International students call for better reporting on racial discrimination at TRU

‘Kamloops is known for being diverse and welcoming,’ says one student who would like to see the entire community live up to this reputation.
TRU international student Ilkay Çakiroǧullari stands in front of a waterfall at McDiarmidFalls/Wells Gray Provincial Park. Submitted photo.
TRU International student, Ilkay Çakiroǧullari stands in front of a waterfall at McDiarmidFalls/Wells Gray Provincial Park. Submitted photo

Thompson Rivers University’s (TRU) student population is nearly 20 per cent international students, creating a diverse community on campus and in Kamloops. When speaking with researchers, staff and international students, The Wren learned these students often witness and are the subject of racial discrimination on and off campus, but face barriers when reporting their experiences.

While TRU’s website states, “the safe, friendly environment of our city, combined with our spectacular natural setting, helps make Kamloops an ideal destination for international students,” international student Ilkay Çakiroǧullari says that is not his experience. Rather than a welcoming environment, the comparative affordability of TRU for international students next to other Canadian schools is the main incentive for students to enroll here.

“It’s not because the environment is great or the area is great,” he says.

TRU’s international students contribute to Kamloops’ diversity

Çakiroǧullari often refers to himself as a bystander in discriminatory situations due to being a less visible immigrant of Turkish descent with German citizenship. He describes Kamloops’ view towards non-visible versus less-visible immigrants as “more favourable and less favourable.” 

Those brought into the community through the opportunity to study at TRU face unexpected experiences in the city of Kamloops and having limited knowledge of the area, Çakiroǧullari proposes, is due to the university widely influencing their move. 

“TRU is a big part of Kamloops, I understand that,” Çakiroǧullari says, but he believes the community identity is reliant on the school. 

“Kamloops is known for being diverse and welcoming international students,” he adds. “If [TRU] wasn’t here, Kamloops wouldn’t be diverse.”

Tehmina Khwaja, an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion specialist who is on temporary contract with TRU shares, “there’s anecdotal evidence that at TRU on campus, international students – racialized students, feel safe, but not in the Kamloops community.” 

Çakiroǧullari recalls a comment made by a woman when he was shopping with people noticeably from India. He quotes her as saying, “oh wow, your English is so good” to one of his companions, making him question this woman’s intention based on the assumption she had made towards a stranger.

Another international student, Mohammad Ali, has also experienced discrimination in Kamloops, something he says is vastly different from his home city of Dubai, where he says he’s never been harassed due to his race. 

However, Ali has awoken to a new reality in Kamloops, where he’s been referred to as a terrorist and has heard other derogatory comments from a group of people waiting near him at a bus stop. 

“I felt like one of them was staring at me, like saying something,” he explains, so he began recording a video on his phone. In it, there is a man in the background saying, “I fucking hate immigrants”  and  “get the fuck out of my country.”

Kamloops Immigrant Services (KIS) is a partner of B.C.’s wider Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network, which provides communities with information and resources needed to respond to and prevent racist incidents. 

Through this program, residents are encouraged to share their experiences with racism and hate, so the provincial government can track race-based violence. According to their website, KIS offers “cultural diversity outreach and trainings” and workshops for those in the community. 

Students hear racialized language and offensive remarks

Experiences as commonplace as grocery shopping, riding the bus and speaking a language other than English illicit racist reactions from many in Kamloops. 

“People [get] annoyed when people are speaking another language on the bus,” Çakiroǧullari says, acting out an example of the side-eye he’s seen given to those not speaking English. 

Çakiroǧullari has observed that long-term Kamloops residents are unaware of the implications of the phrases often thrown around.  After being in a meeting setting where a phrase was used that would’ve held a very different connotation in Europe, he says, “I felt that it was inappropriate.” Its negative insinuations were not realized by the company he was with, even though his point of view is that the implications of this phrase should be common knowledge. Çakiroǧullari asked the Wren not to publicize the statement.

Ali has also heard words and phrases that hold negative connotations being tossed around by locals. For example, he can name times in which the n-word was used by white residents, one being threatening and another, jokingly. Ali recalls an instance on the bus when the word was used by a man intent on intimidating him.

“He was getting really close,” he says. “He was being kind of aggressive towards me.” 

Ali also discusses the use of the word by a white Kamloops resident he knows, saying, “I’ve heard him say the n-word before, in a joking way.” 

More harmful, Ali explains, was the time a man advised a student who was learning English from him to use the word in class, landing him in trouble for repeating something with meaning attached to it that the student was unaware of.

“They’re not aware of their privilege,” Çakiroǧullari says, describing long-term, older residents. “They’re not aware that they grew up in a very different timeline.” 

However, he believes it’s not just long-term residents who have a biased mindset. 

“The younger demographic is influenced,” Çakiroǧullari says when asked about whether the older demographic is more harmful in projecting biases. He believes this is an issue that only breaking the cycle of harmful generational thinking can mend.

Roadblocks to reporting discrimination at TRU

International students from Thompson Rivers University say they have experienced discrimination in Kamloops. Photo by Brandi Schier

There is a lack of empirical data and reporting challenges that make pinning down a history of discriminatory attitudes and racist incidents at TRU difficult, according to Khwaja. Khwaja further explains this can be a difficult subject to publicize and get others to speak on. 

