work, she enjoys spending time with friends and family.