provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

After an appearance on B.C. Almanac, March 11, 2013

Hello Mr. Yu
I am very disappointed and concerned about the comments you made yesterday on BC Almanac.   You stated that Canada used to be a "white supremist society..." This comment was an ignorant racist generalization and I find it deeply offensive.  My family dates back far into Canada's history and and I resent you calling us "White Supremacists."  I am shocked that the host allowed this type of hate filled comment to continue on the air and that this how you conduct yourself talking about the wrongs of others.
I would appreciate a follow up to this, and speaking of apologies I think a heartfelt one it due.

And my response:
Dear Ms. B.

I am a historian. I am trained to research the past. There is little scholarly disagreement that British Columbia's history as a society was marked by white supremacy. 

During the 1980s, Canadians were at the forefront of sanctioning South Africa for its white supremacist policies. In particular, the disenfranchisement of non-whites (in other words non-whites could not vote), and racial segregation in housing and in jobs were the earmarks of South Africa as a white supremacist society, and it was the target of worldwide criticism. Would you agree that South Africa was a white supremacist society? If so, then you cannot disagree with a description of British Columbia as a white supremacist society between 1867-1947. British Columbia had many of the same white supremacist policies as South Africa. Chinese Canadians and aboriginal British Columbians had their right to vote taken away in 1875. As a result, Chinese and other non-whites were not allowed to vote until 1947 (aboriginal peoples could not vote until 1960). 

For more than half of B.C.'s history, non-whites could not vote. Non-whites could not become doctors, or lawyers, or engineers, or any professional, until 1947. There were many areas of Vancouver where non-whites were not allowed to own land or buy houses. These are not my "opinions," but the truth about our shared history. 

My great grandfather came to British Columbia to help build the railroads that brought many European migrants to British Columbia. My grandfather worked for most of his life on a CPR passenger ship. They were exemplary British Columbians and Canadians. But they could not vote because they were not white. They could not buy land from the Crown because they were not white. They could not hope for their children to become practicing lawyers or doctors or engineers. To our great credit as a society, we repudiated our white supremacist policies and have created in the half century since a much more just, more hopeful society that is inclusive and not defined by white supremacy. We still have much to do to overcome the legacies of policies such as the reserve system, residential schooling that broke up and destroyed aboriginal families, and other discriminatory policies that have had long term effects. But recognizing and apologizing for those things in the past that we now believe wrong is about an agreement between all Canadians now that we live in a better society, and not about trying to judge those in the past.

I am sorry that you feel hurt in hearing that British Columbia was a white supremacist society. It may lessen your pain to discover more about the history that both you and I share as British Columbians. Good books that were written by distinguished and respected historians of B.C. include Peter Ward, White Canada Forever, and Patricia Roy, The Oriental Question and A White Man's Province. A wonderful book by my esteemed colleague Jean Barman, The West Beyond the West, will also describe to you the mechanisms of white supremacy in full detail. 

A doctor speaking truth to a patient about an illness may feel sorry that the news will cause pain and suffering, but one should never apologize for speaking the truth. 

I hope that this message might prompt you to find for yourself a truth about a past that both you and I share, so that we might have a common history and a common future together in this wonderful society.

Henry Yu 

No comments:

Post a Comment