Hundreds of people came together in Penticton, B.C, on Friday for an anti-racism forum.
The event, Confronting the White Elephant Exploring Anti-Racism, was hosted by South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services (SOICS).
“We’re hoping that this is just the start, that this starts more conversations, more learning about what is anti-racism and what we could all be doing to make more inclusive and equitable communities,” said SOICS Executive Director Cherry Fernandez.
“The title, Confronting the White Elephant, actually comes from a story in the East. The white elephant is looked at as a luxurious gift, often given by royalty, and as such you can’t refuse it. Unfortunately, it comes with this hidden curse — it comes with a hidden curse. Because this white elephant requires that you care for it, that you feed it, that you maintain it and it is done so the detriment of the owner.”
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Fernandez went on to say that like the White Elephant, racism can be costly to society.
“We currently have systems, practices, behaviours that we continue to uphold and it’s really to the detriment of our community as a whole,” said Fernandez.
“It is important that we (have) these conversations, that we bring it out in the open so that we can do better.”
According to the settlement organization, there has been an increase in demand for their services largely due to what they say has been an increase in racism within the community.
Prior to the pandemic, SOICS provided about 7,500 services, and last year, not including data from the last three months of 2022, SOICS provided 5,400 services.
“It’s happening right here in the South Okanagan Similkameen. Some of it is higher-profile but it’s happening, the vast majority is unreported,” added.
“Our mission is really about building more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable communities and part of that is to provide the education.”
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More than 200 people attended the forum on Friday, including community members, local government representatives, students, and businesses.
The event featured a number of speakers from Canada and the US, including Jula Sukumar, Constituency Assistant for MP Richard Cannings.
“I feel very strongly that we desperately need an anti-racism overhaul in the South Okanagan. We still face a lot of very real threats and racist structures that are really threatening the fabric of our diversity in South Okanagan,” said Sukumar.
“I did feel very strongly about being able to speak and being vulnerable and sharing my experience growing up in the Okanagan which was not always great.”
Sukumar added that she hopes to make a difference within the community that she grew up in.
“Growing up I just felt so othered. Like as much as I had my fellow East Indian community, I still felt quite othered by a lot of the white community growing up here,” said Sukumar.
“I moved away and I had vowed I would never come back but I’m back here now and I hope that I can at least be a small part in undoing some of those systemic racism structures.”
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Anthony McLean was also one of the many speakers on Friday, McLean has travelled around the world for anti-racism work.
“I travel all over and I speak about diversity, equity, and inclusion in Canada, the U.S., as far as Australia,” said McLean.
“It’s all about creating a society where everyone belongs. Regardless of your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, you belong here.”
His presentation at the forum surrounded the idea of showing empathy.
“I received an email from someone that heard I was speaking about racism in Penticton, and they emailed me saying there is no racism here, why don’t you take your lies somewhere else like Africa. And it was shocking, number one because the person couldn’t see the irony that they’re denying racism while being racist towards me,” said McLean.
“Empathy, that willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, their willingness to say, even though I haven’t had that experience, I’m interested in your experience, and can I be part of a community where everyone belongs?”
Although it was a one-day event only, organizers hope that the tools and resources learned will go beyond just the forum.
“This is the next step where we start to dive in and say are we a safe community for everyone and if not, then what can we be doing,” said Fernandez.
“It’s not a conversation that can happen in one day, it’s one that is ongoing.”
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