Additionally, Asiedu explains that TRU lacks an accessible avenue for reporting racial discrimination, especially for a self-identified diverse institution. Asiedu is working on a cultural mapping study of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion on TRU’s Kamloops campus. Her study does not specifically focus on the aspect of racial discrimination at TRU, but through her study areas of demographic data collection and aiming to understand the experiences of equity, diversity and inclusion in the TRU community, she does give insight into the issue. 

Asiedu explains that the route to reporting on instances of discrimination at TRU can be challenging for many reasons, including the decentralized structure of handling issues of discriminatory nature and students, staff and faculty being unsure of what facilities on campus they can turn to. After reviewing the reporting process regarding racial discrimination at TRU, The Wren found the resources regarding the topic to lack accessibility.

Adriana Herrera, the previous vice president of the Equity Committee with Thompson Rivers University Student Union (TRUSU), says TRU does not have a clear process that students can follow to report racial discrimination issues. 

“A lot of students don’t know where to go and they deserve to have a place to report it if they want to.” 

On campus, there are different resources available addressing harassment, but direct resources for racial discrimination are not known by students. It is only because of Herrera’s training that she recently found out how students can report these issues. 

“We know that students can go to student services, more specifically the team of student affairs,” Herrera says. “They can report an emergency, an act of discrimination and they can book an appointment with a student case manager who is going to look at the discrimination more deeply and take further action. You can also access campus security if it escalates.”  

Evelyn Asiedu, a postdoctoral research fellow at TRU, told The Wren there is a Human Rights Officer contracted with the school who deals with harassment. However, this is not widely known to students, as the service has not been advertised by TRU. The Human Rights Officer can be contacted only by email, there is limited information available and there is no further assistance on how to reach out to them. 

After reaching out to the Human Rights Officer through email, The Wren received a response stating that anything shared would be confidential. The email outlined the process as: the officer assesses if the complaint falls under the types of harassment and discrimination outlined in TRU’s policy. Based on what the policy can address, a quick solution might be achieved or the complaint can be referred to an investigator. When addressing the next steps, the officer doesn’t offer areas of support for the complainant.

In contrast, other Canadian universities such as the University of British Columbia (UBC) have easily accessible offices and resources, where students can report issues of racial discrimination. At UBC, people can report an issue to the Equity and Inclusion Office and can contact the Office of the Ombudsperson for Students. The Equity and Inclusion Office offers support to students, faculty and staff where they can report issues linked to racism. The Office of the Ombudsperson for Students is an independent resource that helps students with unfair treatment at UBC. 

TRU lacks data associated with diversity and inclusion

Kyra Garson, the TRU Intercultural Coordinator, and Khwaja reveal that there is no diversity data available for TRU yet. There is only the collection of international students’ home nations and self-identified Indigenous students. 

To give further background, Garson says, “data around incidents of racially based discrimination or harassment on any Canadian campus has not been collected.” 

Garson and Khwaja explain this may be due to the sensitivity that accompanies the recording of racialized individuals’ experiences, due to the standards of safety and privacy that must be followed, as established in the provincial human rights acts and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

There is currently no system in place in which individuals can report instances of harassment or discrimination anonymously, or without worrying they will be identified, Khwaja says.

“A lot of racialized people do not feel comfortable speaking out. Some of us are on visas that we worry about losing our status in that sense if it goes out into the media that we said something.”

The lack of people advocating for a solution or even notifying others of a problem is a large one. 

Nitish Kumar, who is also an international student at TRU reveals that those in the international student demographic who take up jobs often face workplace discrimination within the community. 

Though he says discrimination in the workplace is common and known, no one talks about it.

“People simply don’t care,” Kumar says. He quotes people saying, “it is what it is,” rather than reporting discriminatory issues.

Kumar himself has spoken up in workroom settings and believes sharing problems is a way to overcome them, even though he’s experienced discrimination first-hand and acknowledges the fear he once felt.

“We have to have a system where students, faculty, staff can go and feel safe to report these incidents,” Khwaja says. “Even though they might not want anything to come out of it.”

The TRUSU Equity Committee has been involved in at least one anti-racism training workshop. According to Herrera, during the Winter semester of 2023, a workshop for students was planned and promoted through campus and online.

This workshop consisted of four different sessions with two-hour-long training focusing on how to identify racist remarks or comments, how to address the offender or help the victim, how not to be a bystander and how to report racism. 

However, the TRUSU Equity Committee ended up only hosting two sessions due to a lack of registration from students. The two sessions they did host were only attended by fifteen students per session. 

The Equity Comittee’s current vice president’s email is posted on TRUSU’s website for contact purposes, yet attempts to deliver messages through that address have been stumped by multiple failed delivery status notifications, stating the message is blocked and the address rejected. 

Under an in depth look at systemic racism and a “Take Action” section, the email is listed as an opportunity to gain more information. However, when The Wren reached out to discover the progress of their training workshop initiatives, there was instead found to be another roadblock to reaching accessible information on the topic.

Currently, many don’t feel safe coming forward without proper avenues in place to confidentially allow international students and staff to report experiences of harassment and discrimination, Asiedu says.

“Any historically marginalized people have some lack of trust, with good reason, to give up this information, especially if they don’t know how it’s going to be used,” says Asiedu. “I’m sure a lot of things don’t get reported because it’s so convoluted.”

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