The Value of Values

Values matter. Values inform our character and offer touchstone and compass for our lives. If values are sacrificed for expediency, opportunity, or fear, we become blind wayfarers, adrift beneath a starless sky.

Values are as essential to us as individuals as to our collective selves: the nation. That is why we write them in the documents we cherish. They ring from the American constitution’s amendments, reflecting sacrifices made and victories won, as well as from the defiant, aspirational Declaration of Independence. Similarly, Canada’s constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms express values ingrained from lessons learned.

Sometimes, and seldom when seas are calm and skies blue, we are tested. The tests are not of the values themselves but of our fidelity to them.

Canadians were tested in 1914 when a ship called the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver’s harbour. Aboard were Indian families seeking to trade the corruption, poverty, and violence of their homeland for Canadian sanctuary. Officials discovered that the ship had passed through Hong Kong and so cited a 1908 law called the Continuous Passage Act which barred entrance to anyone arriving through a third country. It was a ruse. There were no direct routes from India to Canada. Canadians simply did not want Indians and certainly did not want the Komagata Maru’s 352 Sikh migrants. They were forced to steam away.

A generation later, in May 1939, the German ship St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba. 937 Jewish refugees were fleeing Hitler’s madness. Nearly all had applied for American visas and saw Cuba as their stepping stone to freedom. Everyone knew of the Holocaust. Western newspapers had been reporting on the theft of Jewish dignity and rights and of Kristallnacht, the two horrifying nights the previous November in which synagogues and Jewish businesses were smashed. Everyone knew.

And yet, the Cuban government refused to allow the St. Louis’ passengers to disembark. The ship was forced to leave. It steamed north and when close enough to see Miami’s lights, American warships turned it away. President Roosevelt was told of the people’s plight and of their certain death if forced back to Germany, but he said nothing. A State Department telegram explained that the refugees must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” At that time, the waiting list was several years long.

The St. Louis was forced up the coast until it finally reached Halifax. Its reception was the same. The passengers were not allowed landfall. Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King was travelling in the United States at the time and referred the matter to his Immigration Branch director Frederick Charles Blair. Blair ordered the ship gone. When asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada he retorted, “None is too many.”

The St. Louis arrived back in Europe and Belgium, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands accepted some of the passengers but not all. With options exhausted, 532 returned to Germany and 254 perished in the Holocaust’s ovens.

The Komagata Maru and St. Louis are, in essence, again at our door. This time it is Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors of a complex and brutal war. As in 1914 and 1939, many Canadians and Americans are arguing that we should bar that door. We should, it is said, ignore the fact that unless we are indigenous people that we are all from somewhere else and, more significantly, that we should ignore our values.

One argument for saying no to the refugees is that Islamic terrorists could slip in with legitimate refugees. However, we should note that recent terrorist attacks in neither Mali nor Paris were conducted by Syrians or refugees. Should we trust our screening systems and our police and security organization or should we surrender our values to the fear that of the thousands of people who could be saved that one might be dangerous? Are not domestic terrorists such as those who have blown up buildings, or crowds such as in Boston, or shot up schools, and theaters not a greater threat?

America’s Homeland Security and Canada’s RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service agree that Syrian refugees present no threat to Canada or the United States. Time Magazine reported Pentagon sources as stating that the Syrian refugees are being carefully screened and that nearly all are, “survivors of torture, victims of sexual violence, targets of political persecution, the medically needy, families with multiple children and a female head of household.”

A second argument is more disturbing. The racism that sent the Komagata Maru and St. Louis away is with us still, it’s just become more cleverly hidden. The embers of racism are kept alive not just by the obscene beliefs and actions the KKK that we seldom see but by the little racist jokes at coffee shops that we too often hear. A number of pundits, politicians, and even some who wish to be president have been fanning those embers into flames. Canadian cities have seen Muslim women harassed and a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario was burned. Donald Trump has called for a registry of Muslim Americans. Jeb Bush said that only Christian Syrians should be admitted.

