provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Bilingualism isn't a sign of Community Decay

OpEd in the Province "Racism in Paradise" Series, Oct. 7, 2013

Resentment over multiculturalism seems to fester just under the surface

Guest column: Bilingualism isn’t a sign of community decay

Professor Henry Yu.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop , PROVINCE

While riding the 99B bus last year when it was filled to standing room only, I overheard a man say to his companion that he hated how people spoke Chinese to each other. He said it with a visceral anger that caught my attention. I noticed that he was staring at a group of young people across the aisle who were conversing in Cantonese.
I wondered what so infuriated this man. Were they saying something that had offended him? I listened for several minutes but they were just joking about a mutual friend. I realized that what angered the man was not what they were saying -- it was that he could not understand what they were saying. The man, in the meantime, was now telling his companion how Vancouver had gone “downhill.”
I spent the rest of my cross-city journey listening to this pair of conversations -- one a lighthearted discussion among friends, and the other a running social commentary about everything wrong with our society.
Who are we in this city? Is that crowded bus a microcosm of us? On the one hand a city full of young people speaking Chinese, Punjabi, Filipino, English, and dozens of other languages; on the other a seething mass of not-so-quiet resentment?
I was born in Vancouver and I have seen many profound changes here in my life. I also study these changes as a historian. As with many devoted Vancouverites, I wonder about our future together. But I see it through a different lens. For me, the question of who we are is tied to where we are, and when we are.
Where are we? We live in a place that is the product of a long series of continual engagements between trans-Atlantic migrants, trans-Pacific migrants, and indigenous peoples. Our neighbourhoods contain a diversity of origins but also other important aspects of what makes for a rich and vibrant society.
Richmond, a city that to many seems monolithically Chinese, in fact contains a diversity of ethnic Chinese from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. Some speak Cantonese and others speak Mandarin, languages as different from each other when spoken as Italian from French.
When are we? For the first half of our civic history, we were a city of many origins speaking many languages. These included Cantonese, Japanese, Punjabi, and English, but also many Coast Salish and First Nations languages.
We are again a city full of many origins and multiple languages. The challenge is how we deal with what happened in between. We are still recovering from a dark period when non-whites could not vote, were legally excluded from most good jobs, and could not live in many neighbourhoods.
Residential schooling systematically split aboriginal youth from their families in order to strip them of their language and culture.
On the whole, we have repudiated many of the laws and moral values that shaped that period. But there are still many legacies that remain and which cannot be wished away just by saying we have changed.
One of those legacies is the odd belief that it is better that we all speak only English for the benefit of those who can only speak English, rather than allowing those who can speak both English and other languages to be respected and even rewarded for being able to speak many languages. English is extremely useful as a lingua franca, a language used in common by many people who can also speak other languages. That is fundamentally different than saying we should all speak only English all the time.
In this city, almost all those under the age of 25 who can speak Chinese can also speak English. They have the wonderful ability to speak multiple languages.
Those Cantonese-speaking youngsters on the bus likely use English most of the time at school and work. Why be angry at them for being able to also carry on a conversation in another language?
Earlier this year, a proposal was made to Richmond City Council that would require all businesses to have English-language signs. We should celebrate the council’s rejection of that idea. For too long, anti-Asian laws existed in Vancouver and British Columbia that targeted Chinese and other Asians. The memory of that legacy is still raw.
Is there a challenge for non-Chinese customers in a Chinese restaurant that has only Chinese menus and signs? If those who cannot speak Chinese want to eat at some of the best Chinese restaurants in the world, my suggestion is to make a friend at work, or in your neighbourhood, or at your church, who can speak both English and Chinese.
To thank them for translating, host a meal in return. Rather than trying to pass laws, cross the aisle and create a social bond that will make a more civil society that talks and eats together.
Dr. Henry Yu is a professor of history at UBC and was the Co-Chair of the City of Vancouver’s “Dialogues between First Nations, Urban Aboriginal, and Immigrant Communities” Project.

Monday, October 7, 2013

White Canada Forever?

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.


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."
Williams is a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Residential Schools Survivor Committee. When he talks to students, he's found few non-native youth have even heard of this dark chapter.
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."