A first-of-its-kind study examining discrimination and marginalization in the Cowichan Valley affirms the experiences of community members who have been speaking out about it for years.
Spearheaded by Cowichan Intercultural Society in partnership with Western University researchers, the study sheds light on community members’ lived experiences with discrimination, sense of belonging and attitudes towards immigration in the Cowichan region.
It’s the first study to provide this data on a local level in the region and helps quantify anecdotal evidence that folks at Cowichan Intercultural Society (CIS) have been hearing for decades, according to Elizabeth Croft, director of development at CIS and the person who oversaw the study. Previously, the closest data local organizations and communities could use came from large city centres like Vancouver or Toronto.
“We had no data. We have a tonne of anecdotal [evidence] — we hear [about discrimination] a lot — but I think in order to deliver substantive programming you need the anecdotal and the data,” Croft says.
Discrimination in Cowichan community spaces
A total of 637 people took part in the study, surpassing the organization’s original goal of 350. Of those, 127 were identified as visible minority non-immigrants, 68 were visible minority immigrants, 94 were white immigrants, 286 were white non-immigrants and 62 were Indigenous Peoples.
Participants were asked to fill out a survey that included questions about how welcome they feel in the region, their attitudes towards immigration, whether they’ve experienced discrimination in the past three years and if their experiences with discrimination changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants were compared based on their immigrant and visual minority status and their Indigenous identity.
Survey results show that respondents who identified as immigrants, visible minorities and Indigenous Peoples reported higher rates of experiences with discrimination (between 86 and 99 per cent) compared to white non-immigrant respondents (74 per cent).
Those who filled out the survey were presented with 15 different contexts where they could have experienced discrimination — such as at work, on transit or when looking for housing.
The most common context where visible minority immigrant respondents reported experiencing discrimation was at their job, followed by on public transit, at community spaces like libraries and recreation centres and while attending social gatherings.
Visible minority non-immigrants said public transit was the most common place where they experienced discrimination, followed by at social gatherings, at their job and when looking for housing.
For white immigrant respondents, the most commonly reported place where they experienced discrimination was in public areas like parks or sidewalks, followed by on public transit, at community spaces and in a store, bank or restaurant.
The most common place where white non-immigrant respondents reported experiencing discrimination was when applying for a job or promotion, followed by on public transit, at social gatherings and at their job.
For Indigenous respondents, the top context where they said they experienced discrimination was while interacting with the courts. This option was either at the bottom or closer to the bottom in rankings for other respondent groups. Other common places Indigenous respondents reported experiencing discrimination was when looking for housing, when attending school or classes and at their job.
“All of these answers make sense to me based on what we’ve heard,” says Amanda Vance, executive director of Cowichan Intercultural Society. “It would make sense to me that places where Indigenous people reported [experiencing discrimination] included courts and for white non-immigrants, when applying for a job.”
Read also: To tackle anti-Indigenous racism in healthcare, this community group connects healthcare providers with Indigenous mentors
What do the results tell us about racism in Cowichan?
While the study itself is titled “A Closer Look: Racism and Marginalization in Cowichan,” respondents were asked to consider their experiences not with racism alone, but with discrimination, defined as “the unequal treatment of members of various groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, social class, immigration status, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion and other categories.”
Respondents who indicated they experienced discrimination were asked about the presumed basis of that discrimination — such as race or skin colour, ethnicity or culture, immigrant status, income level, religion and more. But the results of this question weren’t included in the final report because of inconclusive results as well as “confusion in how [the] question seems to have been interpreted,” the report says.
Since the basis of discrimination reported by respondents may not be race-based, The Discourse reached out to Dr. Victoria Esses of Western University — who supervised the study and other similar ones — to ask how any conclusions about racism in particular could be drawn based on these survey results.
Esses replied by email noting that a similar survey was carried out in nine other communities and the findings always showed that “immigrants and racialized people and Indigenous people are most likely to attribute the discrimination they experience to their race or skin colour, ethnicity or cuture and, for Indigenous people, their Indigenous identity.”
Esses says that because white non-immigrants reported lower levels of discrimination than those from other groups, “we can conclude that for these other groups, it is their immigrant status, visible minority status and/or Indigenous status that leads to higher levels of discrimination.”
