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Seventy per cent of respondents reported feeling 'isolated, lonely and unsafe in Victoria' as a direct result of racism
When Florentien Verhage first moved to Victoria from rural Virginia two years ago, her vehicle sported a Black Lives Matter sticker.
“I did feel that people often were surprised,” she recalls. “The thinking was like ‘well, you can take that sticker off now, because you're in Canada here. You don't need that’.”
Since last summer though—after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police sparked anti-racism protests around the world—Verhage says that attitude has shifted a little.
More people in Victoria now seem willing to talk about racism and acknowledge that it is not just a US problem, according to Verhage. But acknowledgment doesn’t go far enough to solve the issue, and there’s still a long way to go before enough people are aware of just how deep seated it is.
A new report, spearheaded by the Greater Victoria Local Immigration Partnership (GVLIP) and the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA), found that 71% of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour personally experienced regular instances of racism in Victoria over the past five years.
Seventy per cent of respondents also reported feeling “isolated, lonely and unsafe in Victoria'' as a direct result of racism. Further, the report found that racism impacts people’s physical health and life choices, like where they decide to live, work, and go to school.
These findings are the results of a survey launched by the two organizations last fall, and, according to Verhage who is a coordinator at GVLIP, was originally meant to reach about 100 people.
Instead, after the summer of racial reckoning, the decision was made to expand its scope and invite more people to respond. In the end, 398 people filled out the survey.
By and large, its findings do not surprise people of colour, but Verhage says the fact that the survey was even conducted in the first place angered some white respondents.
Some of the reports from the survey indicate that along with overt forms of discrimination, racism in subtle forms, known as microaggressions, has a major impact on racialized people in Victoria.
“People in any encounter—in a store, or in a community around your school, or the workplace—are friendly, but then would not include you in any kind of networking activities,” Verhage explains.
“It’s where you get people to smile at you, but not necessarily include you in activities [or] really show interest.”
The report includes some anonymous quotes from respondents, shared with their consent, to demonstrate some ways in which microaggressions manifest in Victoria.
“While I’ve experienced overt racism, the majority of the challenges I’ve faced were experienced through covert racism in the form of racist comments and jokes which has the effect of alienating people belonging to [a] minority group,” reads the testimony of a South Asian immigrant.
Other quotes embody the isolating impact of racism in schools, workplaces and beyond. Respondents reported hearing racial slurs, experiencing and witnessing cultural appropriation, and being treated as “not really from here” regardless of whether they were an immigrant or a citizen.
In addition to regular incidents and attitudes, the pandemic has exacerbated racism against certain groups. In 2020, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes in BC rose by 900%, and BIPOC migrants reported disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 infection and hospitalization.
“I feel unsurprised when things got worse because of the pandemic, just disappointed, which made me feel worse,” reads a testimony from an East Asian person who took the survey.
“Reaffirmation that even though I grew up in Canada and am Canadian, that could be revoked at any time as though I am a second class citizen. The racism I have experienced, especially this year, has been sickening. I have not felt safe outside of my home since March.”
But while the report highlights the experiences of BIPOC, 46% of survey respondents were white—and some of their responses reflected a lack of awareness that is present in the wider society.
“I did see people saying, for example, that just bringing up the topic of racism is racism itself. So those comments were more [about] people just being mad that we did this to begin with,” Verhage said.
“There were definitely some people saying that they felt that in Victoria...as a white person [they] cannot go anywhere without being made to feel guilty.”
More than half of all white respondents to the survey said they feel Victoria is a very or fairly welcoming city—a sentiment that is clearly not reflected among racialized people who weighed in.
For Boma Brown, the fact that the report found a vast majority of BIPOC experience regular racism in Victoria is not surprising at all. Rather, it validates her own experiences.
After growing up in Nigeria, Brown moved to Victoria 10 years ago. Within three years, she noticed a lack of support services for racialized women seeking healthcare. So she created the Support Network for Indigenous Women & Women of Colour (SNIWWOC).
“When I started [SNIWWOC] in 2014, it‘s because I had to deal with the realities of facing racism in Victoria,” Brown said. “Our work is focused specifically in health care, but the fact that racism exists in the city is not new information in any way.”
The existence of this report—the first of its kind in Victoria—and the availability of concrete data to back up the experiences of BIPOC in this city is something community advocates have been calling for for a long time, Brown says.
She points out that more awareness is needed because many people still don’t see racism as a Victoria problem—an issue that is highlighted in the report.
In creating the Racism in Victoria report, Verhage and the research team encountered several logistical challenges they hope will be easier to overcome if they decide to conduct this community survey again in the future.
The first was gaining people’s trust by making sure they know that the information they’ve shared is being used in the way the organizations said it would be used.
“All of that takes time: to really say that when we are gathering data, we are doing something with it,” Verhage said. “We're also protecting your information in the sense that if we're promising that it's anonymous, it really is anonymous.”
Some of the decisions about methodology involved balancing the need for statistical accuracy and making sure the survey was accessible to all.
For instance, the research team decided to allow people to fill out the survey multiple times from one device. While this made it technically possible for one person to complete it more than once—which could render the outcomes statistically less accurate—it was an important way to make sure more people could access the survey.
