Rural Ontario needs to learn cultural acceptance to stave off its own decline, study suggests

A new study from Western University suggests discrimination against immigrants and Indigenous people is more acute in Ontario's small towns and rural communities than it is in medium-sized cities.

The March 2021 survey found discrimination more common in small towns, compared to cities

A new study from Western University suggests discrimination against immigrants and Indigenous people is more acute in Ontario's small towns and rural communities than it is in medium-sized cities. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A new study from Western University suggests Ontario's small towns and rural communities need to learn cultural acceptance and racial tolerance in order to stave off their own economic and demographic decline. 

The research was conducted last March and surveyed hundreds of immigrants, Indigenous and racialized people in nine regions in southwestern Ontario, including the London, Hamilton, St. Thomas, Guelph, Sarnia and Niagara regions, and their outlying rural communities.

Victoria Esses, a psychology professor and the director of the Network for Economic and Social Trends at Western University, said results of the study suggest greater incidents of discrimination in smaller communities, compared to medium-sized cities, because of the monolithic nature of rural life. 

"People in those communities have less experience with immigrants and diversity and they may feel uncomfortable around people from different cultures."

The findings highlight the dilemma faced by many of Ontario's ailing rural communities: to find a way to make their communities more welcoming to immigrants and Indigenous people, or face continued economic and demographic decline.

The study found 80 per cent of Indigenous people in more than half the regions reported experiencing discrimination within the last three years, compared to 60 per cent of immigrants or racialized people. 

Esses said she believes Indigenous people faced higher rates of discrimination because of well-established negative stereotypes and a lack of direct contact with Indigenous people and culture by those living in rural communities. 

"People depend on stereotypes and depend on those negative images to drive their attitudes and their behaviour," she said, noting that in small towns, experiences of discrimination based on race, skin colour and cultural identity were far more common than they were in medium-sized cities, such as London, Hamilton or Niagara. 

The acts of discrimination ranged from acts of cultural ignorance, to employment discrimination, exclusion and even violence, including verbal and physical assaults.

Learning to welcome newcomers

Esses said one Indigenous person reported not being picked up by a public transit bus in London because of his identity. 

"[The bus driver] didn't stop the bus because he claimed he thought the person was on a list of people they weren't supposed to accept on the bus, which wasn't true and it was a big issue." 

Esses said part of the reason researchers wanted to look at small communities is because many of them are racially and culturally monolithic, which can be a major obstacle in welcoming the newcomers needed to reverse their shrinking economic and demographic prospects. 

"Smaller communities have been suffering from shrinking populations, low birthrates, we know that youth are moving away and they have a hard time sometimes attracting and retaining new residents and yet they really need new residents and newcomers."

While they might be needed, they're certainly not being made to feel welcome, according to the survey data. Esses said Indigenous people in particular reported feeling increased psychological distress, including high levels of anxiety and depression in response to the discrimination. 

For immigrants and racialized people, it was more the feeling of being unwelcome or unaccepted by the community. 

Esses said the survey highlights the chilling effect acts of discrimination can have on engagement in small town life for people of diverse backgrounds.

"You disengage from the community, you don't get involved in that community and I would say you wouldn't have a very great view of that community." 

Esses said while most of the discrimination was reported at work by respondents, many of them also experienced it in public settings, such as in banks, restaurants, public transit, libraries and community centres. 

"We need diversity training," she said. "One of the problems in small communities is they don't have a lot of exposure to diverse communities."

She said studies have shown working together toward a common goal with people from different backgrounds can help overcome stereotypes and should be taught in schools, along with proper anti-discriminatory training on how to intervene safely if racism is encountered.

"There are a lot of people out there who have goodwill but they don't know how to intervene when they witness discrimination. So they do nothing or they turn away in embarrassment." 

"Providing people with training and tools to intervene effectively and safely I would say would be a big help in reducing discrimination."