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A peek into Black experiences at FSJ - Energeticcity ca


North Peace Secondary School and Northern Lights College students read poetry at NLC’s Black History Month event (Northern Lights College)
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FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — It’s a frigid, rainy autumn day in Northeast B.C during World War II, and you’re an American soldier from the southern U.S. tasked with building a highway in a remote and desolate region far from your home. 

A senior officer has given most of your regiment’s heavy equipment to another unit because he believes you’re less competent at operating and maintaining it based on your skin colour. Despite your lack of heavy-duty equipment, you’re tasked with building a bridge across a fast-moving river in a massive gorge to replace a temporary pontoon bridge.

African-American soldiers were assigned to build the Alaska Highway in the Peace region (Fort St. John North Peace Museum)

Many reading this may have a hard time imagining living and working in these conditions, but this was the experience of the African-American troops who built the original Sikanni Chief River Bridge in the Peace region.

While these troops were a part of the American army, Canada is no stranger to discrimination towards people of colour, including Black people. 

In 1910, the Canadian government passed legislation bolstering its power to prohibit and deport immigrants. These policies targeted Black people and anyone policymakers thought to be “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.” 

Because of this legislation, very few Black people immigrated to Canada in the first half of the 20th century, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

In 1967, Canada amended its immigration policies; instead, assessing immigrants based on their skills, education and possibility of employment. 

However, this isn’t to say that anti-Black racism disappeared with the changing of laws over the years. While racial discrimination is illegal today in Canada, Black Canadians continue to experience discrimination, harassment, and systemic or institutional racism.

The first known Black person recorded in Fort St. John was a former slave, Dan Williams, who came to B.C. from Georgia in the late 1860s. Remembered as a proficient gardener, prospector and hunter, Williams was also involved in a bitter feud with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which culminated in Williams being accused of attempted murder.

A fictional story based on Fort St. John’s first recorded Black resident, Dan Williams (UBC Library)

He was tried in Edmonton in 1871. He was later acquitted and moved back to Fort St. John to continue prospecting and trading furs. He fell sick in the winter of 1888 and, within a matter of months, succumbed to illness in February of 1889.

According to Stats Canada, the proportion of Black people who experience discrimination because of their race or skin colour has almost doubled since 2014.

The African Arts and Cultural Community Contributor Society released a report last year stating that while B.C.’s investments under the IBPOC and Resilience BC frameworks were generally positive advancements, they “fall short in deliberately advancing the justice and development needs for people of African descent.”

While there have been conversations about systemic or institutionalized racism in Canada, those discussions are normally referring to larger cities. Small towns and cities typically aren’t included in that dialogue and have a stereotype of being behind urban communities when it comes to anti-racism work.

The Black population in Fort St. John has been steadily growing over the past five years. The number of Jamaican immigrants has increased from 10 to 85 in 2021 and the number of Nigerian immigrants has nearly tripled since 2016, going from 35 to 100 in 2021, according to Stats Canada.

While February is recognized as Black History Month, Black history isn’t confined to just one month.

In this installment of Energeticcity Investigates, we speak with a few members of Fort St. John’s Black community to find out about their experiences in the Energetic City. We also touch on the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada and anti-Black racism in online community-focused spaces.

While not a comprehensive, universal view of BIPOC experiences, this story should give readers a glimpse of what life is like for people of African descent in the Peace region.

Culture shock: Nigeria to Fort St. John

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When she moved to Fort St. John from Lagos, Nigeria —a city of over 24 million— last April, Northern Lights College student, Oluchi Eguzozie, says it was a massive adjustment.

“It was a bumpy ride at the first. There’s a lot of shocks—weather, culture, people, work, school,”

NLC student Oluchi Eguzozie displayed traditional Nigerian fashion and explained its connection to Nigerian culture overall at NLC’s Black History Month event (Northern Lights College)

Eguzozie describes Lagos as similar to Las Vegas, with a vibrant downtown core, lively marketplace and never-ending activities.

“It’s awake 24 hours, and it’s where everything happens. You want to have fun and spend money; it’s the place to be,” Eguzozie said.

