British Columbia

'What we have in Canada is just called tolerance': Experiences of being Black on Vancouver Island

Three Black residents of Vancouver Island who grew up elsewhere share their experiences with racism after relocating to B.C.'s West Coast.

A school principal, an athlete and a university professor say racism is alive and well

Three panelists joined CBC's On The Island host, Gregor Craigie, to talk about what they have experienced living and working on Vancouver Island for Black History Month. From left to right, Dionte Jelks, Pamphinette Buisa and Moussa Magassa. (Submitted by Dionte Jelks, Pamphinette Buisa and Moussa Magassa.)

Sometimes when Dionte Jelks is minding his own business at the mall, he has to remind white women that his son's hair is not there for strangers to touch.

Jelks, a school principal in Ladysmith, B.C., moved to Victoria with his family from Chicago mostly to get away from the overt racism he says was rampant in the United States.

What he found on Vancouver Island — and what other Black people who have relocated to the island echo — is that racism was waiting for them on the other side of the Salish Sea. It's just a bit more subtle.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, subtle discrimination is one of the most common ways BIPOC Canadians (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) experience unequal treatment. 

Dionte Jelks speaks with CHEK News in June after his brother and cousin were killed in Chicago as Black Lives Matter protests engulfed the city. (CHEK News)

There are many examples of less-overt forms of racial discrimination, such as failing to hire and mentor Black employees, turning away Black tenants or not taking a person's health-care concerns seriously.

"Subtle racism is in all forms," Jelks said during an interview on CBC's On The Island. "For instance, if I am walking down the street and I see a woman, a non-BIPOC woman, I get a smirk that says, 'Hello, but I'm still afraid of you.'"

Uncomfortable moments

The roots of Black history on Vancouver Island run deep, but the population remains small. According to the last census in 2016, there were just over 1,100 people who identified as Black in Victoria.

Pamphinette Buisa, a Team Canada Rugby Sevens player living in the capital city, says those low numbers could be why, after relocating from Ottawa for university, she had a hard time finding a Black community to join and found white people had difficulty interacting with her.

Pamphinette Buisa, originally from Gatineau, Que., speaks to participants at a Black Lives Matter rally in Victoria on June 7, 2020. (Brooke Thorn McGowan)

"They may not necessarily know how to speak, how to talk, how to move without trying to be offensive," Buisa said. "It was just very interesting having to navigate that, but then at the same time, you know, still live and exist."

From being asked if she washed her hair, to having people assume on sight she could not speak English, Buisa said her relocation to Vancouver Island was rife with "uncomfortable" moments.

'Racism is just racism'

Moussa Magassa, a professor at the University of Victoria, is Senegalese and worked in many African countries before moving to Canada from South Africa. He says he experienced apartheid violence there,"but that doesn't mean that Canada is better, because racism is just racism ... if you are at the receiving end."

"What we have in Canada is just called tolerance," Magassa said. "It's not inclusion. It is not the real acceptance of people in the sense of the term."

Islanders rally at a Black Lives Matter protest in Victoria last June. (CHEK News)

He said subtle and systemic racism in Canada is apparent "in the way [Black] people are being employed ... and also the way we have been addressed and treated". 

Magassa also said he does not see a "society mobilizing to do something" against racists — at least not fast enough.

As a professor, he said he is pleased to see conversations about anti-racism happening at UVic and other institutions — and likewise to be asked to consult with organizations about how they can dismantle systemic racism.

"They need also to realize that an anti-racist society will benefit all of us as Canadians."

Mobilizing change

Jelks said he is hoping to mobilize change by ensuring Black history is taught and Black pioneers, artists, academics and athletes are celebrated in his classrooms — all year round and not just during Black History Month in February.

"As an educator, it's my job to promote love for our young people in hopes that when they become adults, they will understand what it means to be anti-racist," Jelks said.

Recently, Jelks invited Pamphinette Buisa to meet some of his students.

Buisa, a member of the Canada Women's rugby team, says after relocating to Victoria from Ottawa for university, she had a hard time finding a Black community to join and found white people had difficulty interacting with her. (@RugbyCanada/Twitter)

"The kids were overjoyed to see a strong, resilient Black woman at her level," he said about having the national-level athlete speak at the school.

For him, change may also come from students seeing prominent Black people in their books and in pictures around their school and from celebrating Black excellence through education.

Buisa said she hopes that real change will also come from having people who harbour racial prejudice find a way to change their attitudes.

She likened racism to alcoholism, saying it's not enough to recognize you are an alcoholic — you also have to put in the work.

"With conversation, there must be action," Buisa said. "How are you walking into that road to recovery so we can all stand together?" 

Tap here to listen to Dionte Jelks, Pam Buisa and  Moussa Magassa dive further into their experiences of being Black on Vancouver Island during a Feb. 4, 2021 interview on CBC's On The Island.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from On The Island