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Building Better Communities

Credit unions can take the lead on helping newcomers to Canada begin the difficult process of integration.

“Do you eat curry every day?”

Amal Javed Abdullah chuckles quietly recalling one of the many stereotypes she has encountered while living in Surrey, BC. “They ask me that because my family is from Pakistan and I’m a brown person,” Javed says.

She has also been asked about the hijab she wears and whether she wears it in the shower. The ridiculousness of the query still surprises her. “You don’t shower with a piece of clothing on!” she exclaims.

Though Javed Abdullah finds such questions annoying, she generally feels lucky that ignorant questions are the worst of the discrimination she’s faced. Unlike her family and friends in the Muslim community, she hasn’t yet been targeted with more overt and aggressive discrimination.

In its various forms, discrimination is both present and widespread in British Columbia. A 2017 Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (489,000 members, $21 billion in assets) survey exploring attitudes on immigration and experiences of racial discrimination in BC found 82 percent of respondents who identified as members of a visible minority group had been subjected to some form of discrimination or racism. Of those, 11 percent indicated that these experiences were traumatic enough to prompt thoughts of moving to a new location.

While disappointing, the survey’s results weren’t surprising to Javed Abdullah; “I know people who have been racially discriminated against,” she says.

Catherine Ludgate, manager of community investment at Vancity, thinks such findings ought to trouble members of all BC’s cultural communities. “We think of ourselves in Metro Vancouver as a welcoming place, very cosmopolitan and very diverse,” she says. “While that may be true,
if the populations that allow us to claim to be a very diverse community are feeling alienated or systemically discriminated against — as appears to be the case — then we are in fact not a welcoming place at all.”

“To reclaim your narrative, you should embrace whoever you are.” —Amal Javed Abdullah

But racism is obviously not just a BC problem. A recent nationally focused report jointly published by the University of Toronto and McGill University found almost a third of Canadians said the government should discriminate against Muslims when selecting foreigners to move into the country. Another third of respondents want the government to prioritize white immigrants while more than 65 percent think immigrants should behave “more like Canadians.”

Still, with 2016 census figures indicating immigrant numbers are at their highest levels in almost a century, Canada is more diverse than ever before. This creates a unique opportunity for all Canadians to reconsider and challenge broadly held beliefs that Canadian society is open and progressive. What does it actually mean to be welcoming? What can individuals do to build more inclusive communities? How can average citizens counter negative stereotypes and anti-immigrant sentiment increasingly dividing communities south of the border?

Back in BC, local credit unions have found opportunities to build leadership and foster dialogues in exploration of these critical questions, while connecting communities.

Integration challenges

The language barrier, cultural contrasts and a lack of a social support network are the three biggest challenges Dongmei (Lily) Yang says she and other newcomers face when arriving to Canada. Even though she worked teaching Mandarin to English-speaking teachers in her native city of Dalian in the Chinese province of Liaoning, Yang found immigrating to Surrey with her husband in 2006 to be a big adjustment. “Most immigrants find they are isolated at the beginning, because you don’t know anyone and you don’t know where to socialize,” says Yang. “I felt that too.”

Yang is one of 19 members of the Immigrant Advisory Roundtable for the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP). Most of Canada’s LIPs originated out of a settlement program started by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration in Ontario in 2008. Since then, partnerships have sprung up in provinces across Canada, all with the common goal of fostering “active and meaningful connections between newcomers and host communities.”

Having been formed in 2014, Surrey’s LIP is relatively new but ambitious: currently it is implementing a separate “refugee integration strategy.” The strategy is a response to the increasing number of refugees arriving to the city, since Surrey is now home to almost half of the more than 3,600 Syrian refugees who have arrived in BC since late 2015. It will focus on assisting with integration issues related to trauma, language, education and employment barriers common to these newcomers.

The Immigrant Advisory Roundtable board’s local immigrant and refugee residents represent more than a dozen different countries of origin and have played a key role in providing the LIP with insight on the experiences of newcomers to the city, in connecting newcomers to communities and in leading initiatives geared to involving newcomers in Surrey life.

