March 21 is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On that day in 1960, in South Africa, police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration against apartheid, killing 69 and injuring 180. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on all nations to focus on change, to double down to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms. How far have we come in 56 years, considering what we are witnessing around the world? We look at the inequities and the by-products created by racism and prejudice beyond our borders, covering our eyes and holding our hearts in shock at police brutality in the States, while feeling blameless. This is a dangerous perspective.
February was Black History month. I took the opportunity to access the myriad of information available, of sites dedicated to the courage of people of colour in Canada, including the well-known Viola Desmond and the not so well-known Lulu Anderson. I came across Bashir Mohamed, an Edmonton-based writer. He shared his work with CBC’s Black on the Prairies project (www.cbc.ca/newsinteractives/features/black-on-the-prairies). “Black people have lived in Alberta for more than two hundred years,” said Bashir Mohamed, but in 2016 Bashir experienced racism firsthand while riding his bike in downtown Edmonton. This racist attack left Bashir wondering about Alberta’s history. He unearthed disturbing evidence of racism – Edmonton City Council’s passing of a motion calling for black immigration to be halted; an Alberta Member of Parliament’s speech entitled “We want no dark spots in Alberta” printed in the Edmonton Journal (1911); doctors receiving bonuses for every black person they refused entry to; segregated movie theatres and swimming pools; hospitals refusing black patients care. Bashir found a “long and consistent history that showed institutional barriers, institutional discrimination” and he found Lulu Anderson.
Lulu Anderson was thrown out of an Edmonton theatre in May of 1922, despite having a ticket. She sued the theatre. She lost. The Winnipeg Free Press followed up with a report stating, “colour line confirmed”. In 1971, the Alberta government destroyed legal records from 1921 – 1949, including Anderson’s case. Why those years? Lulu Anderson’s courage does not form part of the education curriculum. Why is that? It is essential for all of us to see the truth of those experiences recorded in history books, to expose when society went wrong and what we are doing to right those wrongs. Society very seldom gets it right, but we need to arm children with the knowledge and evidence of those wrongs so they might grow up to create a different reality.
During Black History month, I re-read Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In, which documents struggles with racism in Canada over the course of one year (2017). It was a national Best Seller and winner of the 2020 Toronto Book Award. I urge everyone to read this “courageous, unflinching masterpiece” (Quill & Quire). I then turned to Diversity Thunder Bay on March 2 to hear Dr. Scott Hamilton, a professor at Lakehead University in the Department of Anthropology, speak about the Legacy of the Indian Residential School System. He reminded listeners that Residential Schools don’t just form the historic backdrop of racism in Canada. The trauma is still with us; the schools were still operational in 1996. “It is a contemporary issue,” he reminded us. Dr. Hamilton spoke of the Darwinian theory published in 1859 gaining notice at that time and being wildly misinterpreted. Many grabbed on to the false notion of evolution as an “improvement”, “a single path toward civilization”, a claim that was overtly racist, with a false “sense of superiority”. Dr. Hamilton referred to Conrad Black’s Rise to Greatness published in 2014 which was factually incorrect, reeking of the same sense of superiority. The focus of Dr. Hamilton’s talk was the forty-five years of research that has gone into looking for possible burial sites at residential schools, referring to the CSI effect where the public expects immediate answers, like a 42-minute television episode, and the media’s “superficial treatment of complex science”. Dr. Hamilton submitted his work’s report in 2015, a report that was quickly forgotten. The Kamloops 2021 discovery triggered fury and his report was re-released. Dr. Hamilton’s presentation was informative and thoughtful, inspiring those in attendance to refocus their sense of purpose, to engage in action and conversation for change.
My responsibility as a human-being is to educate myself on that which needs to change, so that I can participate in that change wherever possible. Those who have suffered from racism aren’t looking to blame, but want to be heard, need to know that together we strive for equality, to bring about the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.