provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Historic Day - B.C.'s Apology

I had the rare privilege of witnessing the historic apology from the floor of the B.C. Legislature

Today was a historic day. 
But what does that mean?

Was it historic because it was one of those days that will be looked back upon in the years ahead, quoted and written in history books? "May 15, 2014--the day the Legislature of British Columbia formally apologized for the long history of anti-Chinese legislation passed in its chamber." Perhaps.

Was it historic because of the rare feeling that permeated the Legislature Assembly as the Question period ended, and the bickering chamber--normally so full of mocking voices, derisive hooting, and sophomoric sarcasm--transformed into the sombre sincerity of bipartisan agreement? Rare as that fleeting feeling of solidarity was, the magic surrealism of collegial comradery rising above partisan politics was notable not for the rarity of that feeling itself, but memorable for the noble purpose for which it was invoked.

CTV news clip 1 clip 2

This was a historic day because it is history in the making. Not historic for itself, but for how it presented a pause in how we live our daily lives, a moment to reflect as British Columbians upon who we are, and where we are, and perhaps most importantly, when we are.

When are we? Such an odd question. But just as in television shows where a person with amnesia cannot remember their own past, and therefore does not know who they are, the question of "when" we are is another way of thinking about "who" we are. When you do not know your own past, you do not know who you are. Your sense of identity now, in a particular moment, is the product of having a sense of when you are within a larger, longer story. Memories of childhood and growing up, of family and friends, of loves gained and lost, of loved ones here and gone--these are the stuff of your past, and the memories of which you are made.

Who we are. When we are. They are two sides of the same coin, both bought dearly through days upon months, years upon years of memories both happy and sad. Without these memories, you would not know who you are. Without a sense of when you are--when this moment sits amidst a longer story full of memory and meaning--you will not know who you are.

Today was an important moment in changing the story of who we are in British Columbia. It was a special moment, when the BC Legislature finally dealt with its own long history of anti-Chinese racism and discrimination--laws and policies sanctioned and legislated within the very same chamber where the Premier of British Columbia today formally apologized. We British Columbians, through the MLAs who politically represent us, formally acknowledged a past that has been for so long ignored when we teach and learn the history of British Columbia. It is a past that many of our elders remember all too well, and for those who suffered the pain and indignities of racial discrimination, this day is a recognition that their story is an integral part of our common history. Not an aberration or anomaly, as if a few mistakes were made here and there, but a systematic and enduring feature of the political, social, and economic life of this province and its government.

The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia today acknowledged that what they did over years and decades of implementing the policies of a "White Man's Province" (to use former Premier Richard McBride's words), was wrong. Wrong now, from the perspective of a multicultural society that has rejected racism, but also wrong then in the sense that it should not have been that way. White supremacy was lawful policy, legally entrenching racism against Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians, South Asian Canadians, and First Nations peoples who are indigenous to these lands, indeed all those who were considered "non-white." One of the primary reasons why such policies could be made into law was that non-whites were not allowed to vote, and so racist legislation never had to take into account whether those who were its victims might vote the legislators out of office. Anti-Chinese politics and white supremacy were tools used to help organize political coalitions and fuelled political campaigns during elections.

This is our history. And today, a moment occurred when we all acknowledged that this history is all of ours together. Not just the particular story of Chinese Canadians, as if the only interesting thing about the Chinese in British Columbia was that they were the victims of racism, but a part of all of our common history, so that today we acknowledged that the experiences of Chinese Canadians and the story of racism and exclusion is the story of all of us in British Columbia, and that the days are now over when we can ignore the stories of what happened to those of Chinese descent, as if their story is somehow not our story.

When are we?  I hope that today we stand at a moment in our collective history when we can no longer say that Chinese Canadian history is only the history of those who are themselves of Chinese descent, or that each of our histories belong only to our own particular communities. Chinese Canadian history is all of ours. It is our shared history--its sadness and bitterness as much as its struggles and triumphs.

Today we did not overcome our dark history. That was, and continues to be, a long process more often than not resulting from the everyday struggles of ordinary people trying to endure and overcome injustice, each in their own way contributing to making a more just and fair society. People like my grandfather, who worked almost his entire life as a cook on the Princess Patricia, one of the first Alaskan cruise ships sailing out of Vancouver. He paid the Head Tax when he came to Canada as a young teenager, and lived and worked the rest of his life in Canada, much of it being treated as a second class citizen. He is no longer alive today to enjoy this moment of atonement and redemption. But it is his day, and that of countless others like him who quietly toiled amidst the cold dark of difficult days. Today we consecrate the sacrifices they made, and the suffering they endured, so that we all could live in a better world. Today was a day to recognize old wrongs, but also to acknowledge that it was often the victims of injustice who stood up and forced others to recognize the inequity of enjoying privileges unfairly denied to others. Today we remember again that there is no justice for all, if there is only justice for some.

When are we? Today is a day for us to give thanks. To bow our heads and remember those who remained hopeful. Those who even amidst the darkest days, hoped beyond hope that someday there would be light again. They endured and persevered--on all our behalf. And even if they themselves never had the chance to see the sun arise at last, today we remember them for their struggles and for their belief in a just world where a wrong is a wrong, no matter how much time passes, and that it is never too late to finally make things right.

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