Abbotsford’s Hushed History of Racism: Tying history to present-day racism

A photograph of Lauren Southern, famed alt right figure from Abbotsford, BC. Credit: Wikimedia commons.
A photograph of Lauren Southern, famed alt right figure from Abbotsford, BC. Credit: Wikimedia commons.
Aly Laube - CIVL - AbbotsfordBC | 24-04-2021
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By Aly Laube

A photograph of Lauren Southern, famed alt right figure from Abbotsford, BC. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

A co-chair of the Race and Anti-Racism Network and professor at UFV, Rocksborough-Smith says white supremacy in the city now looks different than it did in the 1900s. Organizations like the Heritage Society are predominantly white as well, as are most of the other influential groups in the valley. Abbotsford is also the only city in the valley that didn’t swing NDP, and stayed largely Liberal in the last provincial election, and it’s the home riding of the Christian Heritage Party, which Rocksborough-Smith describes as “a white nationalist neo-fascist party.” This reflects the ideals and beliefs of the people living there: Largely conservative and religious. 

“There’s a social conservative block here in the valley that’s connected to evangelical churches, and I’m not an expert on that, but I think that’s an area to think about critically: The influence those kinds of entities have had on local politics and whether that’s a mirror to the evangelical right wing lobby in the States that has been fairly consistently supportive of Donald Trump and the right wing of the Republican Party.” 

This “invested power block” needs to be criticized and dismantled in order for serious change to come, Rocksborough-Smith says. While there are mostly old, white men in the municipal government in Abbotsford, it’s home to a large immigrant community. Still, as someone who grew up in Burnaby, he sees the Fraser Valley as the “Bible Belt of the Lower Mainland where conservative Christian values always dominate.” 

“There’s a younger generation that’s totally multi-racial, and in fact, I would argue whites are the minority in that case. That’s the new vision, and it’s like the older generations who are clinging to these antiquated views of what Abbotsford culture is supposed to be really need to check themselves.” 

Why is Abbotsford fertile ground for white supremecist organizations? Christina Reid says part of it comes down to who lives here and what their religious beliefs are. People don’t like to talk about that, she says, which is part of the problem. 

“If you are a religious person and you’re funding an organization that says there’s fertile ground for racism within the religious community, bye bye funding, right? I know it’s not gonna be a popular thing for many people to hear, but it’s the same thing with the LGBTQ thing. There are a lot of people, when they realize that I hire people who are LGBTQ+, they don’t want anything to do with us. The religious aspect of things comes into play here because you will see that the most fertile ground for the KKK was and is still to this day in the Fraser Valley.” 

“We want to be the most welcoming community, and we want to be a healthy community. That’s why we need to do this. This is why we need to give people their ownership of their history.”

Curator of Historical Collections Kris Foulds from The REACH Gallery and Museum suggests people take the opportunity to self-criticize, self-educate, and grow this year.

“This area has been settled for, you know, between 10,000 and 12,000 years, but our history is fairly young. There have only been non-Indigenous people living here since the 1860s, so when you compare that with eastern Canada, our history is very young and the fact that we’ve seen influences of all kinds of cultural groups of people from all over the world for various reasons means there are so many stories that could be told, but it was that original settler narrative that took hold.” 

In contrast, she thinks people care about addressing racism in the valley more now than ever before. 

“For many years, there just was not a response to the significance of potentially having a chapter of the KKK in Abbotsford. People are becoming more sensitive to that kind of language and those kinds of feelings, but in the past, not so much,” she says. 

“We need to discuss it with other people. We need to keep the momentum going that we have at this moment because once that momentum slows, these things fall to the back burner and eventually fade from people’s minds and the forward momentum stops.” 

The REACH Gallery is working on an exhibition on South Asian history in Abbotsford. It aims to “look at the history, culture, and contemporary character of the community,” and the team is making videos in both Punjabi and English to help educate residents. The South Asian community in the city was established just after the turn of the century. Now, the Gurr Sikh Temple — which is over 100 years old and a national historic site — is a testament to the extent and importance of this history. 

One dominant narrative among settlers in Abbotsford is that, because Mennonites gave the Sikh immigrants wood to build the temple, racism doesn’t exist in the city. 

Marc Forcier says that notion is “just not true.” 

“The Southeast Asian population who did work on the lumber mill were paid less. When things were donated, they weren't always new. It's not reflective of the newspapers or of the information in the archives. So much was left out of so many histories.” 

He recalls when St. Augustine Elementary was defaced with a racial slur in 2018, but the police refused to deem it a hate crime because “there were no Black people around to see it to be offended.” He also remembers hearing the N-word from other students and even the principal. 

He also remembers reporting another student saying the N-word to the vice principal at his school and being shocked by her response. 

Even now in Abbotsford, he says it’s common to see Confederate flags on dashboards, license plates and buildings. 

But Abbotsford isn’t the only place the KKK picked up recruits in Canada. The Kanadian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan once used the building now known as Canuck Place as an “imperial palace” for doing things like pushing for bans on Asian immigration to Canada and carrying around red, glowing crosses. They exist all over the country, and that’s a reality Canadians need to address. 

Foulds says it’s important to take advantage of the learning tools and opportunities we have now, which generations past didn’t have access to. 