Do these fears, attitudes, actions, and proposals reflect the values inherent in our founding documents? Do they reflect the lessons learned from the Komagata Maru and St. Louis, or the Holocaust, by the treatment of indigenous people, or our Second World War Japanese internment camps? What would Lincoln, Kennedy, Diefenbaker, or Pearson say? Or, if you rather, and if you believe, in the Bible’s Matthew 25:35, Jesus taught that showing love for Him was done by caring for the most needy: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.” And you invited me in.

The question of the Syrian refugees, like all questions, whether at home, at work, or on the national stage, circle back to values. We believe in our values or we do not. Talking about them doesn’t count. We should measure ourselves, our leaders, and our nation according to the congruency of words and actions. If we do not act according to our values then we really don’t believe in them. If community doesn’t really matter then let’s stop pretending it does. If we really don’t believe in multiculturalism or tolerance or diversity or the separation of Church and State then let’s say so. Let’s concede that all men are not really created equal after all. Let’s take a chisel to the Statue of Liberty so that it no longer proclaims:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Daily Life in Domiz refugee camp, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

(Photo: http://www.resettlement.eu)

We have a choice. We can listen to our values. Let us insist that the Komagata Maru and St. Louis incidents were aberrations from which we learned. Let us celebrate our values by living them. Let us reject those who sully established values for personal, professional, or political gains no matter how cleverly disguised as for the greater good.

We should welcome Syrian refugees because our values say that we should. And if all that is not enough, there is one more reason that we should save them – because we can.

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Who’s Your Klingon?

Captain Kirk hated Klingons. We understood why. Kirk’s Federation was Athens in the stars, or perhaps America. It sought peaceful exploration. Klingons were the militaristic Spartans, or Soviets, spoiling for battle in their drive to conquer and rule an empire. We got it. We also viscerally understood that the Klingons were to be feared and fought because they represented “the other”.

Who's Your Klingon

(photo: ro.wikipedia.org)

We have always struggled against the other. Since the Reformation, and certainly from the outset of the Industrial Revolution, the West ruled. Its rules and rulers were white, male, and Christian. Everyone else was Klingon.

Like all countries, Canada harbours tragic tales of past fights with the other. Consider the Jewish story. Twenty-year-old Esther Brandeau, disguised as a boy, had worked aboard the Saint-Michel for four years. The captain discovered her deception and, in 1783, put her ashore at Quebec. According to Quebec’s 1627 founding charter, Jews were not allowed in the colony so she was shipped back to France.

In 1864, Pope Pius IX declared Jews among those unworthy of God’s love and, therefore, enemies. Beginning in the 1870s, a series of brutally anti-Semitic German books and then a forged Russian screed called the Elders of Zion, created and perpetuated myths including ritual Jewish killings of Christian babies and a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world’s banks. The Pope and publications instigated mass murders called pogroms. Jewish villages and neighbourhoods were burned. By 1919, over 1,200 pogroms had killed an estimated 50,000 European Jews.

The violence did not soften many Canadian hearts. Important public intellectual Goldwin Smith wrote a series of articles in which he called Jews parasites. He wrote that Jews were, “encamping in all other nations, absorbing their wealth by financial skill…and bringing pogroms upon themselves by their exclusiveness.” They could not be trusted, he said, and should be deported.

Quebec’s powerful Henri Bourassa said in the House of Commons, “The Jews are the most undesirable class of people any country can have…They are vampires on a community instead of being contributors to the general welfare of the people.” Abbe Lionel-Adolphe Grouix, an intellectual who former Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan called the “the spiritual leader of modern Quebec” once wrote, “Do not buy from the Jews…Buy from your own people…within a year, the Jewish problem would be resolved, not only in Montreal but from one end of the province to the other.”

William Aberhart was a Protestant fundamentalist preacher who created the Social Credit Party. He said on his popular radio program that Jews must accept Jesus as the Son of God and until they do, “they must expect the curses of the world and cannot expect the Blessings of God.” Aberhart’s party formed the Alberta government in 1935 and would rule there and elsewhere for decades.