She says before leaving Lagos, she lived in a few other places, such as Houston, Texas and Dubai, adding that she expected Fort St. John to be similar.

“It wasn’t what I expected, but on the flip side, I’ve never lived in a city that has no traffic,” Eguzozie said. 

“I have decided to stay here. I’ve made up my mind because of my kids. I have a brother in Ontario, and his stories are quite different from what I see here.”

Also from Nigeria, Fort St. John resident Nworah Okafor has lived in Canada for over two decades, initially moving from Nigeria to Germany in the 90s after studying mechanical engineering.

Okafor said he moved to Fort St. John for professional opportunities, adding that since moving to Fort St. John in 2014,  he personally hasn’t noticed a difference in how people in the community receive him as a person of colour.

“There are so many people of colour here. I think the city is about what you bring with you and what you can offer. They’re ready to live with you and learn with you.”

Connecting with Canadian culture

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Okafor’s favourite experience since immigrating to Canada is learning new things from colleagues and friends, adding that it’s an opportunity for him to identify with Canadian culture.

He says small cities, like Fort St. John, offer more opportunities to connect with that culture than bigger cities, which he says is important for his kids to experience.

“You have to identify with the society where you live so our kids can grow. Most of them are not gonna go back to where we come from, so they have to feel comfortable here and enjoy their lives,” Okafor said.

He says he and his family have connected with Canada’s culture by watching hockey and other sporting events.

“Anytime there’s a hockey game or local youth hockey in December, I try to watch it with my kids around,” he said.

Okafor says when there’s a local youth hockey game on, much like one played by Northern Predators Midget team pictured above, he tries to watch it with his children.

 “We are cheering for Canada anytime there’s a sporting event that actually has to do with Canada. I bought a bunch of Canadian sweatshirts to send to my godson in the UK and my friend in Poland to let them know that Canada was there.”

While Okafor has connected with the culture in Canada, he also makes sure he continues to stay in touch with the Nigerian community within Fort St. John.

Nigeria is home to many tribes, with Okafor hailing from the Igbo tribe. He says other members of the tribe who live in Fort St. John meet up occasionally.

“We do meet from time to time, organize picnics or backyard barbecues, play some of our local music, and people enjoy and dance to it.”

He is also part of a group for other Nigerians living in the diaspora that organizes parties and discusses Nigerian politics.

President of the Pan African Caribbean Association of Fort St. John, M. Shamalla, also considers it important to connect with Canadian culture when moving here.

“Many people associate connecting with abandoning your culture, but really it’s about complementing it. It’s the reason you move in the first place – for growth, new experiences, a better way of life.” 

Shamalla and fellow Pan African Caribbean Association member, Ruvimbo Chinake go for a hike at Cecil Lake (supplied)

While Shamalla has embraced Canadian culture, she continues to feel connected to her Kenyan roots.

“I am my culture, and it is me. Granted, some people don’t feel that way, but I do. It’s in how I move through the world each day, how I speak, dress, work, relate to others and see the world in general,” she explained.

To Shamalla, her culture is also present in her African and Canadian friends who have been to Africa with whom she shares stories.

“My culture is in the food I eat and music I listen to, in the way I dance and the stories I tell kids when we hang out and in the way I feel a responsibility to be their village when I’m around them. I also read a lot of literature by African authors or authors associated with Africa, like MG Vassanji.

“Kenya is very much home, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss it or think about an aspect of it. Canada is also very much home, and I know if or when I move, not a day will go by that I won’t miss it or think about it,” Shamalla added.

Anti-Black racism in Fort St. John

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When asked if racism impacted her daily as a member of our community, Shamalla reflected for a moment before saying yes and no, adding that there are different forms of racism that people of colour experience. 

“I am fortunate enough to have a good education in both English and Swahili, and I’m fluent in both. I have a good job, a good set of friends, and thanks to my parents— who have always been community leaders—I have been heavily involved in every community I have lived in, so in that sense, I don’t experience racism acutely, daily,” Shamalla began.

“But, you do see racism [in Fort St. John], especially in the micro ways. Sometimes we’re very aware of the macro scope, but we can miss the insidious micro ways we exhibit racism.”

A clinical therapist by trade, Shamalla, says she often experiences these microaggressions in interactions at work.