Read also: Cowichan Tribes members share stories of COVID-19-related racism
Immigration crucial for community growth
The study’s report says that in recent years, there were more deaths than births in the Cowichan Valley region. Any population growth in recent years has been because of immigration and this statistic reflects population growth patterns on Vancouver Island as a whole.
However, smaller communities that often rely on immigrants to fuel local economies have a hard time attracting and keeping newcomers because they may not have the same resources and infrastructure to support them compared to larger regions.
The Cowichan Valley Regional District has a population of around 89,000. Of that, 13 per cent of the population identifies as immigrants or non-permanent residents and 12 per cent identify with an Indigenous identity, according to statistics from 2016. The majority of the region’s population identifies as white with only 4.6 per cent identifying as a visible minority.
“International immigration provides population increase in the critical younger demographic — a necessity for the community’s survival and growth,” the report says.
And organizations like the Cowichan Intercultural Society are working to ensure the community is supported in “embracing diversity and enhancing intercultural awareness” through programming, English language learning, employment preparation and placement and more.
The work being done by the society and a heightened awareness about racism and discrimination in recent years is starting to spark change in the community, according to Paulina Kee, employment specialist with the Cowichan Intercultural Society.
“People are adjusting their language and processes and are aware of diversity,” Kee says. “It’s been so heartening to see that other organizations have approached us with the intention to provide more opportunities for newcomers, immigrants and [Black, Indigenous and People of Colour].”
But survey results from the study suggest attitudes towards immigration are either neutral or moderate for most respondents with the exception of two groups — visible minority immigrants and Indigenous people.
Visible minority immigrants who participated in the survey agreed more with statements that suggested immigration has a positive impact in Canada. Meanwhile, Indigenous survey participants agreed more with statements that suggested immigration has had a negative impact in the region and Canada-wide.
In terms of attitudes towards ethnic groups, refugees and refugee claimants received low scores amongst all participant groups while Francophone immigrants received higher scores across the board.
Vance says she hopes results from the survey and the report itself will help people consider whether they’ve behaved in a discriminatory way before and reflect on interactions with community members.
“Did I absorb racist ways of thinking? Do I accidentally behave on them in public? When I see it at work or in the courts, what could I do to help alleviate the problem? I don’t think [these are] answers anyone will have immediately but that’s the self-reflection piece,” Vance says.
Sense of belonging tied to experiences with discrimination
Experiences with discrimination can also impact a person’s sense of belonging and safety in the community, and results from the survey affirm this.
Respondents who reported experiencing discrimination in the last three years in the Cowichan Valley also indicated lower feelings of belonging to the region compared to those who did not report experiences with discrimination.
Visible minority immigrants expressed slightly lower feelings of belonging and safety in the region compared to other groups that took the survey.
Perceptions of discrimination and whether or not communities have created welcoming spaces affect local development and the retention of newcomers, the report says. It defines a welcoming community as “a collective effort to create a place where individuals feel valued and included.”
The report highlights steps that are already being taken to address racism and foster anti-racism in the community such as the Cowichan Intercultural Society’s launch of a task force that tracks racist incidents and promotes equity. In 2020, a Black Lives Matter rally also attracted hundreds of locals and in 2021, the Cowichan Valley School District convened an Ad-Hoc Anti-Racism Committee.
But data from the survey highlights a need and desire for more work to be done and Vance says this study can serve as an informative tool for community members and organizations to work from.
Next steps for the study
While the data in the study helps affirm anecdotal evidence already known to Cowichan Intercultural Society, Vance says it has also brought about more questions — like how often people experience discrimination and details about the incidents.
Croft says she’d like to learn more about the intersectionality of discrimination in the region.
“Everyone has different challenges for different reasons,” Croft says. “So [we could] try to dig deeper into specific incidents and gather more information on that.”
But the process of performing the study — which took about two years and significant funding from the federal government — isn’t easy and has to go through various ethics approvals. For now, the Cowichan Intercultural Society doesn’t have any plans to work on a follow-up research project, Vance says, and hopes people can focus on the results from this first survey and the community response to it.
The survey also now serves as a baseline from which comparisons can be made in the future to help measure change in the community.
“This is a lot of numbers and data and complex questions,” Croft says. “It’s kind of boring but I think … self-reflection is the logical next step.”