On April 16, 1933 a Jewish baseball team was playing a non-Jewish team at Toronto’s Willowdale Park. The stands filled and a large Nazi flag was unfurled. Anti-Semitic abuse smudged the air. Two evenings later the team was back and tension was palpable. When the first punch was thrown, carloads of Jewish men arrived from one direction and non-Jews from another. Lead pipes and baseball bats were swung. Blood flowed. The riot spilled into the neighbourhood and raged for six-hours. Jewish homes and businesses were smashed and burned.

The next day, the Toronto Telegram blamed the Christie Pitts Riot not on the city’s rampant antisemitism and numerous Swastika Clubs but on the Jewish community that, it said, instigated it. Later that summer, Swastika Clubs declared that Jews were banned from Toronto’s Balmy and Kew Beaches. The police did nothing.

“Gentile Only” and “No Jews Allowed” signs hung or rules were enforced in a number Canadian restaurants, golf and tennis clubs, and kids summer camps. Many universities enforced quotas on Jewish admittance. Many insurance companies charged Jewish customers double or triple normal rates. Many boards of education refused to hire Jewish teachers. Real estate agents regularly warned Jewish families of neighbourhoods where they would not be welcome.

At that point Hitler had stripped German Jews of citizenship rights. He encouraged them to flee but few found countries willing to accept them. Canada was among those with locked doors. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had met the Führer and confided in his diary, “Hitler might come to be thought of as one of the saviours of the world…his ends, [are] the well-being of his fellow man; not all fellow-men, but those of his own race.” After an international conference discussed saving German Jews, King wrote “We must seek to keep this part of the Continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood.”

In the spring of 1939, a ship called the St. Louis left Hamburg. It carried 907 German Jews with Cuban visas. Upon their arrival, however, their papers were invalidated. They tried to disembark at Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and then Panama but each said no. Americans dispatched a battleship to keep them from their coast.

The Saint Louis finally arrived at Halifax. For six years, Canadian newspapers had reported Nazi horrors. Canadians knew of the Ghettos and Hitler’s monstrous acts and threats. Mackenzie King was asked to save the 907 men, women, and children. His cabinet discussed it and declined. A reporter asked Canada’s director of immigration Frederick Blair how many Jews would be allowed into Canada and he replied, “None is too many.”

The St. Louis eventually returned to Germany. While all records were not later found, it has been proven that the majority of those aboard perished in Hitler’s gas chambers. We could have saved them. We chose not to.

Whose Your Clingon?

Two St. Louis Passengers (photo: ushmm.org)

Canada’s anti-Semitic past reflects the willingness of too many of us to let a fear of the other dictate attitudes and decisions. Perhaps its lesson is to consider who are today’s others. Are they Canadian Muslim women who wear headscarves? Are they gay and lesbian folks in Indiana and Arkansas who wish only to enjoy a restaurant meal or marry the person they love? Are they men pulled over by police for a DWB: “Driving While Black”?

Perhaps we should more carefully listen for the dog whistle code from exploitative politicians, pundits, and twitter trolls. When they urge us to be angry with or frightened of the other, we could instead ask the next question. We could react with reason rather than emotion – more Spock and less McCoy. We could simply replace the name of “the other de jour” with the word Jew. We could ask if the substitution instantly renders the actions, laws, or opinions under consideration contrary to whom we are or aspire to be.

So, with our being asked to be afraid of the other becoming an increasingly popular political tool, perhaps it is time for us to honestly consider for a moment who, indeed, are our Klingons, and why.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. I relate a much fuller story of Jewish Canadians and five other racial and ethnic groups in Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism. It is available here: http://www.amazon.ca/Last-Steps-To-Freedom-Evolution/dp/1896239404

Shudder or Think? We Must Decide

Canadians are being asked to be afraid. We should apparently be so afraid that we will trade a little more security for a lot less liberty with Bill C-51, Canada’s Patriot Act. It will affect our privacy at home and at work and is why four former prime ministers, retired judges, and so many academic experts in privacy matters oppose it.

At the same time, we are to be afraid of what people wear. A hijab, we’re told by the federal government and a Quebec court, is a threat; not a burka, that covers a person’s face, but a hijab that covers one’s hair. Is this a thin edge of the wedge where courts and the government can tell us what to wear and to fear those outside the mainstream, wherever that ever shifting current happens to be at the moment?

