Lenya Wilks says she felt like the “only Black person in Surrey” when she first moved to the city east of Vancouver last year.
But the Black population in the region is growing fast and residents who once might have left in search of community are increasingly staying to forge their own, said Wilks, senior manager of the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership.
Wilks said the group remains small and the transition for Black immigrants is still tough, “but the more connections you make, the more you realize you’re not the only one,” she said in an interview.
The Black community in Metro Vancouver, which includes Surrey, has historically been one of the smallest in the country, standing at 29,830, or 1.2 per cent of the total population, in 2016.
But it grew by 38 per cent in the five years to 2021, census data reveals, with the increase of 11,350 people bringing the total to 41,180 Black residents.
Across Canada, the Black population is also up in the same period, increasing 29 per cent for a total of more than 1.5 million.
Wilks said the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership, which is federally funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, is studying the trend.
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In 2021, the organization reported nearly half of Surrey’s population was born in another country and more than two-thirds identified as members of a racialized group.
“We have acknowledged that Surrey has the largest Black population in B.C. overall and it’s a good thing, but we’re also still a very small group compared to the rest, and (are) oftentimes a very hidden group,” Wilks said.
Statistics Canada reported that B.C. broke a record for the number of people moving to the province in 2021 with net migration reaching 100,797 people, the highest annual total since 1961.
It said 33,656 people came from other Canadian provinces or territories, which is the highest number seen since 1994 and the highest in Canada, while the remaining 67,141 people came from abroad.
“It’s changing the narrative of B.C.,” Wilks said. “Black immigrants have always been a part of B.C., but through time, and (with) systematic issues in the past, Black immigrants often migrated to other parts, such as Ontario.”
She said the recent influx of Black residents to the Metro Vancouver area has created a “ripple effect.”
Wilks immigrated from Jamaica in 2016, settling in Brandon, Man., before moving to B.C. last April. She said she chose the Vancouver area because it was “larger, had more representation, opportunities and diversity.”
“It was a really, really interesting transition. I do have to say that even though there’s diversity here in Surrey, in B.C., overall, it is very cliquey so finding your niche is hard.”
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In addition to the increase in the Black population, there has been a recent associated trend of French-speaking immigrants settling in Surrey, she said.
“We’re seeing a new transition. The francophone community is definitely growing, and a lot of francophone immigrants are Africans, they come from the African continent, and so over time, we (have seen) this growth.”
This is reflected in the census numbers. The recent African immigrant population of Metro Vancouver rose 70 per cent from 4,355 in 2016 to 7,395 in 2021.
Nationally, the African-born population also increased from 637,485 in 2016 to 821,735 in 2021, marking a 29 per cent jump.
Paul Mulangu, executive director of the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants in Vancouver, moved to Canada from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996.
He said “the integration process is very difficult” for African immigrants, but encourages new arrivals to settle somewhere, “start calling that place your home and accept it.”
He said his experience trying to assimilate in Vancouver is what inspired him to launch the centre.
“I didn’t really find a community, but I am trying to create the community,” Mulangu said in an interview.
Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley had been a historic home for the Black community, but the lack of traditionally Black neighbourhoods could be a deterrent for people who move to Vancouver and find no cultural core.
Hogan’s Alley Society, which advocates for Black people in Vancouver, has been working to revitalize the downtown neighbourhood with acknowledgment of Vancouver’s Black history, but Wilks said the issue is layered.
“I do believe that having spaces where people feel safe is good, and should be encouraged and should be celebrated, but on the other side, I do worry about the divide that it also presents,” she said. “That said, for me, if it’s something that the greater population sees value (in) and wants, we should push for it.”
Mulangu said another main challenge for Black immigrants is that their experience in society is very different from those who grew up in Canada.
“They’ve been there for a long time and they call this home. They know how to manage being different,” he said.
The federal government said in November 2022 that it is planning for a steep increase in the number of immigrants entering Canada, with a goal of bringing in 500,000 people in 2025. It said 405,000 immigrants came to Canada in 2021, with 465,000 expected to arrive this year.
Wilks said this is good news, but it also means there will be long wait-lists and potential gaps in service for newcomers.
“I would say that we are unique in that way where we are seen as the leaders as a country in immigration and settlement, so we can we can lift our hats off to that, and hopefully, with time, we can fix those other pieces that needs addressing,” she said.
Wilks said her organization is now looking at ways to fill any potential service gaps, provide public education, create spaces and host events that allow immigrants to find community.
“It won’t get better for everybody but we’re making small impacts. It’s a process. It won’t happen overnight, but we have to continue on the journey.”