A shameful history
UBC historian Henry Yu believes the province's history of race-based policies is best described with a simple, shocking word: apartheid.
"We don't like to think of ourselves as a white supremacist society, but we were," said the founding member of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C. "We cleared people who were here first, we disenfranchised people. At the time, this was a white minority rule. Just go back and look at what they said at the time: 'White Canada Forever.' Doesn't that sound like South Africa?" It is a deeply uncomfortable question, but one British Columbians must confront if we are to truly grasp the way our past has shaped us, and to move past prejudices.
To Yu, the crucial difference between South Africa and ourselves is apartheid here
- in the form of laws banning ethnic groups from voting and immigrating - was dismantled without violence. "We are a more just society because people in that nightmare fought for their rights," Yu said. "But we're still dealing with these legacies."
B.C.'s deeply racist and exclusionary history spans many years and races. It includes our treatment of First Nations in the reserve system and residential schools, the Chinese head tax and Exclusion Act, discrimination against Indian passengers on the Komagata Maru and the Japanese internment. It has left a legacy of division in our society.
Take ethnic enclaves. The 1981 census counted six areas in Canada with 30 per cent ethnic residents. Today, there are over 260 ethnic enclaves in Canada.
Enclaves can be traced to British settlers who went west to avoid the French in the east and Eastern Europeans in the Prairies.
"You could have a land title in the British Properties that said you could not sell the land to nonwhites. They could play out this colonial vision in a way that wasn't possible in the rest of Canada," said Alden E. Habacon, UBC's director of intercultural understanding.
Without knowledge of history, he says, stereotypes about why cultures cluster together persist.
"White anxiety" that Indo-Canadians cluster in Surrey could be addressed by learning Indo-Canadians could buy land more easily in Surrey, which lacked the racist property restrictions of Vancouver. Where immigrants settled in desirable locations, we evicted them, like the selling off of Japanese properties along Kits Beach.
"We are living with the result of this history," said Habacon, a Filipino-Canadian.
"But we have so erased their memory. Ignorance of history is one of the most powerful colonial tools."
Barney Williams Jr. knows all about ignorance. A member of Tlaoquiaht First Nation, Williams was sent to a residential school at age five, where he was beaten for speaking his language, and abused by a priest. The schools left a generation with posttraumatic stress.
"We've had generations of violence, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol and dysfunctional families." Thousands of First Nations children were taught "we are a lazy good-for-nothing people. That is not true. We have a lot of successful First Nations, but nobody talks about them."
Miko Hoffman of Burnaby's Nikkei National Museum laments that, for interned Japanese-Canadians, the legacy of racism was a hollowing out of their core.
"We had a geographic community, and that all disappeared," Hoffman said of the diaspora from Japan Town and Steveston.
"We lost the centre, the heart. We're still struggling to rebuild."
Blacks in B.C. also lost their centre when Hogan's Alley was razed in the 1970s to make way for the Georgia Viaduct. But blacks are often omitted from tallies of B.C.'s racist legacy.
One reason, said B.C. Black History Awareness Society president Mavis DeGirolamo, is they suffered more individual than legal discrimination. Blacks retained the right to vote, could join city council and buy land.
However, it didn't protect them from prejudice and segregation in public spaces like pools and theatres.
"We need oral histories to point to the day-to-day discrimination," said DeGirolamo.
Surrey Art Gallery curator and cultural historian Naveen Girn has made a career of telling day-to-day stories of cultural communities.
His research on Indo-Canadian history has revealed lost tales of intercultural integration: a Chinese photographer famed for Indo-Canadian portraits, a Hindu paper
printed on a Chinatown press.
Girn believes prejudices - like the view B.C.'s non-white ethnicities should assimilate in language, culture or dress - linger because of a poor grasp of how formative they are to our society.
"People say, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans," said Girn, whose parents hail from Fiji.
"But we are the Romans." Yu believes its time to stop blaming people for ethnic clustering or clinging to customs. To move forward, we need to see diversity as an asset.
"We are an incredibly vibrant society," Yu said, "but for most of B.C.'s history, diversity is something we tried to suppress."
Habacon's story points a way forward. Despite his grandparents' pleas to marry "his own kind," Habacon's wife is Chinese and they have a son with dual heritage. How can B.C. become as intercultural? "With intent," Habacon said.
"We've been winging it. Putting a bunch of different people together and thinking they'll work it out. It takes so much work and fostering to get to that."
And, added Habacon, it takes re-engaging with our racist past.
"The absence of knowledge is what reinforces racism," he said. "We can't get there without the history."
© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.