One example that stood out for her was a parent who came in for therapy with their child and said, “we’re just waiting for the therapist.” When Shamalla told the parent that she was the child’s therapist’ the parent responded, “don’t you need a Master’s degree to be a therapist?”

Shamalla received her Master of Arts from Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.

In its 2022 report, The African Arts and Cultural Community Contributor Society (AACCCS) stated Black Canadians experience interactions similar to the one Shamalla describes above frequently.

“Even if People of African Descent (PAD) rise to the apex of a profession, possess the highest competence, achieve high social standing, and even contribute immensely to society, PAD in BC still face racism across various spheres of engagement on a daily basis,” the report reads.

“This is not to say that respect should be tied to achievement, but to show the extent of the oppressive bind that PAD in BC tend to find themselves in,” it continues.

Eguzozie, a care worker in Fort St. John, says she’s also experienced racism from clients in the workplace.

“I work with youth; many are traumatized or struggle with drug abuse. Sometimes when they don’t get their way, they use racist language,” Eguzozie explained.

“They’re teenagers, and I understand they’re upset and trying to express their emotions. So I never take it personally.”

Shamalla told Energeticcity she’s also experienced microaggressions in her personal life while living in Fort St. John. 

She recalled an incident when shopping with a friend while looking to renovate her basement.

“The salesperson totally focused on explaining everything to my friend, even though I clearly stated it was my basement when we came in. Whenever I asked a question, he looked at her and explained the process to her. The saleslady was no different,” Shamalla recalled.

She says the sales staff’s behaviour was so obvious that her friend noticed and commented that it made her uncomfortable after they left the store. 

“I was glad she noticed it rather than trying to explain the behaviour away, which only makes you feel worse. Of course, I noticed it too, it happens more than you would think, but I decided that it wasn’t my fight for that day.”

“I always choose joy. If I stopped for each of these incidences, I would never get anything done, and I am too busy working and serving and enjoying my community,” Shamalla added.

Provincial initiatives combating racism

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In a report titled Black in B.C. released in February of 2022, The African Arts & Culture Community Contributor Society (a society based in Vancouver) found that there has been “inadequate progress in terms of recognizing, promoting and protecting the human rights of People of African Descent (PADs).”

The society’s report states systemic and structural anti-Black racism persists across eight main thematic issues in the province:

  • Migration and Inclusion, 
  • Education, 
  • Physical and Mental Health, 
  • Entrepreneurship and Employment mobility, 
  • Justice and Community Safety, 
  • Democratic and Civic Participation, 
  • Housing and Shelter
  • Media, Arts, Culture and Identity

Three months after the report’s release, the provincial government introduced the Anti-Racism data act— legislation to eliminate barriers for residents looking to access services and ensure that racialized people aren’t targeted disproportionately.

In August of 2022, the province announced an Anti-Racism Community (ARC) Stewards pilot program led by the Victoria Immigrant & Refugee Centre Society. The province encouraged communities, including Fort St. John and Dawson Creek, to apply to the program.

According to the Ministry of the Attorney General, the province is committed to ensuring rural and remote regions are included in their work to build a more inclusive and anti-racist B.C.

“More than 80 applications from across the province were received and 19 participants were selected for the training to become anti-racism community trainers,” the ministry told Energeticcity.

Three organizations in the Peace region have taken advantage of the program, including S.U.C.C.E.S.S Fort St. John, Saulteau First Nation and the Dawson Creek Literacy Society.

Energeticcity reached out to S.U.C.C.E.S.S Fort St. John, who was unavailable for initial comment.

Racism online versus in person

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Oluchi Eguzozie has noticed a difference in online interactions versus in person, stating that people seem more direct and confrontational online.

Oluchi Eguzozie (Spencer Hall, Energeticcity)

“Out of my experience in my home country [of Nigeria], people feel they can say whatever on the internet. But in person, they’d never have the guts or courage to say half of what they say online,” Eguzozie said.

“For a lot of people online, it’s a platform where they think they can say whatever, whenever, however they want with no effect to others. But it does have an effect on people.”