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Rania El-Alloui was recently told by a Quebec judge to remove her hijab or consult a lawyer before proceedings could continue. (Photo: Graham Hughes)

Rather than shuddering, many Canadians opting to think because the anti-terrorist bill and hijab kerfuffle are stirring a debate regarding the definition of Canada.

To try and define Canada, however, is tough for any assortment of words quickly tumbles into confessions of a job half done. Canada is the dancing fire in Iqaluit’s sky as much as the homeless veteran on a Yonge Street sidewalk. Canada is Montreal private club English and Moncton Franglais as much as Ottawa Valley twang and Come By Chance slang.

If only we could ask the Irish who, when the potatoes went dead in the ground and rents flew high, left to start again where merit meant more than whose your father. It would be nice to ask the slaves who snapped their chains and followed the North Star to freedom. Or, maybe the Ukrainians, those peasants in sheepskin coats, who left poverty and oppression for free land and a fresh beginning.

Nowhere was Adolf Hitler’s evil more banal than at the death camps, and the worst of the worst was Auschwitz. The innocent who suffered unspeakable horror spoke of a building where their confiscated property was stored. It became a sliver of light through the cruel darkness. It held the promise that someday they might be released. We could speak with them about their naming the building Canada.

At the war’s end, Canadian doors opened to its victims. Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Poles, and more came to work the mines, factories, and farms and build the schools, roads, and little towns and towering towers. The Ottawa men called them Displaced Persons while some snarled DP as an insult. The latest to arrive are always harshest on the next in line. Ask the Vietnamese about the Pakistanis or the Irish about the Jews or, for that matter, ask the Boethuk about the English; that’s if you can find a Boethuk to ask.

All the answers from all these people, along with songs and stories and dusty old Royal Commissions, leave us with a country too complex to fully comprehend let alone define. Maybe that’s OK. Canada is like the shape-shifting trickster Raven whose beauty is its ever-changing complexity.

Perhaps this vision brings us as close as we will come in our quest for understanding. But in our hearts, we have always understood the Canadian secret. It is the freedom to try and fail and try again. It’s the draw bridge locked open to new people and ideas.

It is embracing complexity and the fundamental notion that there is value in us all that has created a society where each of us gives a little to help folks we will never meet, whether it’s the old man across town or the hungry child half way around the globe. It’s the notion of community extending beyond our family to where every child is ours. It’s where differences in whom we are, whom we worship, and whom we love are not just tolerated but accepted as who we are

It’s complicated. It’s hard. It’s meant to be. But it is what will save us from fear-based prejudices and policies, be they the proposition of police-state practices or a national dress code. It is our celebration of Canadian complexity that we guard, oh Canada, when we stand on guard for thee.

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Africville: Racism and Redemption

The bulldozers came in the morning. For days they roared like monsters demolishing houses and streets and even the church. They tore down what remained of Canada’s moral authority to say anything about race other than, “We were wrong.”

Africville was created in 1842 with land grants to African American families escaping slavery and discrimination for the hope of better lives. The original sixteen single-acre lots overlooked the Bedford Basin and were separated from Halifax, Nova Scotia by a thick woods and impassable road. The community was called Campbell Road. As Black families left the racism of Halifax and elsewhere seeking solace among friends it was dubbed ‘Africville’. The name stuck.

Links between Halifax and Africville grew over the years as kids were bussed to school and most of their parents worked in the city. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s a number of famous people visited, including retired boxing champion Joe Louis, and Duke Ellington who married an Africville woman named Mildred Dixon. Folks were thrilled with the celebrities but understood that their hospitality was essential because while Louis and Ellington were feted in Halifax during the day they were unable to find lodging in the segregated city at night.

In that way, Halifax was no different than most other cities and towns. The Queen may have been Canada’s head of state but Jim Crow was boss. African Canadians grew used to restaurants where they could not eat, churches in which they could not pray, houses they could not buy, business licenses for which they could not apply, and schools their children could not attend.

