When Dayleen Van Ryswyk hit news and social networks like a molotov cocktail this week, the words 'racism' and 'hatred' once again accompanied the name Kelowna.
The B.C. Liberal Party attacked the NDP candidate for Kelowna-Mission on the first day of the campaign, calling her comments on a local message board 'unacceptable and hateful statements made about First Nations and French speaking Canadians.'
Those words are tame compared to some public reaction. The NDP effectively sacked her and that might have been the end of it.
But something else happened. Message boards across the country lit up—in support of Van Ryswyk. News outlets carried reams of anonymous comments. The reaction on Facebook and Twitter was even more significant. People used their own names and identities to declare their support for a candidate accused of racism.
Is racism alive and well in Kelowna?
This certainly wouldn't be the first charge levied. The city and the Okanagan in general has a lengthy history of such accusations. The photo on the left is from World War II era Kelowna. Last year, Kirpal Boparai claimed an undercurrent of racism among membership of the B.C. Tree Fruit Growers helped force him out as president. Westbank First Nation members have made numerous claims of racism over the years. In 2002, letters were sent to then-Okanagan University College professors with foreign-sounding names advising they "leave or perish."
Van Ryswyk's comments may not approach those levels, but clearly she struck a nerve in a city Heritage Canada said in 2008 had "the lowest percentage of visible minorities in Canada" at around six per cent. (The same report said racism is "an ongoing challenge.")
Van Ryswyk told CBC she got more than 450 emails between Tuesday when she was ousted and Wednesday afternoon when she filed nomination papers as an independent. People called her 'refreshing' and praised her for speaking her mind. Many also took side with her views on Native issues.
Perhaps the Idle No More movement itself is part of the catalyst, pushing Native issues firmly into the public conversation. Would it be any surprise that suburban white people had their own frustrations from a different perspective? The trouble is, many of those opinions are misinformed about the issues and don't help their cause. Perhaps even willfully blind. Wolf Depner, a UBCO political science doctoral candidate, sees little difference between this accepted ignorance and true racism.
"I guess the question is where does one end and another begin? I would submit that ignorance is one of the conditions of racism. If one doesn't have any familiarity with a different ethnic group… then one is likely to fall prey to certain stereotypes," he says.
Depner has been active in the current political campaign and paying special attention to the Kelowna-Mission situation and was somewhat surprised at the lack of informed discussion.
"The Okanagan has had a less than subtle streak of racism often called populism, which is really a code word for a more sinister agenda. I was shocked but then again wasn't shocked by some of the support she has received," he says. "One needs to be mindful this is not just an internet poll…. Those comments are out there. I am not going to sit here and take away the rights of people to take that away from her comments. They can believe what they want (but) those kinds of views have no place in public affairs."
Indian Affairs, treaty rights, land claims and social conditions on some reserves are complex issues. Spouting empty rhetoric without facts or insight does nothing to inform the discussion, Depner says.
But while many people want to vent their frustration, outright hatred and racism is still hard to find. Infotel News spoke with a former Kelowna resident who is a visible minority of South Asian descent. She has since moved to Vancouver and wishes to remain anonymous because of her job.
She too wasn't surprised at the support Van Ryswyk received.
"My first thought was 'well that's Kelowna for you.' People will say 'good for her, right on, she is saying what we are all thinking," she says. "I wasn't at all surprised. I would hear that stuff all the time and being raised in Vancouver and moving to Kelowna it was so surprising to me that people in Kelowna had no problem saying that kind of stuff."
She has heard her share of racist comments and stereotypes, but says it was never overt, more whispers and nudges. She points again to the comfortable, dominant white culture and lack of exposure that creates an environment where no one challenges the attitudes. They roll their eyes and move on.
"It's just easier if you don't see the diversity around so you don't have to fight it," she says. "People hear it and let it slide and don't say anything about it. It's easier to let it go if you don't have an ethnic brother-in-law or friends or neighbours to stand up for."
But she also points to examples of visible minorities in leadership positions as perhaps signs that this culture is changing. Ben Lee was a pillar of the community. Mohini Singh is a popular councillor. Sonia Sidhu and Kevin Lim have one of the top morning radio shows in the city.
"It's not that I ever felt like I wasn't welcome in Kelowna, being a person of colour. Even the majority of the population in Kelowna I don't think expresses these views but I think there is a significant chunk who think saying things like that is OK," she says.
"It's slowly getting better."
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