Abbotsford’s Hushed History of Racism: Understanding modern racism

A submitted photo of Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra from Sandhra.
A submitted photo of Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra from Sandhra.
Aly Laube - CIVL - AbbotsfordBC | 24-04-2021

By Aly Laube

A submitted photo of Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra from Sandhra.

A submitted photo of Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra from Sandhra.

As a researcher at the University of the Fraser Valley, Olivia Daniels has noticed a divide between the white and brown students. A post made this year saying that there were “too many immigrants at UFV’ was met with a disturbing amount of support online, spurring Black Connections, a UFV-based group for supporting Black culture and excellence, to respond on their Facebook page, she recalls. 

That online hate looked disturbingly similar to the racism she studied in old Abbotsford newspapers, she says. 

“The scary thing is, as much as the talk against Asian people in this newspaper was a long time ago, it actually sounds a lot like the criticism of South Asian People in Abbotsford, especially at UFV.” 

“I think if the town were more mindful of their own history, maybe they could feel pressure to change for the good of others.”

She says these harmful ideologies must be disrupted so they aren’t passed down to younger generations as they have been.

“This concern of too many people coming in from a foreign place sounds like a lot of the same feelings people felt back then. White people were angry in the 1920s because they thought Asian immigrants were stealing work from white people, and that’s something we still hear today,” she says. “Maybe people today aren’t going out and burning crosses, doing it so overtly, but it’s all microaggressions at this point, and that may be harder to identify.” 

In a 2015 article for Vox, journalist Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote that “microaggressions are more than just insults, insensitive comments, or generalized jerky behavior.” 

They're something very specific: the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person's membership in a group that's discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.

Psychologist Derald W. Sue, who's written two books on microaggressions, defines the term as "The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people."

Saying “where are you from?” or “you speak good English” can sound like “You are a foreigner,” and “You don’t belong here.” Saying “I don’t see race” denies a person of colour’s experiences and essentially assimilates them into the dominant culture. These are just a few examples of microaggressions. 

Although the Abbotsford Heritage Society did issue a statement in recognition of some of these facts, Daniels says the phrasing makes it seem like it was a one time thing — an exception to the norm in the city. Her paper strongly opposes that, instead arguing that “this was a recurring thing the community liked to do and spoke highly of, and there would be hundreds of people that would show up.” 

“That was something that was very alarming to me when I read it: At one of the lectures that were held, there were hundreds of people that showed up. At the festival, it was a couple hundred people, so these were popular, mainstream events. It’s definitely not a one-time incident,” she says. 

“Once Canada was really into the fight against Nazis [during World War II], I suspect a lot of the client support went down.” 

Yet we still feel the repercussions of this history today, where white supremacy survives in different, harder-to-see forms. 

Rajnish Dhawan is an associate professor with the department of English at UFV and a playwright. He distinguishes two types of racism he's seen at work: hate-based and ignorance-based. 

The latter is more common in his experience. For example, people who don't know he has a PhD will ask him if he's a recent immigrant from India or why he's good at speaking English. Once, another teacher asked him if he was a student while he was eating lunch in the faculty lounge — as a nearly 50-year-old man. In the classroom, students have complained about the Vaisakhi parade, letters to the editor express concern about Vaisakhi, but never the Christmas parade. The list could go on, says Dhawan.

"We still think of the colonial as normal, and colonial is by default white, so the Christmas Parade is fine. Unless that normalization is redefined, we will continue to see this," he says. 

Part of the reason why racist microaggressions like this are still so common in the Valley is because it's segregated, Dhawan says. The line that separates West (brown) Abbotsford from East (white) Abbotsford is arbitrary and racially motivated, he says. In response, he encourages people to be more curious and open about one another's cultures and belief systems. 

"There is no avenue for intercultural exchange. We are doing this, but we are very small," he says. 

He wants the Abbotsford council to invest in supporting artists of colour to increase their visibility and affirm their value on a systemic level.

"This is the first step in terms of intercultural inter community dialogue. Once you start talking, you become comfortable. There is so much misperception about people of color that can be easily erased with a little bit of promotion of art and culture,” he says. 

“Think about something like that where the communities come and laugh together, cry together, share stories together, not like those multicultural festivals where the only thing about India is about dancing and fighting. We need complex themes in terms of art, in terms of music, in terms of going beyond the stereotyping.” 

“Get rid of tokenism, get rid of stereotyping, and get to the essence of art and culture.`` 

Folks in Abbotsford should also try to understand other belief systems like Sikhism and Buddhism, since they coexist already in the city. He sees Abbotsford as a “Bible Belt” where religion is a primary concern for most residents. With that in mind, he says, people of all faiths need to learn to respect one another. 

"Nobody's asking you to convert your religion or anything, but just go there once in a while and invite us to the church, too," he says. "Here I went to church once initially and the whole sermon was about denigrating the other face and telling people that this is the real one. That needs to change at the community level. You be good with your religion. Other people are good with other religions. The people who don't believe in religion, let them be good with that. Learn from them and teach them, and that would be over with,” he says. 

Canada’s education system also has a part to play in the racism in Abbotsford, and across the country, and it’s important to remember that generations of students have been taught whitewashed histories. Educational materials on Abbotsford’s history largely exclude people of colour aside from irregular documentations which exist mostly to frame white settlers as generous patrons to more recent immigrants — for example, when Mennonite-owned businesses made donations of lumber to build the Gur Sikh Temple. 

