By ROBERT BIRCH
Back in March of 2020, I became increasingly aware of the fraying of our island’s social contract. A friend and long-time server who brought joy to morning commuters for over a decade bluntly stated, “I can’t take people’s entitled behaviour anymore. This is class-based violence. I quit.”
Months later another waiter said he and his fellow workers were being verbally assaulted daily by challenging customers. “Not tourists, these are islanders, people I’ve known for years.”
I next witnessed someone loudly demand the attention of three employees to explain why she should have paid full price for an organic grapefruit. (She had neglected to see the sticker on it.) Then I overheard an owner-receptionist at a health clinic explain to a peevish client, “I’m sick and tired of feeling like I’m being punched in the gut!”
Eight of us gathered last week online to bear witness to stories about abusive behaviour toward public employees. A manager, care worker, social educator, therapist, activists and caring citizens showed up to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of those working in the public and make a call for action.
We’re all needing role relief from the pressures of these times. The concern is when we become one another’s threat. Domestic violence is skyrocketing. Abusive behaviour on Salt Spring has, for some, become a daily norm. This includes our publicly engaged workers.
“It helps when the boss defends me. But, what boundaries are available to protect me and my fellow workers?”asked one person.
One owner said to my husband, “I’m not sure if we can handle this much longer. After 15 years in business we may have to close our doors.”
Many of us have what is known as “pandemic privilege,” while still feeling significant personal anxiety when we are often not in harm’s way. Part of this privilege is to bear witness and leverage resources toward actions identified by those harmed, such as hazard pay.
“Many of us have been living so ‘big’ we have confused our privileges for our rights,” said one participant. “We’re in shock of losing these.”
A local manager regularly has to ask customers to return later.
“I pride myself on helping someone having a bad day leave with a smile on their face. We used to have to ask someone to leave the premises once a year. Now, it’s every other day. The swearing and stomping out .. . We’re not here to police people’s choices or behaviours. We’re also not here to be your therapist. We just want to do our job and get home, too,” said a store manager.
How we communicate influences outcomes. If someone sends out a childish message, many of us are conditioned to respond with a parentalizing message. Or vice versa. When working with youth I suggest, “If you want to borrow the car use adult-to-adult messaging.” (More 16-year-olds have thanked me for this tip than any other in my career).
How well are Salt Springers communicating? Symptomatically, online hit and run belligerence has certainly infected social engagement. Given today’s overwhelming circumstances, however, it is important to distinguish between entitled behaviour, where people act out their pent-up frustrations on others at home and work, and a genuine mental health episode.
We need more education to know how to be present and/or remove ourselves during unsettling moments. As a bystander, if possible, apply calm. Step out of the way, take a quick risk assessment for physical harm, and take several deep, slow breaths. Once the incident has passed, acknowledge the person harmed with a simple nod that says “I see you,” or, “I’m sorry that happened.” Please leave and process elsewhere.
Increasingly we may all need support with skills that can diffuse, protect or deflect harm. Many public workers are already experts on their own coping strategies. Perhaps with the help of the Chamber of Commerce, workers, business owners and mangers can think through more efficacious structural supports.
During our online forum, Restorative Justice volunteer and co-facilitator Laura Dafoe offered a brief meditation. “First, focus on our own anxiety and vulnerability. Listen to what is hard at this time, be it missing what fills us up — such as visiting family and friends or the pain of watching the news or social media. Notice how are we all sitting with collective grief.”
How do we hold each other and ourselves with compassion? Laura invites us to imagine someone we see in public, say at the grocery store, and wonder what it might be like to be them, facing their own insecurities and anxieties, their own losses and struggles on top of their public service. Reflect on their capacity to show up, love. Be curious about what brings dignity and respect for them as well you. Also, extend care toward someone from a non-dominant group, someone likely experiencing significant added pressures. “While we can never fully know their pain, we can ask, ‘what are their fears and feelings, what are they needing during this time?’” suggests Laura. “Facing this together we are showing up to the suffering in a healthier way by cherishing the lives of everyone, including our own people, with presence and whole heartedness.”
While mindfulness techniques have been shown to be very beneficial, our practices and policies need to be placed within broader social constructs, such as the social determinants of health, i.e. supporting greater access to helpful resources.
“During crises, productive actions support wellness,” reminds community advocate Darlene Gage. As a community, let’s continue to discuss our collective mental health, acknowledging those of us at greater risk. Several new initiatives are in development.
Over the coming weeks, one offering will coordinate online facilitator training to co-develop circles of support where people can meet across class and other social divisions to grow capacity for emergency preparedness and related coping skills. Encouragingly, society has become more educated about personal and collective trauma and how this impacts physical, mental as well as social, economic and ecological systems, in many cases for generations. Learning about harm reduction models helps society better understand compensatory processes for self-soothing to regulate anxiety. Tragically, for the thousands who have died due to poor substance use policy that chose policing over upstream interventions, we have moved far too slowly. Let’s advocate for change.
Humanity is pulling together. Salt Spring cares. Evidence of this is everywhere; people are making extraordinary efforts for us each day in many ways seen and unseen, cultivating grace under pressure.
“We’re all undergoing a profound process. We’re all experiencing a death and are looking for a rebirth,” says Laura Dafoe.
The writer is a community counsellor and facilitator.