“We know from our clients at ICA—newcomers—that they very often have only one device, like one computer in their house,” Verhage said. “So if multiple people in the house want to fill in the survey, that is something that would then be a barrier.”
Despite these thoughtful considerations, there were some gaps that meant many immigrants from BIPOC communities in Greater Victoria may not have been able to access the survey.
For one, there wasn’t enough funding to make sure it could be accurately translated into other languages.
The project overall was funded by part of a grant that the GVLIP receives from Immigration, Refugees, Citizenship Canada (IRCC) every five years, but there was not enough money to offer the survey in multiple languages.
“For a future iteration, that's going to be high on our list. I also think it would be easier to get some extra funding for that, now that we've done it once and people see what comes out of it,” said Verhage.
More funding for anti-racism initiatives and organizations at a grassroots level is also high on Brown’s list of priorities.
According to her, BIPOC women’s organizations in particular are struggling just to meet their basic needs to support their clients. And smaller nonprofits that were founded more recently do not yet qualify for grants on a renewable basis—they must apply for funding on a project to project basis.
That limited capacity means organizations like SNIWWOC are called to go above and beyond what their resources really allow them to do.
“We have clients who, when they face racism, they call us. We have to say ‘please call the cops first, we cannot come in and save you,’” Brown said. “But that's because people sometimes feel more safety going to a racialized women's organization.”
“That's one of the things that our campaign is going to be advocating for. For organizations to be able to provide stable support to their clients, these organizations themselves have to be able to have stable funding, so clients are not left hanging when projects are over.”
Beyond funding, Brown believes this report shows why members of the community need to be more aware of racism and speak up when they see an act of racial discrimination—a call to action that was echoed by the majority of survey participants as well.
Other calls include a need for stronger anti-racism legislation, more data collection on racism, and increased diversity in leadership roles.
At a municipal level, some of this work has already begun.
Another person who wasn’t surprised to see the outcome of the survey was Victoria city councillor Sharmarke Dubow.
“It validates the experience of Indigenous, Black, Asian and other people of color,” Dubow said. “This report is actually well researched and well done, so that now it's not anecdotal. There is data and there is evidence.”
But another thing he, Brown, and Verhage agree on is that after acknowledging its existence, it takes time to bring about real, tangible changes to combat racism and racist systems.
In the past year, Dubow has spearheaded two city initiatives in an effort to get the ball rolling.
The first motion, passed in July 2020, called for Victoria to acknowledge the International Decade for People of African Descent, along with a slew of other tasks like creating an advisory committee to decide how to implement the Decade, creating an internship program for people of African descent, and providing anti-racism training to all city staff.
Now, nearly a year later, the advisory committee has still not been convened—and is not expected to be until September—the internship program has not yet been created, and so far council has approved funding for staff to recruit consultants who will then look at how anti-racism training will be implemented for staff.
To the casual observer, it may seem like things are moving at a snail’s pace, but for those familiar with municipal politics, a certain level of bureaucratic lethargy is to be expected.
“I think city council, like any other kind of level of government, is just a bit slow-moving,” Brown said. “I'm happy with the direction of how things are going...I'm waiting to get to see [the initiatives] actualize and to see things actually moving forward.”
One of the promising aspects of this motion is the fact that committee members deciding how to implement the International Decade for People of Africa Descent will receive some financial reimbursement from the city.
For Brown, this means BIPOC are compensated for the often tiresome work of sharing their feedback and analysis, and the prospect of being on the committee becomes more appealing for low-income residents.
“Sometimes, it's just not feasible for people of color, who are often lower income than the rest of the population, often are working multiple jobs, often have families and things like that to be able to dedicate their time to city projects and committees,” Brown said.
“If there's a stipend it means that international students, local students, low-income people, people with families are able to support the initiative, just so the city is able to get a more varied perspective.”
Another encouraging initiative is the ‘Help Make Victoria a More Welcoming City’ project launched by Dubow and Mayor Lisa Helps just last week.
Part of this project invites Victoria residents to share their feedback about what would make them feel more welcome in the city, their experiences of inclusion or exclusion, and their ideas about how to make Victoria a more welcoming place for all. The online survey for this project is open until May 30.
Another part of it is that members of a Welcoming City Task Force—which includes community leaders like Verhage—have been assigned to collect input from BIPOC (including members of SNIWWOC) about how to make the city more inclusive through a series of workshops.
Armed with this feedback, the Task Force will submit a presentation to council in July with their recommendations for how to build a more welcoming city.
“There will also hopefully be a town hall with myself and the mayor,” Dubow said. “We are inviting community expertise and people with lived experience to help inform the development of the draft recommendation to ensure the strategy reflects the collective voice, vision and values of Victorians.”
In its 2021 budget, the city has allocated $40,000 for the development of the Welcoming City Strategy, and $75,000 for the International Decade for People of African Descent initiatives.
With this funding ready to go, Dubow says tangible action has already begun.
“I'm no stranger to hate and racism. I have the privilege to speak up,” he said. “Yes, I would have hoped [for these changes] to happen sooner. But the work is underway.”