The wrath of discrimination: Is B.C. as ethnically inclusive as it’s claimed to be?

Having heard they were arriving in Canada's most multicultural province, newcomers are blindsided by hypocrisy

Art by Christina Tran

Art by Christina Tran

After three hours of sitting in a scorching Honda Civic, Sol Dhillon finally caught sight of Canada’s most iconic landscape — the Rocky Mountains. The cascades of rock and snow marked a quarter of her 12-hour drive from Edmonton to Vancouver was in the rear-view mirror.

Grooving to R&B anthems while talking with her older brother, who was in the driver’s seat, helped time pass and eased her nerves. It was August 2022, and Dhillon was trekking towards the starting line of a new life — moving away from the life she knew in Edmonton to attend a university that was 1,100 kilometres away.

It had almost been a year since Dhillon had last visited Vancouver. At the time, she breathed in the crisp air of a late October day while strolling the bustling downtown streets, auburn leaves crunching with each step. Robson and Granville Street were filled with shoppers and spectators looking to make the most of the dry weather, a rarity for Vancouver in the fall. 

From glitzy stores to mouthwatering cafes, there was so much for Dhillon to take in, yet she noticed something particularly remarkable about these streets — the diversity.

As she walked past one couple, Japanese linguistics swirled through her ear drums just to be intertwined with Russian conversations from a passerby family. In this moment, Dhillon realized just how multicultural the city was, a concept that excited her.

Amongst the diversity, there was one element many people had in common: University of British Columbia merchandise. At the time, Dhillon didn’t know much about B.C.’s most prestigious university, yet she decided she wanted to attend post-secondary in Vancouver — a city both picturesque and diverse, it seemed to be beautiful from the inside out.

Dhillon’s daydream became a reality one year later when she stepped out of her Honda Civic and onto UBC’s Vancouver campus. The day after Dhillon arrived at her new home, a first-year, on-campus dormitory, to start her studies at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, she scurried across campus to attend orientation week.  

Like all students who attend orientation week, Dhillon was assigned to a group with whom she would interact and learn with for the following days. The students she was matched with reflected the diversity she had seen on Vancouver’s downtown streets, but the social interactions weren’t as she expected.

 Like the pull of opposing magnets, all the locals gravitated together and split up on racial lines. Dhillon, who is of Indian ethnicity, thought the interaction was strange coming from Canadians. She pondered whether those people had known each other from high school, giving them the benefit of the doubt. As the week went on, Dhillon learned these students had just been acquaintances.

After the start of the semester came and went, she realized this behaviour was a pattern amongst locals. From facing racially insensitive comments to having new friends assume she knew nothing about cultures different from hers and only wanted to eat Indian food, Dhillon felt blindsided that a city that prides itself on its racial and cultural diversity could be so discriminatory.

“[The discrimination] happened so much, I’ve almost become desensitized to it,” Dhillon says. “It’s always looming over me. … It’s like there’s this cloud on top of you [that indicates] you are this race, that is all you can be, and that is what most people see you as. It’s so demeaning.” 

B.C. is Canada’s most ethnically diverse province with almost 30 per cent of the population having immigrated from another country, the provincial government’s website reports. The origins of B.C. residents can be traced to over 200 countries, and the province welcomes around 40,000 new immigrants annually. In Vancouver, a majority of residents identify as a visible minority, according to the 2021 census. The provincial government sees multiculturalism as “a way of life” in B.C., as stated on their website, and citizens are entrusted to “respect other people’s lifestyles, beliefs, religion and culture” by law, an ideal that’s proven to be non-existent, especially in Vancouver, in recent years.

A majority of non-European British Columbians face discrimination with the most common forms being poor customer service, verbal harassment, and being the subject of racist jokes, a 2019 poll by Research Co. found. Out of British Columbians who identify as a visible minority, 82 per cent experience discrimination or racism, a 2017 poll conducted by Vancity found. In 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes in Vancouver spiked 717 per cent, according to the Vancouver Police Board, with 98 acts of violence. 

In recent months, B.C.’s Jewish community has faced more hatred and discrimination than it has in a decade, B.C. Premier David Eby says in a news release. Members of Israeli, Palestinian, and Muslim communities have also reported being attacked, the target of a hate crime, or discriminated against, he says.

Discrimination is when people are treated differently because of the stereotypes or prejudice others hold, says Toni Schmader, a psychology professor at UBC.

“Discrimination can happen either as a result of the individual judgments, decision-making, and behavior that people carry out, but it can also be baked into policies and practices,” she says.

The lack of acceptance towards other cultures falls in line with prejudice, Schmader says, by having negative attitudes towards people and practices that are unfamiliar and feeling justified in that belief. This same cognitive pattern also explains why people may stick to making friends with those of the same race.