Africvillephoto credit: Halifax.com

By the 1950s Halifax had grown to encircle Africville. The city council embarked on a determined campaign to rid itself of the Black community that had become part of their city. Despite the fact that Africville’s people were Halifax citizens and paid municipal taxes, the road to and through the community was unpaved and in the winter it seldom saw a plow. There were no streetlights. There were no sewers. Families drew water from a central well that the city had dug as a “temporary measure” in 1852.

Police seldom patrolled and ignored most calls. In 1947, seven houses were destroyed by fire because, although the fire department had been called, like usual, it had not responded. Insurance companies refused to sell home and property policies, so banks issued neither mortgages or home improvement loans.

Africville churchphoto credit: Halifax.com

Everything distasteful and dirty went to Africville. With no consultation with Africville’s citizens, and in defiance of petitions and presentations, Halifax council located in or adjacent to the community a pungent slaughterhouse, oil refinery, and tar factory, a deafeningly loud stone crushing plant, and a hospital for infectious diseases. A railway company was allowed to build a line through the community and landowners were only partially compensated for expropriated land. The city dump was relocated 350 yards from west end Africville homes and then a smoke-belching incinerator was constructed nearby.

The disgraceful treatment of the community and the racism faced by those working in Halifax took its toll. Africville got tough. The “Mainline” portion of town was home to middle-class people who worked hard and did their best. The “Big Town” area, however, knew every crime and vice imaginable. The only white people who saw Africville came to Big Town for dirty old times after Halifax bars closed.

University of Toronto’s Gordon Stephenson wrote a report that echoed 1950s urban renewal practices. He recommended relocating Africville’s people and razing their homes. A 1962 Halifax Development Department report stated that the majority of Africville’s people did not want to leave; they just wanted the services that other Halifax citizens – White Halifax citizens – had enjoyed for decades. The report concluded, however, that the people should be ignored and the professor obeyed.

Concerned Africville citizens met at the heart of their community, the Seaview Church. Over a hundred people vowed to save their homes. Peter Edwards made an impassioned plea to city council on October 24, 1962. He spoke of Africville’s history and spirit. He spoke of the racist policies and treatment endured over the years and in the current process. “If they were a majority group,” he said, “you would have heard their impressions first.”

City council responded by hiring University of Toronto’s Albert Rose to study the situation. No one was fooled. Rose had written Regent Park: A Study for Slum Clearance. They knew what he would say. In no time at all he said it. Africville was doomed.

Residents received an average of $500 for their homes. It was later discovered that additional assistance had been available but only 30% of the people were told about it and then only 15% of applicants were approved. People who had been self-sufficient homeowners were forced into a subsidized housing project and then forced to move again when told that even before they had been crammed into the ramshackle apartments, the complex had been scheduled for demolition.

By 1969, Africville was gone. The city had said it needed the land for industrial expansion but it never happened. It said it needed the land to construct a bridge but ended up using a sliver of the property.

In 1985, a monument was erected to the people of Africville in what had become the Seaview Memorial Park. The names of the original families were engraved into a stone. Family reunions began finding their way home with grandchildren being told the old stories. A former resident recalls, “Out home, we didn’t have a lot of money but we had each other. After the relocation, we didn’t have a lot of money – but we didn’t have each other.”

Africville lives. It lives as a symbol of the more than three hundred years of systemic racism that African Canadians endured and against which they struggled. In 2010, the Halifax City Council apologized to the people of Africville for all they did to, and all they did not do for the community. It apologized for Africville’s destruction.

A hectare of land was set aside and money allocated to rebuild the Seaview United Baptist Church. It will serve as a historical interpretive centre in a park renamed Africville. There, stories will be told of a time when racism coursed through Canadian veins and of a hope that someday, racism will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Someday.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others, consider commenting or following my blog, or even buying my book entitled Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism, that addresses the history of racism in Canada. (Find it at Amazon or here at Chapters online: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/contributor/author/john-boyko/

Time to Change the Faces on Our Money

It’s been loud lately. The tragic popping of gunfire from criminal minds in Paris and Alberta and from Canadian troops in Iraq, along with the sucking sound of the latest oil boom going bust have been loud indeed. Lost in the din have been two related arguments that deserve some attention.