The vice president of Black Connections, a club at UFV that fosters a greater community for Black people in Abbotsford, Marc Forcier is focused on reforming the education system. He says there needs to be more Black history in K-12 curriculum everywhere in Canada, including in Abbotsford. He wants to become a teacher so he can shape those curricula himself and act as a role model for Black students.

“In terms of war  and how much we learn about that in social studies or history class, Black erasure is completely there, but Black Canadians and Black Americans also fought in World War Two … So how about we start including that in the curriculum, too?” he asks. 

“But no, because you want to continue on these narratives that we the majority group kicked ass with no help. That's just such a lie. It does no good for students not to tell the truth, especially students of color. Because though we go through the regular curriculum, we're asking ourselves so many more questions: Just how this can be the truth, but we're not a part of the truth? At least that's a question, as a student, I'd asked myself in those classes.”

He was constantly othered at school growing up, which didn’t change when he started going to the University of Victoria. 

“I remember going to one of my first year courses at UVic. African American history was the course. And I remember one of the assignments, we'd have to spend about 30 minutes or something on a website that discussed lynchings and how lynchings were a public or social event. You'd bring your friends out to the lynching, and then you would take photos, and then you would send those photos of lynched Black bodies to your friends, so I had to sit through a class and the only Black student in that class at university. Though hard, I'm happy I learned it because I didn't know about it. Because my high school never taught me about it. I feel like you should get a whiff of that kind of information in high school, and I was never taught that.”

In 1804, Haiti had a revolution and became the only slave nation to defeat its masters in the history of slavery. He would have loved to learn about that, and wants children in the system now to have access to that history so they’re empowered.

“The Haitian Revolution that is not taught about in history books? You tell me about that at age eight, I'm going to be empowered by my people, but there's a dominant narrative going on and it's the white narrative,” he says. 

“For Black people, there's no point in a past that's good unless you go to pre European colonial aspects. Before the Arabic slave trade, maybe that might be a good time for us, but all that history is lost or stolen and hidden somewhere.”

The City let Black Connections down this year, says Forcier. They had a partnership with City Studio where the club would create a public Black Lives Matter mural in Abbotsford, but that never happened. The mural was supposed to be on the ground permanently, but at the last meeting before the artists went forward, the deal changed. 

“We'd have this Black Lives Matter mural there for two months, and then after that, we'd have panel discussions, kind of some surveys, blah, blah, blah, to figure out if the community wanted and/or needed a Black Lives Matter mural in Abbotsford. So at that point, we just pulled our club out of it. I discussed it with the President, and we were just like, ‘We're out. We were brought on with the understanding that it was going to be a permanent mural. That was made clear at the very beginning. I just sent an email to the organizers, really just telling them how I felt that this is an insult.”

Forcier was the only person of colour on the board for this mural project, which he says was otherwise constituted by “wanting to do good women.” But Black Lives Matter is not a message that’s up for debate, Forcier says.

“How am I supposed to return to my community, like members of my community, my team really, and tell them, ‘Hey, I know I pushed so hard to have us join this group so we can get this mural. And I know you guys all said don't do it. And you are right.’ You have to have some hope. You're like, ‘This group might be the one to actually see something through. We're gonna see things through because we need it. And we're not going to let others stop us but we do need the help of others too.”

“You agree, or you don't. Also it's not in a blatantly obvious place, so don't feel threatened about us saying a message about caring for people.” 

Allison Gutrath is the diversity education programs supervisor at Archway Community Services. Under that role, she provides project management for the local immigration partnership project, a program focused on creating a welcoming and inclusive community within Abbotsford for newcomers who are living in Canada. She also works on Archway’s Resilience BC projects, which are related to their Fraser Valley Human Dignity Commission, a group dedicated to doing anti-racism work in the community. 

Archway accepts reports from people who have experienced racism and discrimination through online submission, phone, or email. After submissions are made, they follow up with the people who sent it in to see which type of support, resources, and referrals they need. Then they track those incidents and share them with the provincial government. 

Gutrath has been working in the diversity education program for over 20 years, and has seen racist hate crimes ebb and flow during that time. At the beginning of 2020, she noticed a rise in anti-Asian racism. They started getting more reports from people who felt targeted by racial slurs and racist notices posted around the city, which continued into the spring. With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in May, things started to change. Archway saw a significant increase in the number of the reports they were receiving — about eight in a two week period from the end of May to the middle of June. The rate has “dropped off somewhat” since then, which Gutrath hopes is due to more community support and anti-racism education. 

“I think most newcomers who come to Abbotsford, generally speaking, are having positive experiences,” she says. “There are definitely times, though, where people who are newcomers are experiencing racism and also just exclusion, right? It’s difficult for someone who’s new to fit in either with cultural barriers or language barriers.”

“Within Abbotsford, in the past 10 to 15 years or so, there has been this development of racism towards the West side of Abbotsford, where it’s mostly South Asian people and families. I’ve heard racist comments that realtors will tell people who are buying a house, ‘You don’t want to buy over there,’ and so there is some significant racism that’s happening around people’s perceptions of different parts of our community, of different neighbourhoods, and at the same time that’s not true. Not everyone living on one street speaks a certain ethnicity or language, and not all people of a certain ethnicity are newcomers either.” “I’ve heard that many times from a lot of different people, these comments about the west side of Abbotsford, but it seems that they don’t ever have any sort of attribution. They’re usually just loose whisperings in the wind. It’s hard to figure out what the source of these things is, and that’s really the intention.” 

Naming white supremacy in Abbotsford is crucial, advocates say. That can start with residents and culminate in meaningful change, she says. 

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.