The Whistler Multicultural Society heard from Whistler, Squamish and Sunshine Coast residents on the topics of multiculturalism and diversity in a pair of online panel discussions this week.
The sessions, collectively titled Building Inclusive Communities, began on Monday, Jan. 24, when panel members answered questions on the importance of respecting different cultures in the Sea to Sky corridor and Sunshine Coast over Zoom.
The panel included Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton; Habib Ly, program manager and instructor in the department of community development and outreach at Capilano University; Zhoyi (Joyce) Xie, business owner in Gibsons; Geraldine Guilfoyle, board member of the Squamish Multifaith Association; Christine TlatlaKwot Baker, manager of the Squamish Nation’s valley operations; and Faizel Rawji, the head of international education for the Sea to Sky School District.
Squamish Nation elder Donna (Sisolia) Billy opened the event by welcoming everyone with a prayer.
“It’s such an awesome subject that you guys are starting,” Billy said in the Zoom meeting. “With us having multiculturalism day at Totem Hall, I am really happy to be participating in this.”
Sea to Sky MP Patrick Weiler also welcomed the group, noting it was an honour to attend the event with organizations that have welcomed new Canadians as valued members of the community.
“It’s often said that Canadians take pride in not being American, and of course this is true,” Weiler said. “And apart from the Indigenous peoples who have been here long before settlers, both countries are countries largely [made up] of immigrants … whereas some countries fear losing their cultural identity with immigration, Canadian culture views that as enhancing our identity.”
Throughout the session, each panel member fielded two questions, and at the end audience members were encouraged to share experiences or ask questions themselves.
In response to the first question—how does multiculturalism impact your life and your community?—Xie shared a heartfelt message on her experience moving to the Sunshine Coast. Xie speaks a number of languages including Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and more recently, English.
“COVID came and just destroyed my life. I am really upset and I cannot go out anymore,” said Xie. “My local friends helped me a lot … Now I am just trying to respect my community to help some mothers like me with new immigration.”
Another question asked panel members to speak to the importance of building a welcoming, inclusive multicultural environment in the region.
“There is a lot of reasons to feel dislocated … Being away from other people has been extremely difficult for all of us,” said Crompton. “I believe that multiculturalism is a bit of a response to that. It says something about who we are as human beings—we want to be together [and] we want to break down barriers.”
At the end of the session, panel members shared a brief response on what lessons from the meeting they will apply to their life.
“Reinforcing the notion that there is no single story. Every story adds to our knowledge and every story makes us better, so today is another example of that,” Rawji said.
The session offered a great opportunity to increase connections, added Guilfoyle, “and I hope we will take [those] opportunities with each other.”
DIVERSITY AND EQUITY IN THE SEA TO SKY
In the second session, on Tuesday, Jan. 25, a mix of elected officials and residents from Squamish, Whistler and the Sunshine Coast met to discuss the topic of diversity and inclusion.
The first of the six panellists was William (Bill) Ritchie from the Lil’wat Nation. Ritchie has worked at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre for 14 years and welcomed the group over Zoom.
The other panellists included: Izumi Inoue, a former settlement worker with the Whistler Welcome Centre (and current outreach worker at the Whistler Community Services Society) whose work supporting community members has led her to advocate for her diverse community; Priscilla Belanger, human resource coordinator at the Howe Sound Women’s Centre Society; Cameron Gutjahr, an ordained priest at Squamish’s St. John the Divine Anglican Church; April Struthers, a management consultant specializing in prevention research and social change projects; and Darnelda Siegers, Mayor of the District of Sechelt.
In response to the first question—do you feel that you live in an inclusive society and that you have equal opportunities?—all six panellists agreed they don’t quite live in an inclusive society.
“I just want to say how honoured and humbled I am to be invited to this panel, particularly as someone who represents an institution that has been an oppressor and suppressor of diversity,” said Gutjahr. “It’s hard to shed [ignorance] because it goes against the narrative we tell ourselves, that ‘I am a good person [and] I got here on my own merit.’”
Having worked on three different continents, Belanger shared with the group she believes she lives in a community that is working to be an inclusive society.
“In my case, the challenge in having equal opportunity came in the form of employment,” said Belanger. “It is common that [immigrants] are underemployed ... You will see doctors that are now taxi drivers, dentists that are now school custodians, nurses that are caregivers and civil engineers that are now a hotel houseman.”
Panel members were also asked to consider how individuals and communities can do something about harmful biases, stereotypes and prejudice, and make communities more inclusive.
“All of us in our communities are leaders,” said Siegers. “When we show inclusiveness and when we include others it gives other people permission to follow our example.”
Inoue added to the conversation by saying that people's prejudices often come from things like television commercials and conversations with parents.
“It is so easy to only hang out with the people who look like you,” said Inoue. “Let's break that intentionally—on your next day off … instead of your usual routine, you're going to put some effort into going out of your comfort zone and getting to know someone you don't know [that well].”
In the final minutes of the meeting, the panel members explored the topic of micro-aggressions and answered questions from the audience about the lack of cultural representation among elected officials. They were also asked to share examples of successful equity work in their community.
“A group I used to work with at the District of Sechelt … when they had an accessibility committee that was very diverse to start with, I challenged them to take on social accessibility as well as physical accessibility,” said Struthers. “The level of collaboration and the agility to which they could make things happen was great. In fact, the district took on most of the recommendations.”
Two more Building Inclusive Communities sessions—on immigration and belonging—are set for Monday, Jan. 31 and Tuesday, Feb. 1.
The online events are designed to foster meaningful discussions on multiculturalism, diversity, equity, immigration and building a sense of belonging in the diverse Sea to Sky and Sunshine Coast regions.
The series is presented by the Whistler Multicultural Society with the Whistler Welcome Centre, Pemberton Multicultural Network, Squamish Welcome Centre and Sunshine Coast Welcoming Communities. Funding is provided by Canadian Heritage and the Resort Municipality of Whistler.
For more information on how to register, visit buildinginclusivecommunities.ca.