The first began with Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. Many commemorated our first prime minister as a visionary. Others castigated him as a racist. The second was stirred by a letter from NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Murray Rankin to Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz in support of an effort begun a year ago by Victoria’s Merna Forster to have more women, such as the Famous Five, on our money.

The arguments are related because they go to the heart of our nationhood. Those we choose to celebrate in books or bronze, or on whatever that sticky polymer stuff passing as paper money is, say a great deal about the character traits and achievements we believe represent the best of us.

So perhaps we should remove Sir John from our money. But then, William Lyon Mackenzie King is on our 50, yet in the Second World War he interned Japanese-Canadians who had committed no crimes. Sir Robert Borden is on our 100, yet he approved his party’s virulently anti-Asian British Columbia campaign under the slogan “White Power.” Should they be removed from our money too?

Oscar Peterson banknote

Queen Elizabeth is the only woman currently on our currency. But does our sovereign’s visage remind us of our sovereignty’s limits? Does she represent a political system based on the hereditary passage of power that contradicts current Canadian values and has passed its best-before date? Accordingly, should she be removed from our money?

And what of the Famous Five? Their fame began when Edmonton’s Emily Murphy was appointed Canada’s first female police magistrate. Shortly afterward, an uppity male lawyer said she was unqualified because the constitution listed “Persons” who could be judges with the implication that they were male. Murphy and her Alberta friends took the case all the way to Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council where, in 1929, it was determined that women were Persons. It was an enormous step for women and toward citizenship and equality for all.

However, Emily Murphy was also a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Janey Canuck. In The Black Candle, published in 1922, she wrote of non-White immigrants running the Canadian drug trade to intentionally defile White women and destroy the White race. The only option, she argued, was to purify Canada by ridding it of all people of colour. Should the writer of such reprehensible ideas be on Parliament hill, or on the Edmonton mural, or on our money? What would Sir John or those currently attacking him say?

The Ashton and Rankin letter states, “Our banknotes are an important opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our country and the innumerable contributions to its history made by people of all genders, ages, religions and ethnicities.” Perhaps agreeing with that very Canadian thought leads to a desire to replace all of the political figures now on our money with those who better animate our collective soul: our artists.

Susanna Moodie banknote

Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” He was right. Painters, poets, authors, songwriters, and sculptors and more speak to our intellects and emotions while inviting us to think deeper about that which truly matters. Let us celebrate those who help us celebrate our spirit.

The Bank of Canada regularly considers recommendations for changes to our currency and advises the minister of finance who signs off on new designs. Let the conversation begin. Mr. Poloz, for our 10, 20, 50 and 100 I recommend Oscar Peterson, Susanna Moodie, Norval Morrisseau, and Alice Munro.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on February 2, 2015. The Citizen created the images. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your favourite social media.

Canadian Slavery

It’s time for Canadians to grow up. Whether living in a big city or a one-Tim’s town, too many Canadians seem to share a warped vision of our past that allows us to press our noses against the shop window that is the United States and tsk, tsk away with smug condescension. Forget it. Let’s take one of many points that could wipe the smirks from our faces – slavery.

chains

photo from http://www.bccns.com

Slavery is as old as humanity itself. Slaves built the pyramids. The ancient Greeks, who gave birth to our western civilization, owned slaves. The idea of enslaving Africans is credited to a Catholic priest who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. The priest was sickened by Columbus’ ongoing slaughter of Haitians who had been enslaved to search for gold. He believed that Africans would be better able to do the job.

The first Africans arrived in the West Indies on Portuguese ships in 1518. They had been ripped from their homes and stripped of their families, religion, names, and humanity. Fifteen million followed. The Portuguese word for black is negro.

European notions of inhumanity soon found their way to what would become Canada. The first slaves were Native people. Explorer Jacques Cartier even kidnapped Iroquois chief Donnaconna and several of his people and toured them through France like a circus act. Most died of European diseases and none saw their homes or families again.

