There was a strong racist, anti-immigration sentiment in the South Okanagan in the 1920s, reflected in these headlines from the era. While it may not be as overt today, racism is still prevalent in the community, says South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services executive director Cherry Fernandez. (Photo Courtesy Penticton Museum)

There was a strong racist, anti-immigration sentiment in the South Okanagan in the 1920s, reflected in these headlines from the era. While it may not be as overt today, racism is still prevalent in the community, says South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services executive director Cherry Fernandez. (Photo Courtesy Penticton Museum)

Survey hopes to shine light on racism in the South Okanagan

Racism ‘very much a reality’ in the Okanagan, says immigrant services executive director

A South Okanagan immigrant services group has launched a survey to get a better grasp of the impacts of racism across the region.

South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services (SOICS) executive director Cherry Fernandez said that racism in the South Okanagan is much more prevalent than many people would like to admit.

Many of her clients at SOICS have shared firsthand experience with racism and discrimination. The survey was launched to provide context and statistics to the vast amount of anecdotal evidence Fernandez has gathered.

“There’s this idea that this is a problem only with our neighbours down south, but it’s very much a problem here in the Okanagan,” Fernandez said.

READ MORE: Confederate flag seen along anti-racism parade route in Summerland

Since the survey was launched Jan. 6, over 250 people have responded. Out of all of the respondents who had either witnessed or experienced racism, 76 per cent said they did not report it. The majority of those who did not report racism also said they didn’t know how or where to report it.

“There’s still that misconception that this doesn’t happen here in the Okanagan,” Fernandez said. “It’s very much a reality here in the Okanagan but it’s so under-reported. Unfortunately we live in a society where we are very data driven, because it’s so unreported we have no way to really gauge it.”

Fernandez hopes the survey serves as a starting point to gauge racism in the South Okanagan.

SOICS serves immigrants in the South Okanagan Similkameen. The organization helps new-Canadians with integration services like finding a job, filling out government forms, getting a driver’s license, applying for medical, English language courses and more. On average they have 1,500 new clients each year.

Fernandez said racism frequently affects her clients at SOICS but many people who were born in Canada also face racism regularly.

“Dismissing the issue as something that doesn’t happen here… it’s dangerous because that really allows racism to show up,” she said.

She described one incident where a woman with a “foreign” sounding name was not contacted after applying for a family doctor, but her husband — who has an English name — promptly received a call back. “It’s that unconscious bias that creates unequal access on a daily basis,” Fernandez said.

READ MORE: Joyce Echaquan’s death highlights systemic racism in health care, experts say

Confronting unconscious bias starts with a willingness to listen, Fernandez explained. “We now live in a society where it is more offensive to be called a racist than the actual racist behaviour itself,” she said. “Being willing to listen and hear how something has hurt or harmed someone else is a big step in learning.

“I’ve been told many times, ‘Cherry you’re going to make people feel uncomfortable.’ My response to that is that we should be uncomfortable, we should never feel comfortable with racism. So get uncomfortable because that’s where you’re going to learn.”

SOICS hopes the survey helps to shed light on the racism issue they know to be prevalent in the South Okanagan. Moving forward, they plan on using the results in educational events and meetings with leaders from all the communities in the South Okanagan. Hundreds showed up to Gyro Park in Penticton for an end racism rally last June.

READ MORE: Hundreds gather in Penticton to end racism

They are also working to build an online racism reporting system through the Resilience B.C. Anti-Racism Network, which would offer victims support services.

The survey can be taken by those who have witnessed racism, as well as those who have experienced racism.

The survey is open until the end of March and can be found here.

READ MORE: Former Kelowna Rocket speaks out about racism in Canadian hockey, society



jesse.day@pentictonwesternnews.com

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