By Kieran Heffernan
When Pam Buisa first started working at the front desk of a hotel in Victoria 10 months ago, she couldn’t have predicted the learning experiences she’d gain from it.
The Team Canada rugby player has been doing much more than answering phones and checking people into rooms ever since the province she now calls home converted a number of hotels in the city into housing for the homeless at the start of the pandemic.
Buisa, who was born in Ottawa and raised in Gatineau, described her new role as a type-of first-responder.
“A lot of what I do is still answer the phones. But (I’m the) first point of contact if someone overdoses, I’m the one that’s receiving the police or the ambulance, or even myself having to perform with the Naloxone kit,” she said.
Buisa also informally performs what she calls emotional service.
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“A lot of it’s talking to people, it’s, ‘How are you doing today?’ I see people entering and exiting the hotel, so it’s noticing their demeanor before and after, seeing someone having a panic attack, and leaving my front desk to sit down and having a conversation with them.”
The postponement of the Olympics, where the Ottawa Irish alumnus had hoped she would make her first appearance as a member of Canada’s women’s rugby team, also pushed her into a new arena – one of activism. She became an organizer in Victoria for Black Lives Matter, a movement she had no prior experience leading.
She’s also found that the rescheduling of all her athletic plans has given her the chance to look inward and think about how she engages with those around her.
“A lot of my time has been to reframe and refocus the way that I think of community and engage with community,” she said.
“That reframing was very much like, how do you provide aid, and how do you show up or create a community of care in a way that is empowering someone rather than empowering yourself as a means to get whatever you’re looking for.”
Much of her perspective up to that point was informed by her parents who immigrated from the Congo in 1996 to escape a dictatorship, and had to go back to school in order for their qualifications to be recognized in Canada.
“That’s kind of the foundation of how I understand my work ethic and where I’d like to see myself go,” she said. “It’s very much based on the fact that because I know I have reaped the benefits of the privilege that my parents provided for me, and through my hard work, that I also have a responsibility at the level that I’m at to also reach out to those and amplify the voices (of those without that privilege).”
The unexpected realities she’s faced through her job at the hotel has pushed her even further to examine her outlook on life, and what she wants to do beyond rugby. As a student at the University of Victoria studying political science and minoring in social justice, she’s well-versed in many of the social and systemic issues of the present time, but having been first-hand experience confronting issues like drug abuse and racial inequality has been something entirely different.
Buisa has met people coming from all sorts of backgrounds, whether they have mental health problems, use substances, or have been incarcerated. As much as she is there to help them, she said she feels the exchange is mutual.
“I also receive as much as I give in to relationships, and not simply that I’m here to save you or take you out of something,” she said. “We’re in this together.”
Because she is not a trained mental health professional, a lot of what she has learned came just from seeing how residents interact with each other.
One concept in particular that Buisa has found important is what she calls “radical love.” Although she’s still exploring what it means, right now she describes it as “how (to) validate and humanize people rather than demonize their condition.”
This idea is one Buisa finds extremely relevant today, though she’s been thinking about it for a number of years.
“Within the lens of Black Lives Matter, it’s like, how do you see human beings, human life in a way that they matter? When you think about people like George Floyd, George Floyd was in and out of jail, and a lot of the criticisms of him was that he was someone that used drugs, someone who’s in and out of incarceration. How do you show up and care for someone, even if you may not necessarily like them? How can you see that that human being matters?”