“Most immigrants find they are isolated at the beginning, because you don’t know anyone and you don’t know” where to socialize.” — Dongmei (Lily) Yang

In her work with the board, Yang has helped organize large-scale social events for refugees and immigrants. She is most proud of the “Welcome to Surrey” block party she organized with fellow board members in 2015, which was attended by long-time residents as well as newcomers. Yang says social events like these help both old and new community members get to better know their neighbours, and to help overcome the feelings of social exclusion that Yang felt when she first arrived.

At its core, the work of LIPs involves multiple stakeholders — government, public and private institutions, business groups and non-profit and community agencies — working together to determine what communities need to be more welcoming and inclusive. Credit unions are playing a key part in these efforts: Yang’s welcome event was one of many similar events and campaigns Vancity has supported since the Surrey LIP first formed. Vancity’s Ludgate says the partnership has been essential for their credit union. “Credit unions should be involved in the LIPs and should listen and learn from the immigrant-serving organizations and other partners around the table,” she says. “That will be the blueprint for learning how to better welcome refugees and newcomers to our communities and to be better credit unions for these populations.”

Nurturing leadership skills

While immigrants bring cultural expertise and language skills to their LIP work, only a handful of them come to an LIP possessing the leadership and organizational skills necessary to take on more senior roles, or to execute larger projects. This is another area where credit unions can — and have — made a difference. Yang gained leadership skills through the Envision Financial Community Leaders Igniting Change (CLIC) program. First started by the Surrey Poverty Reduction Coalition and funded by Envision Financial Credit Union, a division of First West Credit Union (230,000 members, $9.9 billion in assets), the 12-week program brings together local residents interested in making an impact in their communities. Residents learn a range of skills, including hard skills like grant writing and soft skills like compassion, listening and relationship building. “It’s a marriage of theory and practice,” says Susan Byrom, senior manager, community investment at First West. The program challenges participants to ask themselves specific questions: “How are you going to be a changemaker in your community? Where does your passion lie? What do you need in order to build your confidence so you can see yourself as a leader and make a positive impact in your community?”

Yang graduated from the program’s first cohort in 2013. One of her first projects concerned the creation of a gathering place for Chinese seniors. Yang had noticed that programming gaps coupled with a lack of dedicated meeting spaces often left seniors isolated in their communities. She approached her local Fleetwood library branch about booking a room on a weekly basis where seniors could play chess and music and meet new friends. Yang was amazed when 30 seniors showed up for the first meetup and, four years on, it still runs nearly every week.

In addition to funding the CLIC training program for the past three years, Envision Financial also offers “Spark” micro grants to help graduates get their projects off the ground. A recent grant helped launch an event last September titled Reclaim the Narrative: Representation, Identity and the Young Muslim Experience, featuring a panel discussion and related workshops for local youth. The grant recipient and event organizer was none other than 19-year-old Amal Javed Abdullah who — tired of questions about curry culinary habits and hijabs in the shower — decided to produce the event to benefit young Muslims facing stereotypes and discrimination in her community. “People are antagonized for the way they are born, the families they are born into, the way they choose to dress or the way they choose to conduct their lives. It’s their personal choice what they do; it should be nobody else’s business but they are antagonized for it,” she says. “We wanted to have a conversation with young people facing these issues.”

Reflecting back on the event, Javed Abdullah says she thinks the event attendees came away with a lot to contemplate. For her, it was a message of self-acceptance: “To reclaim your narrative, you should embrace whoever you are. You don’t have to conform to who people think you should be.” ◊

What does diversity mean to you?

Diversity expert and facilitator Alden Habacon led a series of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union-sponsored roundtables organized by social services agency, SUCCESS, inviting Metro Vancouver residents and newcomers to reflect and discuss what diversity and inclusion means to them. Habacon notes that broad community conversations are difficult but fundamentally crucial exercises in building stronger communities. For him, the importance of the dialogues lie not only in providing an opportunity to celebrate immigration but also to allow people to question it. He thinks that labelling those as “bigots” or “racists” who struggle with newcomers can quickly shut down communication channels, thus working against the larger goal of inclusivity. “We are fierce in protecting our pluralism but we also have to show some more compassion and create a forgiving space,” Habacon says. He warns that with massive migrations on the way, we need to be wary of political polarization and the formation of “ethno burbs,” which are often created when people stop talking to each other. “My agenda is to use these roundtables as tools that will foster a more sustainable multiculturalism. If we leave it to chance, people will continue to stay in their bubbles.”