According to Eguzozie, when people see hateful or ignorant comments on the internet, especially regarding race, it causes them to withdraw and prevents them from engaging with others.

Shamalla told Energeticcity she’s noticed many more instances of blatant racism online in local, community-focused spaces and has a hypothesis as to why that may be.

She believes the pandemic has impacted how people interact with each other online, stating that when COVID began, people were forced to go indoors and “show our true selves.”

Stats Canada data on ethnic and racial discrimination before and after the pandemic (Statistics Canada)

“When we are vulnerable and scared, our worst selves come out—and we were all vulnerable and scared. Many of us didn’t have good coping skills, and this was when what we truly think and feel came to the surface,” Shamalla explained.

She adds that the Black Lives Matter movement also changed how we speak to each other on the internet.

“Black Lives Matter had a huge impact. I don’t know why, but when some people hear Black Lives Matter, they seem to hear ‘only Black lives matter’ — This is something that, to me, is common sense.” 

“Worrying because your child wears a hoodie or is perceived as something they aren’t because of their skin colour is something everyone should be very uncomfortable with,” Shamalla stated.

She clarifies that, of course, all lives matter, but Black lives are the ones who are disproportionately impacted by anti-Black racism.

“The response to Black Lives Matter is not We All Matter, it is I am sorry you even have to say that and yes, you matter, and it is only until you matter that we all matter.  Why does that take away from you? Why do people always seem to feel that acknowledging someone else’s reality or pain takes away from theirs?”

Asking questions helps to build connections

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If one focuses solely on instances of macro racism, they may not understand why some consider the statement “All lives matter” to be an ignorant or dismissive statement, which is why Shamalla encourages those who are unsure to ask questions.

“I think we’re paying attention to the wrong things. We post ‘be kind’ on our profiles, but turn around and spew hate on social media. We have failed to make the connection. Kindness is not a meme. It’s an action word,” Shamalla began.

Shamalla attends a Black History Month Gala held by the Pan African Caribbean Association (supplied)

She believes that in order to learn, people have to talk, ask questions, and make room for mistakes and growth. 

“We also have to trust and be open with one another. For example, a lot of black girls get offended when they get questions about their hair or if someone wants to touch it. I say yes when people ask if they can touch my hair because they may not know. If they ask if it’s a wig or braids, I answer them,” Shamalla explained.

“How will they know if I glare at them and make them feel that they are being disrespectful? They honestly don’t know! When I ask my good friend questions about her skin or their ranch animals, she doesn’t glare or roll her eyes—she explains what I don’t know, and I have definitely become the better for it.” 

“I don’t bring fashion boots to ranch events anymore!” Shamalla quipped.

She believes that when residents cannot ask questions, they lose the ability to form a connection with people who are different from them.

Black History Month in Fort St. John

To mark Black History Month and celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black Canadians, Northern Lights College partnered with the Fort St. John Pan African Caribbean Association to host an event at it’s Fort St. John campus on February 16th.

Attendees gathered at the NLC campus to take in a panel discussion on perspectives on Black leadership from Black community leaders, presentations and poetry shared by college and North Peace Secondary School students. They also had an opportunity to try out meat pies, provided by Olive Tree Mediterranean Grill.

NLC vice president of community relations, Jessie Drew, said the college was pleased to work with the association to host the event.

“Events like these are an opportunity to honour and celebrate the diversity and history of the Black community in Canada and acknowledge their contributions to our region.”

Drew added that NLC has a diverse staff as well as a “very diverse complement of students.”

“It’s really important to us to be leaders and build capacity within our communities, so everyone is welcome. A diverse culture makes us so much stronger as a community, as a college, and as a region.”

In recognition of Black History Month, Energeticcity spoke to some members of Fort St. John’s Black community to get an idea of their experiences in the Peace region. 

Experiences shared in this piece are by no means an extensive or universal view of what every member of the local Black community encounters daily. This story is meant, instead, to serve as a snapshot.

Energeticcity is committed to sharing the experiences of all community members, including those who have been historically marginalized or not given the opportunity to share their stories in traditional news media.

We invite everyone with a story or experience to share to reach out to [email protected]

View the document below to read the full report released by The African Arts & Culture Community Contributor Society.

Sources


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