“The only way to break down those segregative patterns is to flip your mindset altogether and focus on what you can learn from interacting with and becoming friends with people who are very different than you,” Schmader says. 

Six months after moving to Vancouver, Dhillon recalls going out to eat with a new friend and their family. Chilled to the bone, Dhillon observed the warmth of a Japanese restaurant as rain roared down from above. She ordered a bowl of Udon. Each sip warmed her body, but the conversation at the table stayed cold. Dhillon had never met her new friend’s parents before, and it seemed they did not care to meet her at all. 

“Hello, what’s your name?” the friend’s parents ask.

“Sol,” she responded, and that was the end of the conversation, for Dhillon at least.

Her friend and the parents continued to chat but made no effort to include Dhillon. In turn, she sat quiet, but couldn’t help wondering why she was being ignored. That was until the parents asked her where she was from.

“I’m from Edmonton, Alberta” Dhillon piped up, wary of where this conversation was going.

“No, where are you really from?” the parents questioned.

 “Well, my parents are from India,” she replied.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of Indian people in Surrey,” they touted. That was the end of both the conversation and any interest they took in Dhillon.

Dhillon instantly felt a surge of insignificance and lack of belonging. That night, she laid in bed for a long time, replaying the conversation in her mind and questioning her self-worth. Dhillon didn’t know what to make of what happened, but she did know it didn’t make her feel good. What she sees now, but didn’t want to face at that time, was the family only saw the colour of her skin and not the person underneath.

“It definitely takes a toll on you,” Dhillon says. “I don’t think I’ve ever questioned my self-worth, until I moved here.”

The question of self-worth is something another UBC student has felt from facing discrimination in Vancouver. The Runner granted anonymity due to personal safety concerns. 

The student moved from Ottawa to Vancouver to attend UBC. It was early November 2022, and the sun had set, yet the student still had to keep the exterior door to her study hall open, combatting the humidity from the unusual fall heatwave Vancouver experienced. Her friend guided her to a table filled with other students she had not met. Ready to start making friends, the student approached the group. Someone asked her what ethnicity she is.

“Filipino,” she replied, immediately feeling the air in the room shift. 

The others, who were mostly the same race, but not Filipino, started to give short, one-worded answers to her questions and threw all their attention on her friend, she says. 

As she spent more time in Vancouver, she noticed her new friends relating her skills to her ethnicity, like saying she’s good at cleaning and folding clothes because she’s Filipino.

“It made me doubt myself, even more so from an academic standard, … like ‘Do I not deserve to be here with all of you guys?’” she says. 

“If it’s going to transcend to my work life, I’m scared that this discrimination will actually stay with me.” 

This is a sentiment Dhillon shares.

“[Vancouver] is definitely not a place where I could live the rest of my life out and be happy to any degree. I wouldn’t find true happiness here ever,” she says.

 The mental health of people of colour in Canada is at risk because of racism, a study by the Canadian Psychiatric Association found, often leading to internalized racism, low self-esteem, and feeling helpless or worthless.

Ross Laird, an instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and clinical consultant in mental health, says social and systemic factors have a profound impact on mental health and well-being.

“We tend to think of mental health as a personal or internal process, but it depends largely on what’s happening around us — particularly the actions of other people,” Laird wrote in a follow-up email to The Runner

“Experiencing a sense of belonging in communities, building relationships of trust and emotional safety, finding spaces where we can be fully ourselves: these are all fundamental to our well-being. Much harm occurs when we lose these experiences or can’t find them,” he wrote.  

Multiple factors play into wellbeing, Laird says, but social connection has the largest impact.

“Social connection seems to be essential for most people. We are a social species, after all. It’s difficult to move forward in life without healthy and consistent social connection. Belonging is the foundation of social connection, and we can’t get very far without it,” he wrote. 

This lack of belonging is a feeling that rings true for Dhillon, as she often finds herself questioning where she stands in her community. 

“At least once a month, I sit down [and think], ‘God, What’s wrong with me? Why does everybody here hate me?’” she says. “It makes you think that you are worth less than other races that you see being favoured.” 

For Dhillon, the level to which minorities face discrimination is unique to the Vancouver area as she’s never faced such behaviour elsewhere in Canada, which she says is also true for her friends who grew up in other parts of the country.

It’s important for people to be aware of this truth about Vancouver, Dhillon says, especially those who plan on moving to the city so they don’t get whiplash upon arrival. 

Thinking back to that sweltering car ride to Vancouver, Dhillon says her thoughts would have been completely different if she knew what she did now. Instead of daydreaming about the adventure that awaited, nauseated by nerves and excitement, the nausea would be fuelled by fear and anxiety of the interactions she would face.

“I left my whole family, my friends, for four years to live in this place. The mask fell off, and it was just so much uglier than I could have ever imagined,” she says.