“We have so much here in the archive — oral histories and documents that show these difficult histories — and it’s not comfortable. No one likes to read these sad stories and feel the guilt. One of the things about white fragility is cultural guilt for doing these things, but you have to know it. You have to accept it. You have to admit it. You have to apologize, and you have to do better.” 

There have also been some influential far right figures to come out of the valley. Lauren Southern’s so-called political career and considerable support illustrates how white supremacy has infiltrated the local student culture at UFV, says journalist Daniel Lombroso. Southern, a well-known Libertarian and white supremecist speaker briefly, who also ran federally in 2015, attended UFV for political science before dropping out. Like many UFV students, she grew up in the Fraser Valley. 

Lombroso was compelled to look into her story after covering the alt right as a reporter on college campuses. That work came out with White Noise, a feature film he made under The Atlantic to track the rise of the movement across five countries. 

“Lauren's view and the view of millions of people is that they're being replaced, our neighborhoods are changing and we have to stop it. And you know, that's much more transmissible across boundaries than people realize. No one stops. Lauren, when she's at an American event, says, Hey, you're Canadian. Why are you here? The ideology is the same. It's completely the same.” 

The far right has a strong presence in the upper middle class, based in cities like Vancouver and New York. 

“It’s not people uneducated people from Alabama in trailer parts,” he says. 

“As Surrey got more and more diverse over the past few decades … it became uncomfortable for her family. It’s a very typical white flight narrative where they decided Surrey’s not the place they want to raise their kids, and they ultimately moved to Langley, which to my understanding is a wealthier suburb further out and it’s a bit whiter as well. And in Langley, the issues changed. It was less about being the white kid among the Asians and more about dealing with the progressive education system that she resented.”

“She hated learning about the oppression of native Canadians …. She said, ‘What does my family have to do with it? They came from Denmark.’ She hated learning about the oppression of Black Canadians. Her real inciting incident, she claims, is that her teacher in her so-called social justice class — but I spoke to the school, they don’t have a class named that — wanted to separate by race and gender … and she felt targeted. She felt discriminated against. The notion that Lauren, as a white woman from a Christian background had to recognize the privilege, had to learn about it, really devastated her.” 

Canadians are vastly overrepresented in the alt right, says Lombroso, led by people like Southern. He came to understand his sources better as people, and to identify some of “the glaring contradictions at the heart of the way they think.” In the end, he found two main takeaways: 

“In the future of the conservative movement, all the young energy is behind figures like Southern or, at the political level, people like Trump, and it’s really unsettling. The film shows that very clearly. I mean, Lauren Southern is walking in the street in Toronto and people love her. A boy comes up to her, around her age, and says, ‘I admire all your work,’ and he’s referring to the moment when she went to the Mediterranean Sea and turned back a desperate migrant boat that was hoping to dock in Southern Italy,” he says. 

“I think the other huge takeaway for me is that these people who are drawn to this are looking for an identity. They’re looking for a sense of purpose in the world, and white nationalism fills you with that. It gives you a sense of identity, and many of these people are suffering from depression, they’re lost, they’re unsure of what to do in the world, and when they join this movement, they have this feeling of being found, that they’ve become part of something larger, and it’s really destructive. It’s dangerous, and I think if we’re ever gonna counteract radicalization, we have to first understand how people get sucked into it.” 

People can’t keep looking the other way, he says. That includes progressives unwilling to face their subconscious biases and challenge structural racism. 

“Southern is walking through Dundas Square and talking about how she can't see a single European face and scoffing at all the non-white people around her. She felt empowered to do that, and we still live in a world where that's normal. I hope people see that and talk about it and think about what that means and how we could come back from it over time.”

In Abbotsford, Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra is one leader who has been asking for accountability and anti-racism action from the municipal government for years. She is a sessional instructor in the University of the Fraser Valley History department, co-chair of the Race and Racism Network, and coordinator for the South Asian Studies Institute at the university. 

Sandhra says she has been ignored or belittled too many times to count, despite being an expert in the area. 

“I’m speaking from a place of understanding the machine working behind it, right? I’m coming from a place of learning. I’m doing my PhD in Critical Race Theory. I read a lot of books, and I’m not trying to be arrogant. I’m just trying to say, ‘Hear me out,’” she says. 

Changing the future starts with acknowledging history and its influence on the present, Sandhra says. The first step to eliminating white supremacy is admitting that it existed, that it hurt people, and that it continues to hurt people today. When people can acknowledge that, they can understand why it’s important to dismantle it, and to prioritize uplifting the voices of people who have been silenced, and to be honest about how racism continues to benefit white settlers. Engaging meaningfully with decolonization and creating safer space for people of colour to share their experiences and contribute could set the foundation for a more equitable future. 

“It’s a history that has been whitewashed for so long, and the fact that it’s come out now is a bit mind boggling, that nobody paid any interest to it even though this news article has always been there in the archive, right?” says Sandhra. 

“What we’re trying to show is that there is a history in Abbotsford and a silencing of that history that continues to this very day.” 

That's the end of the series. This has been Abbotsford’s Hushed History of Racism.

This series is by no means an exhaustive list of every incident that has contributed to that history. Instead, it is a reflection led by community experts in relevant areas of expertise, meant to be part of CIVL’s ongoing dedication to anti-racist coverage.