The first African slave to be settled in Canada was a six-year-old from Madagascar. He arrived in 1628 as a cabin boy on a pirate ship captained by the ruthless English rogue David Kirke. Kirke captured Quebec City in a violent raid, and then sold it back to France four years later with the boy part of the bargain. He was purchased by a French clerk and then a Jesuit priest who renamed him Olivier Le Jeune.

Despite the fact that slavery had been abolished in France, Quebec governor Jean Talon pressured King Louis XIV to continue the practice of slavery in Quebec. Slaves were purchased in Africa, the West Indies, and the United States, and were owned by nearly all of the business and political elite as well as the leaders of the colony’s Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican Orders.

The Seven Years War – French Indian War if you are American – led to the fall of Quebec to Britain in 1759. The articles of capitulation guaranteed the continuation of slavery in the colony. With the world war finally over and Britain stuck with Quebec – it had unsuccessfully tried to swap it for Guadeloupe but that’s another story – the newly appointed British governor James Murray sent a message to New York asking for more slaves to become fieldworkers and domestic servants.

Slavery was also common in the Maritime colonies. They were used to build Halifax in 1749. The growing city became a centre for the Maritime slave trade, with public auctions turning tidy profits. The only known opposition to slavery came from Halifax’s small Quaker community, but it was ignored.

The American Revolution brought thousands of Loyalists northward. The British government offered them and war veterans land, assistance, and permission to bring their slaves. About 10% the Loyalists fleeing to Nova Scotia were slaves or free Blacks. Slaves also moved with their owners to what would become Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario.

The powerful Mohawk leader Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) had fought for the British. He was rewarded with 30 African slaves. He brought them when settling his people on a huge land grant along Ontario’s Grand River. Slaves helped build the settlement that is now Brantford and then a handsome home near what is now Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington. Other slaves constructed many of the fine stone buildings that still stand in Belleville, Kingston, Montreal, and elsewhere.

The War of 1812 saw the United States, as it had during the Revolution attempt to take British North America. Towns were burnt and civilians murdered in what became a brutal war. To disrupt American invasion plans, Upper Canadian Attorney General John Beverley Robinson declared that any slave arriving from the United States to Canada would be freed. An all-Black regiment was formed and Black soldiers joined a number of other British regiments. About 50 Black soldiers served at the decisive battle at Queenston Heights. About 2,000 escaped slaves fought their way to Canada during and in the years following the war.

The British government banned slavery in 1833. Nearly all British North American slaves had already been freed. However, racist laws and segregation practices remained. Segregated churches, schools, restaurants and public services were commonplace in Canada until the 1960s. Segregation laws died in Canada at about the same time as in the American South with racist attitudes, of course, more difficult to kill.

Image_Niagara74

Canadians deserve to feel proud of their history that, despite the despicable way in which too many of us learned it teems with fascinating stories and colourful characters. However, in looking at how the United States and other countries are still dealing with race and being shocked when a disturbingly racist event occurs in our backyard, it would serve us well to remember that while we have come a long way, there’s a long road before us. On our journey toward becoming the type of people we like to think we have always been, we would be well served to recall that our hands are not clean.

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others. You might also be interested in my book Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism – find it at Amazon or Chapters or at http://www.johnboyko.com

Racist Canada and the Woman You Should Know

Everyone remembers Rosa Parks. When asked to get up and move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Parks opted to stay put. She was hauled off and arrested. Her refusal to move started a movement. In 1946, nine years before Parks’ courageous act of civil disobedience, Canada’s Viola Desmond showed similar grit in a similar act that drew attention to a similar culture of injustice.

Born in 1914, Desmond grew up in a middle class Halifax neighbourhood with her nine brothers and sisters. A bright young girl, she excelled at her studies. For a while she taught school but then fulfilled her dream to become a beautician. After training in Montreal, New York and Atlantic City she returned home to form the Desmond School of Beauty Culture for Girls. Desmond was talented at her craft and a clever entrepreneur who was soon inspiring dozens of young women every year to start their own businesses offering hair styling and other beauty services and  advice.

