COLUMN: A city full of opportunity

Surrey's immigrant population provide a tremendous advantage for the city as it goes forward.

Surrey is a city of immigrants, as a special section in last week’s Surrey-North Delta Leader pointed out.

This may have come as a surprise to some residents, but it shouldn’t. Surrey has always been a city that welcomes immigrants, going back to its very beginning as an organized municipality.

The earliest settlers here were all immigrants. While some came from eastern Canada, at the time the earliest ones came, B.C. wasn’t even part of Canada. Many came from Europe or the United States.

They came because Surrey offered rich opportunity, and things haven’t changed. That remains the case today.

One of the best early examples is Eric Anderson, whose hand-hewn log cabin is on display on the Surrey Museum grounds in Cloverdale. Originally from Sweden, he jumped ship in what is now Vancouver harbour in 1872 and came to Surrey to make a new and very different life for himself.

His fascinating story is contained in a book, The Valley of the Fraser, by Surrey historians John and Lorne Pearson. It is instructive on the challenges and opportunities which present themselves to newcomers.

He was one of many early settlers who came to what was mostly untamed wilderness and made it into a home. They came from all parts of the world, and immigrants from Asia were among the earliest to arrive, taking part in the Fraser River gold rush and staying on to farm and fish.

The early Chinese and Japanese immigrants were tolerated by many, but certainly not welcomed by everyone. Some residents were able to get past the prejudice and discovered that their neighbours may have had skin of a different colour, but were valuable members of the community.

Many Japanese farmers settled in the Strawberry Hill area, until they were forcibly removed by federal government order after the war in the Pacific began in 1941. While this move was ostensibly to prevent espionage by sympathizers of the Japanese regime, it was mainly a strike against hard-working people, led by narrow-minded politicians who played the race card for all it was worth. Had China been on the other side in the Second World War, people of Chinese descent would also have been targeted.

This sad chapter in Surrey history has yet to be fully told or acknowledged.

Immigration continued after the war, with many displaced Europeans coming here. In the 1960s, people from all parts of the world began to arrive in earnest as immigration laws were liberalized.

Among them were some of the early arrivals from India, who were the vanguard of a wave of immigrants that has continued to this day. India is the biggest single home country of Surrey immigrants, and the presence of so many people of Indian descent has added a new and vibrant dimension to the city.

As Charan Gill, who arrived here in 1972, stated in the section, there were many challenges for the early immigrants. There was a not-so-subtle wave of racism and prejudice, and Gill and others did their best to combat it and provide services for the new arrivals. He was instrumental in founding Progressive Intercultural Community Services in 1987 to help deal with the many needs.

In the 2006 census, 46 per cent of Surrey residents were considered “visible minority.” When the 2011 results are published, it is almost certain that Surrey will be more than 50 per cent non-Caucasian. Immigrants are coming from all over the world, including the Phillipines, China, Korea, many countries in Africa, Mexico, Latin America and other areas.

They still face challenges when they arrive, and the community has to work hard to provide needed community services.

But they also bring an enthusiasm to reach higher do better in Surrey, which they consider a city of opportunity. This is a tremendous advantage for this city going forward, and will be one of the greatest strengths Surrey has as it eventually becomes the largest city in B.C.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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