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Bias at the Beach: Addressing racism on the Sunshine Coast

Posted on March 18, 2021

On a wintry day at the beach, Kathryn sat by the picnic table, all bundled up and raring to talk about a challenging topic that confronts her town: racism.

A long-time resident of the Sunshine Coast, an area of about 30,000 people, she has seen the changing demographic in the area. While the population, according to Statistics Canada, is still largely from Western European cultures, there are now more Koreans, Filipinos, and Black people living and working on the Sunshine Coast, where the cost of living is relatively more reasonable than in the Lower Mainland.

With the Sunshine Coast becoming more diverse, the community is now re-examining notions of what it means to be a welcoming community and what belongingness looks like to different people. Living on territories of the Shishalh and Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw peoples, the residents on the coast know what binds communities together and what tears them apart, with instances of discrimination becoming more apparent in recent years. ”

April Struthers, founder of Wit Works Ltd., the Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network member for the Sunshine Coast, has been taking the lead in addressing racism in the community for years. Recently in July, she launched a series of conversations called “Bias at the Beach.”

“It started with people seeking me out. They heard about incidents taking place but the people (victims of racism) didn’t want to talk directly about it. They told someone they trusted and these people came to me and said we should talk about this,” April said. As a trusted community leader and connector, April responded by organizing these informal gatherings to talk about racism and hate.

To Kathryn, these gathering were exactly that: a space to uncover what’s going on in the community.

“’Bias at the Beach encourages us to have an open ear.” She went on to say, “We are changing the norms of keeping things hidden, and are now putting a light on the issue.”
The irony is that these conversations could not be held in public places, given the level of sensitivity and confidentiality needed to make the gathering a safe space. April recognized that people didn’t want to have these conversations in coffee shops or libraries, “So I said, ‘We can go to the beach!’” It was a space where they could have privacy, could socially distance, and enjoy a superb view.

Up until two years ago, April says “racism” was a word that people did not use on the coast. “We have been calling it ‘discrimination’.” A community connector, researcher, and an expert in organizational and social change, April has been closely studying behavioural shifts on the coast through trends and data.

In 2019, the Vancouver Foundation and the Sunshine Coast Community Foundation conducted a survey on civic participation. It showed that while 92 percent of the residents on the Sunshine Coast feel that they belong to the community, 9 percent of them said they are frequently or occasionally discriminated based on their culture, age, gender, or appearance.

As a former Organizing against Racism and Hate member, the Sunshine Coast committee had recorded stories of verbal and emotional assaults against First Nations and other racialized communities. This has led to withdrawal and isolation from the community, according to the committee’s 2017 report.

April explained: “We have to make sure that people are not harmed in coming forward. Talking about it (racism) is really hard. People need a listener to validate it — a witness. Then to ask a question at the end, how can I help?”

Many of the participants have been parents in biracial families whose kids are being bullied in school and community settings. April says the community must learn about bystander behaviour and how to be a good ally to people who face barriers in their community.

As a member of the Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network — a multi-faceted, province wide approach to challenging racism – April is also engaging Indigenous leaders, the RCMP, elected officials, former politicians, community workers, and business people to address racism in the community through a protocol.

She sees the Network as a tool for creating social change and a platform where anti-racism activists and advocates around the province can share best practices.

As for the community, and other rural areas similar to Sechelt, April hopes that people will start reframing their mindset by thinking about building a community where everyone feels like they belong. “I would challenge us all to think about steps we can take to continue our own participation and to encourage that of others….Rather than ‘live long and prosper’, it is more like ‘connect and live long.’”