The New African Diaspora in Vancouver

Neighbourhood Care International

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a Mainlander series that will bring the research of academics into the public sphere. The aim of the series is to further our understanding of Vancouver’s many hidden corners while strengthening connections between local movements. In particular, we hope to disseminate research whose true importance lies beyond the university. Gillian Creese is a Professor of Sociology at UBC and the article is based on her 2011 book, The New African Diaspora in Vancouver: Migration, Exclusion and Belonging (University of Toronto Press).

Migration is often a story about loss and struggle as much  as new beginnings. In spite of ideologies of multicultural acceptance in Vancouver, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have experienced exclusion and marginalization even as they build new spaces of belonging. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are a small but growing part of the metro Vancouver population. In the 2006 Census, 27,260 Vancouver residents were born in Africa, constituting just over 1% of the population. The small African diaspora is spread out in the municipalities of Surrey, Langley, Coquitlam, Vancouver, New Westminster, and Burnaby. This dispersed residential pattern makes it more difficult to develop connections within the community. Nevertheless, community building practices are occurring across these spaces.

In 2004 I worked with two community researchers (Edith Ngene Kambere and Mambo Masinda) to interview 61 women and men from 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A self-identified pan-African community is emerging that links migrants from diverse countries across differences of culture, history and language. Processes of community building are also shaped by gender, small numbers, hyper-visibility as a racialized Black minority, and marginalization in the labour market. As Konate, one woman we interviewed, observes, “let’s face it, if you are a Black person your chances of survival in this system is not as high…You’ll always face discrimination, racism”.

Places of worship figure centrally as sites where networks are formed within and beyond the African diaspora. As the density of the community increases, churches have become central to community building. Religious faith often figures prominently in migration narratives and helps to shore up the resilience required to navigate losses and dislocation associated with migration.  Religious affiliations also provide important social networks. In 2010 we identified 12 churches located in Vancouver, New Westminster, Surrey, Coquitlam, and Langley that can be defined as ‘African churches’. These churches all have African pastors and most have congregations from diverse countries. African churches have become a front-line of settlement work, providing informal support to new immigrants and referring them to other services.

Women identified female support networks that also help negotiate settlement. Most support is informal, such as sharing information, tips for job searches, and strategies on how to navigate their youngsters’ schooling. Some forms of support are material in nature, including gifts of clothing for new babies, babysitting, and preparing food or contributing money for funerals. Less tangible forms of support are equally important for building bonds of community: someone who shares common experiences to confide in, complain to, or celebrate with. Most women talked about sharing the wisdom of their experiences with newer immigrants. As Ngalula, one woman we spoke with, put it: “we don’t want other people that are coming from Africa to suffer like we suffered”. A wide variety of more formal women’s groups also exist. Among the 31 women we interviewed, 7 were involved in women’s group that provide support to other African women and their families.

In 2004 there were 13 nationally-focused African organizations in metro Vancouver, all non-profits, relying on volunteer staff, and all headed by men in the community. The common mandate of these organizations is to preserve cultural heritage, and in most cases also to raise money for development projects in their countries of origin. For many men in the diaspora, these organizations maintain important links with the ‘homeland’.

Building a Pan-African community

A key theme that emerged in our interviews is the longing to transform disparate ‘communities from Africa’ into a more unified African community. There is widespread support, for instance, for a pan-African political organization linking diverse groups from sub-Saharan Africa to strengthen representation at various levels of government. For some it is also a way to shift existing organizational focus from the past and from Africa, to the present and future in Canada. In 2009 the United African Communities of BC was created to fill this gap.

A second line of community development is support for an African cultural centre. Drawing on examples of other groups that have cultural centres in the city, an African cultural centre is expected to enhance African heritage and foster African identity among children. The act of naming a space ‘the African Cultural Centre’ also publicly claims local space, and thereby claims a rightful place alongside other communities in a multicultural city. It should be noted, however, that men we interviewed supported a cultural centre, but women did not, fearing that it might become a place for husbands to socialize away from their families.

An African cultural centre has not materialized, but other cultural organizations and community-based cultural events have emerged. There are two local African dance companies, a theatre group, a storytelling theatre company, and a radio program. In addition there are annual African Peace Festivals, a Pan-African Film and Arts Festivals, and soccer tournaments organized by the African Canadian Soccer and Cultural Association. These community events provide spaces that enhance networks across the diaspora and raise visibility within the larger society.

The third form of community development is the creation of African-focused immigrant settlement organizations. At the time of the interviews only a handful of multicultural settlement agencies had any programs designed specifically for African immigrants. By 2010  there were over 30 African settlement workers throughout the region, as well as two African settlement agencies. The Centre of Integration for African Immigrants (CIAI) and Umoja Operation Compassion Society/Newcomer Family Services emerged primarily to serve the sub-Saharan African population. Led, and mostly staffed, by men and women from the African diaspora, CIAI and Umoja became  part of the infrastructure of a more  visible pan-African community in metro Vancouver. Although CIAI has now closed,  a new organization, Neighbourhood Care International, has recently emerged to provide a space for African immigrants  to share information with each other.

The final strand of community development is support for African entrepreneurship. Developing more African-owned businesses could be a pillar of community development, improving opportunities for investment and enhancing employment options within the diaspora. At the time of our interviews we identified only 3 storefront businesses (2 restaurants and a store) run by migrants from sub-Saharan Africa; and only 3 out of 61 research participants were self-employed.  Since then the landscape of African entrepreneurialism has changed significantly. In 2010 we identified 11 African restaurants, 6 African hair salons, and 3 other stores that provide hair braiding and sell African beauty products, clothing and food. Though still modest compared to much larger immigrant communities in metro Vancouver, we expect this entrepreneurialism to grow.

Our research with members of Vancouver’s African diaspora shows that a pan-African community identity is developing alongside everyday practices that help to build this community on the ground, from women’s support groups to the creation of African-focused settlement organizations, cultural events and businesses. The creation of formal and informal bonds of community underscores the growing strength and resilience of the new African diaspora in Vancouver. These activities are all part of claiming physical spaces in specific neighbourhoods and sites, and claiming psychic spaces in the ‘imagined community’ that is Canada. In the long run, this process is critical in furthering demands to be recognized in Canada.

Photo credit: Jean de Dieu Hakizimana, Neighborhood Care International Association