Image Viola Desmond

On a cool November evening in 1946, Desmond was on her way to a business meeting in Sydney when her car broke down in New Glasgow. After arranging for repairs, she decided to pass the time by taking in a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She purchased a ticket but was stopped from entering the main floor seating area by a huffy, young usher who said that her ticket was for her place – the place for Black people – up in the balcony. Desmond said no. She offered to pay the one cent extra for a main floor seat but the man behind the ticket booth glass refused and told her to get upstairs. Instead, she walked past the startled usher and took a seat in the all-White main floor.

This was not Rosa Parks’ deep American south but Nova Scotia. However, for Desmond that afternoon and for Black Nova Scotians for generations, the difference was only one of geography. Racism had been a part of Canada’s past since the first Black slave arrived with Champlain in 1605. Slave labour was used to build a number of Canadian towns including Halifax. The city’s port was an important link in the Atlantic slave trade. Slave auctions were a common sight. After the American Revolution, thousands of people loyal to the British crown came to Nova Scotia and about 10% were Black slaves or freedman.

By the twentieth century, slavery was long gone but racial discrimination remained. Canada saw race riots and knew racially segregated schools, churches and services as well as race-based immigration policies and hiring and business practices. In Halifax, Black families were kept in specific neighbourhoods and just outside the city the all-Black community of Africville was offered no municipal services. It was with this racist reality in mind that one better understands the courage that Viola Desmond showed when taking her ticket for the Black balcony of the Roseland Theatre and walking defiantly to a White seat.

The movie did not begin and the lights remained on. Soon, a police officer arrived. Desmond explained that she had offered to pay the extra one cent for the main floor seat but the cop did not want to hear it. She was pulled up, dragged out and slammed in jail. Her hip had been injured and her dignity abused. She spent the night sitting upright on her small, hard bed in her cold, tiny cell.

Desmond was taken to court the next morning. She was offered neither a lawyer nor legal advice. The judge informed her that she was being charged with defrauding the provincial government based on her taking a seat that cost one cent more than the ticket she had purchased. He ruled inadmissible that she had offered to purchase a main floor ticket. Desmond was fined $26.

She could have easily paid the fine and put it all behind her; but she decided to fight. A lawyer was contacted and Desmond sued the Roseland Theatre and its manager for having her ejected from the theatre and for the assault, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment that followed. The case went to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court which on a legal technicality ruled against her.

What was quickly lost in court was slowly won in the often higher court of public opinion. The incident and case had garnered headlines. The Nova Scotia National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People used the case to publicize the injustice of racial discrimination and to raise money to fight for change.

In 1954, Nova Scotia’s legislature finally put an end to state-sanctioned segregation. While the laws had changed, however, the racism that had created them in the first place remained as did many of the Jim Crow practices that had been around for generations. However, with the laws gone, progress was at least being made and those who continued discriminatory practices were supported only by their hatred and ignorance.

Viola Desmond paid a significant price for her brave stand. Her husband did not continence her fight and their marriage ended. The pressure on her and her business led to her leaving Halifax and relocating in Montreal. Desmond died in February, 1965. At that point the fight for rights had progressed but was far from over. Africville was still struggling to save itself in a battle it would lose a few years later to small minds and big bulldozers. Discrimination was gone from the law but prejudice remained in far too many hearts.

In 2010, the Nova Scotia government pardoned Viola Desmond. Later that year, Cape Breton University established the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice. In 2012, Canada Post issued a Viola Desmond stamp.

Canada and Canadians have come a long way. It has most often been determined groups and courageous individuals who have forced reluctant leaders to take each tentative step toward a more just society. Our job is to honestly admit our past and atone for our crimes and hateful attitudes while celebrating our progress. There must be reconciliation with truth. There must also be the recognition that national progress begins with individual beliefs and actions. Our personal and collective introspection must also include an offering of thanks to those whose acts of personal courage and conviction shine lights on the dark shadows of injustice. Let us continue to take steps toward becoming the people we deserve to be. Let us thank Viola Desmond.

To explore more about the racism in Canada’s past see Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism.  Available here: http://www.amazon.ca/Last-Steps-Freedom-Evolution-Canadian/dp/1896239404/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1402154251&sr=1-