provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Saying Sorry

Opinion: How does a province say sorry? 

Opinion: How does a province say sorry?
Dr. Henry Yu is a historian and associate professor of history and principal of St. John’s College at UBC.

Over the last past two months, the government of British Columbia has been holding consultations on the wording of an apology for the anti-Chinese provincial legislation that marked much of the first half of B.C. history.

The process opens a broader discussion about how a society can reckon with the darker moments of its past. How do you say sorry for something that happened decades ago, before many of today’s British Columbians were born or even arrived in Canada?

I was born in Vancouver in 1967, the 100th anniversary of Canadian confederation. My grandfather came to Canada in 1923, just before Chinese immigration was cut off for the next 45 years, and he paid the $500 Chinese head tax, the equivalent of several years of a worker’s salary at the time. My great-grandfather before him also paid the head tax when he came in the 19th century to help build B.C. Now I teach history at UBC, and my classes are full of Chinese Canadians and other Asian Canadian students who would have been the targets for legalized racial discrimination even 50 years ago. Many of them come from families who only entered Canada after racial barriers to non-white immigration were removed in 1968.

Why should we say sorry when so few of the original actors are alive today? Unlike a personal apology, a government apology is an acknowledgment of collective responsibility and the long-term effects created by government policies. When you buy a share in a company, and that company’s product proves to be defective, you cannot say your share price should not go down because you bought your shares after the defective product was sold. You now have a shared stake in the company, and have a collective responsibility and liability for whatever happened beforehand, even if you were not personally involved.

Like a personal apology, however, there must be a substance in saying sorry. If my child breaks your child’s toy on the playground, it is not enough that my child just says sorry. Even if sincere, an apology is only symbolic and potentially empty unless there is some attempt to remedy the harm. If I cannot help fix the toy my child broke, I could at least try to replace the toy or try to cover the loss in some other way.

One of the harms of anti-Chinese legislation decades ago has been in the shaping of our collective history around the history of some people but not others, so we do not even acknowledge or remember the long-term presence or legacy of people such as my grandfather and great-grandfather.

Although an apology could and should have taken place decades ago, it is still better late than never. Over the past two years, I have been involved at UBC in a broad campus effort to recognize Japanese Canadian students who had been forcibly removed from UBC in 1942, most of whom were never able to complete their degrees.

A singularly amazing retired schoolteacher, Mary Kitagawa, had written a letter in 2008 to the president of UBC, asking whether these 76 students could receive honorary degrees in recognition of what they had lost when they were taken away from their studies by legislated racism. Kitagawa never abandoned her quest for justice, and finally after four long years, UBC committed to try to make right an old wrong (watch a film clip of the event here). Even though only 11 of the students, now in their late 80s and 90s, could receive their degrees in person — the vast majority having died in the ensuing 70 years — the ceremony was moving and important precisely because this degree of justice was better late than never.

The Senate of UBC unanimously voted recently for the new Asian Canadian and Asian Migration studies program, fulfilling a pledge made in 2011 to create a permanent educational program so the history of anti-Asian racism that led to the forced removal of Japanese Canadians in 1942 would not be forgotten. The lessons learned at UBC from this process, and ones that the province might observe, is that an institution can effectively acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and that saying sorry should be more than just words.

As a province, just what are we apologizing for, and to whom are we apologizing? Anti-Chinese legislation in B.C. was persistent, broad in effect, and in place for the majority of our past. Provincial legislation enacted in 1871, soon after confederation, took the vote away from almost all those deemed non-white. Laws passed by the province in the ensuing decades restricted where Chinese and other Asian Canadians could work, whether they could own land or receive government contracts, even whether they could become professionals. Many provincial professional associations, for instance, deliberately excluded from membership those who could not vote in provincial elections, and because anti-Asian laws prevented Chinese and most other Asians from voting until 1947, they could not become doctors or lawyers or engineers in B.C. for the first half of our history.

A substantive apology needs to address the following:

1) Public education (K-12, university, museums, and mass media) about how our history was shaped by co-ordinated legislated racism and discrimination against not only Chinese Canadians and other Asian Canadians, but also first nations and aboriginal peoples, and the need to mitigate the damage and continuing legacies of policies such as the reserve system and aboriginal residential schooling.

2) Acknowledge the broader heritage of British Columbia through recognition of historical sites that are meaningful to those communities who have been left for so long out of our collective history. For instance, all along the Fraser River are astounding archaeological sites left by Chinese Canadian miners who built elaborate stone works. Last summer, a group of British Columbians aged 8-82 went on a river raft expedition to see these sites. (watch "Gold Mountain River") Yet our Heritage Protection Act does not legally protect these sites even though they date to the Gold Rush. The provincial government should change the date for qualifying for heritage status from 1840 to a later date that recognizes the importance of saving our shared heritage for future generations, as well as for the tourism that remains our No. 1 industry.

3) Create a permanent endowment in honour of those who suffered, worked through, and eventually overturned the legislated racism in B.C., with a goal of providing resources for public education and a long term re-imagining of our history and future. We often forget that those who were excluded and treated unfairly have done the most to create the more just and fair British Columbia that we now enjoy.

How should we all pay for this endowed fund? Although the federal government enacted the discriminatory Chinese head tax in 1885, the provincial government received about 40 per cent of the revenue gathered. This was not a trivial amount before the introduction of the income tax. The $23 million in total revenue Canada and B.C. split would be worth $1.5 billion today. Many of our bridges, hospitals, roads, and other provincial infrastructure were financed by a tax only the Chinese were forced to pay. Even if we only gave back a symbolic one per cent of the value of the head tax, that would still create a $15-million endowment to help remedy the damage done.

We need to re-think how we understand and teach our history, so it is accurate and recognizes both the long history of white supremacy that shaped our development as well as the continuous presence of the non-white peoples who have been here both before and throughout our province’s history. We still live with many of the legacies of that history, including the reserve system and residential schooling for first nations and aboriginal peoples on whose ancestral territory the province was built.

This revision of our common history and future cannot be limited to K-12 education. Public education through museums, mass media, and material aimed at new immigrants must also take place. We cannot build a common future for this society, especially considering the changing demographics of our classrooms and our neighbourhoods, unless we have a common history that reflects all of the histories of the peoples — including dark moments of discrimination and racism — who were in British Columbia together.

When the B.C. government makes its planned apology, there needs to be substance to go with the words. The apology is not primarily to people such as my grandfather and great-grandfather; they are no longer alive to hear or accept it. The apology is for all British Columbians to acknowledge and share in the collective responsibility we have for our shared history, and for all of us to work together for a shared future.

Dr. Henry Yu is a historian and associate professor of history and principal of St. John’s College at UBC. He served as the project lead for Chinese Canadian Stories at UBC, and the Initiative for Student Teaching and Research in Chinese Canadian Studies at UBC. He also co-chaired the city of Vancouver Dialogues between First Nations, Urban Aboriginal, and Immigrant Communities project.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sharing Our Stories: Vancouver Dialogues Project

In 2010, a groundbreaking cross-cultural project was launched. The Vancouver Dialogues Project created many ways for Aboriginal and immigrant communities to gather together in dialogue and cultural sharing. Set amidst the stunning landscape of Vancouver Coast Salish traditional territory, Sharing our Stories captures the personal reflections of some very thoughtful project participants, including Aboriginal elders and leaders Larry Grant, Leah George-Wilson and Marjorie White, as well as public figures John Ralston Saul and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. The video celebrates the achievement of the project, while showcasing some of the diverse events and collaborations that took place. It is an inspiring tool for those wishing to engage in cross-cultural work and dialogue.