Diversity has created a richer experience for local businesses

By William McGinn

Randy Meredith and Rylee Rae of Grr8 Finds Market in Fenelon Falls.

There’s a common refrain in areas like this, where residents are mostly white, once the topic of diversity comes up.

“We just don’t have much diversity so it’s not a concern here.”

That is not the experience of everyone, though.

Last year at a local march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, two local teenage girls of colour, Selina Reevie and Peyton Caldoza, told the crowd how difficult it sometimes is to live in Kawartha Lakes and be Black, sharing memories of the aggressive behaviour they have endured, as well as ongoing stereotyping.

The staff at Grr8 Finds Market in Fenelon Falls, most of whom are members of the LGBTQ community, were victimized last year in what the OPP described as a hate crime. Several men tried to intimidate staff, yelling homophobic slurs, and even stalking the store from their truck at one point, attempting to intimidate the staff again and the customers who frequented the store.

Incidents like these show first, that there truly is diversity in Kawartha Lakes, and second, that issues related to diversity should be everyone’s concern. But what are the benefits to a business of a diverse workforce or of making diversity part of its identity?

Randy Meredith is the owner and founder of Grr8 Finds Market. Meredith says his place has become a safe zone throughout the years for people who identify as LGBTQ. Local high school kids have been able to come in to discuss their personal issues, for instance.

 “It’s their decision on when they talk to their parents, it’s their decision when they come out, but sometimes they need somebody just to talk to,” he says. “So they come in. And grab some candy while they’re at it.”

One of Meredith’s workers is Rylee Rae, head of Kawartha Lakes Pride. On the side Rae is working with the city on new Pride benches, two at Trent Severn and one at the entrance to the Fenelon Falls Chamber of Commerce. Rae has also helped organize meet and greets for the community. Emphasizing Meredith’s point, she says staff at the store “have counselled many people from behind the counter.”

Diversity is also important for non-profits, as the experience of Pinnguaq shows. This organization has a foothold in both Iqaluit, Nunavut, and in Lindsay, where founder Ryan Oliver hails from. Pinnguaq ‘s large office on Adelaide Street includes a ”makerspace” where kids and young adults can do hands-on work with STEAM principles (science, technology, engineering and math). The non-profit brings technological opportunities to rural, remote and Indigenous communities. It also publishes a magazine called Root & STEM, distributed all over the country, and hosts a podcast of the same name.

Bonnie Evans, Pinnguaq.

Bonnie Evans is an administrative assistant at Pinnguaq. She grew up in East Preston, Nova Scotia, and moved to Ontario in 2012. After working at a law firm in Toronto for three years, she moved to Lindsay with her then-fiancé, now-husband, accountant and pastor Ralston Evans. The two of them owned an office in the same building as Pinnguaq, and she was able to learn about the work the non-profit was doing.

She says she “wanted to find some type of work that was meaningful to me, where I could make a difference and feel like I had contributed in some way.” She landed a position as administrative assistant working with Pinnguaq’s chief operating officer. This job experience “has been even better than I expected,” she said.

She sees greater diversity in the near future for Kawartha Lakes. “With the way the housing market is going, there will be an influx of BIPOC people moving to Lindsay. With it will come many opportunities for people in the community to further embrace the diversity of people coming into the area.”

Diversity just makes good business sense, too, she says. “When employees are valued and treated with dignity, respect and honour,” they “will give 110 per cent back to the organization.”

The openness and respectful environment at Pinnguaq, Evans says, has helped her to overcome barriers, and has inspired her to return to university. Although she is doing her full-time job and university studies concurrently, she says it’s worth it.

“I have never felt so valued and well respected in any organization. Everyone is treated equally and fairly. They allow (employees) to contribute our ideas of how we can further grow and develop the organization into a social enterprise.”

Greg Picken, Pinnguaq.

Greg Picken is Pinnguaq’s senior lead, communications. “From day one, our organization has been about inclusiveness and diversity, and that includes making sure we reach out to a diverse audience but also respecting diverse traditions. If we only come at it from a Eurocentric or a settler-focused mindset, theres opportunities were going to miss for understanding the world around us and what we can learn from it.”

Picken says the company works with the communities it serves. “We codesign everything so it speaks from their experience in the world that they can relate to,” referring to northern Canadian and Inuit perspectives.  

Understanding and meeting people where they’re at was part of the personal inspiration for Meredith when he opened Grr8 Finds. “It was about me being who I was and wanted to be but never allowed myself to be,” which had the effect of being a beacon for others.

After the attack on him, his staff and the store in the summer of 2020, there was an outpouring of local support, and Meredith said things have been going fine since then. If you look at the positive things you can take from the experience, he says, it’s “even more clear we have an amazing community. They have been behind us a million per cent.”

Before the pandemic, the Gr88 Finds staff used to hold coffee and game nights at  Boiling Over’s Coffee Vault in Lindsay. With restrictions loosening, Meredith and Rae are organizing new in-person events, and hoping to spread them out across Kawartha Lakes.

“You often hear about doing these events at churches, and I don’t always feel that awesome walking into a church. Where you vote on whether or not my existence is acceptable isn’t a place where I feel super awesome,” she says.

By contrast, Meredith recalls how some local churches have married LGBTQ people and had tables at the annual Pride Picnic. Cambridge Street United Church in Lindsay has held a special service as part of Pride Week for the past several years. The new priest atSt. James Anglican Church in Fenelon is Indigenous bringing another aspect of diversity to a town that has embraced him and his family, as it has the family of Rev. Caleb Kim of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

“Ultimately,” said Picken, “the more we can learn about each other in our different backgrounds and experiences, it just strengthens us as people and as a community as a whole.”

Sign up for the Advocate’s panel discussion on diversity taking place at The Pie Eyed Monk in Lindsay on Oct. 28, from 6:30-8 p.m. Limited free tickets left.

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