Reflecting on the Yee Clun case

There are a couple of things from yesterday morning’s post that I think bear further examination and reflection.

One of the good ones

Yee Clun was lucky, in a sense, that he was able to muster support from well-regarded white Reginans. What Backhouse found extraordinary is that, with only a couple of notable exceptions, the bulk of Yee’s defenders protested that he was clearly not the kind of person who the law was supposed to discriminate against. He was one of the good ‘Chinamen’, who would never drug and subsequently rape a white woman in his employ.

Members of minority communities know this kind of ‘defence’ quite well. Many ostensible allies confide to their friends of colour that they (the friend) is different. Unless the desire for flattery overpowers the frontal lobe of the friend’s brain, this ‘difference’ suggests quite clearly that the so-called ally thinks that the stereotype is true, just not universally so. I am not in a position to judge other people and their reaction to such a statement, but I don’t consider a person who thinks that I am intelligent and worthwhile despite my blackness to be much preferable to someone who hates me because of it.

The other thing worth noting is that such defences do not matter. It doesn’t matter how ‘exceptional’ you are, people who judge people based on their race are going to judge you on the same basis, no matter how exceptional you try to be. They might claim to make exceptions for you, but as soon as you do something that makes you lose their favour (or in Yee’s case, when you’re up against someone whose favour you’ve never had), you will immediately be lumped in with the hated group. “One of the good ones” is code for “you’ll be the last one we come for”. [Read more...]

Black History Month: Yee Clun and the White Women’s Labour Law

This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already. Part 1 of this series is herePart 2 is here, and a follow-up can be found here. Part 3 can be read here.

Regina is the capital city of the province of Saskatchewan, with a present-day population of nearly 200,000 people, nearly 2% (or around 3300) of whom identify as having Chinese ancestry. As Saskatchewan contends with a resource-sector boom and an economic renaissance, it is highly likely that the prospect of decent wages and the opportunity to build a family will attract a larger number of immigrants, Chinese immigrants among them, to Regina’s… I was going to say ‘shores’ there.

Regina in 1921 had a much smaller Chinese population – ~250 individuals in an overall population of over 34,000 (0.7%). This was hardly mere happenstance – Canada at the time had extremely and overtly racist immigration and migration policies that specifically limited Chinese people (almost exclusively men, for purposes of manual labour) from entering Canada, and further limited their movement once they were here. Many of the Chinese men living in Regina had moved east from British Columbia, perhaps hoping to find respite from the even-more-racist laws governing where and how Chinese people were allowed to live and work*.

Unabashed anti-Chinese racism was no stranger to Regina, if the excerpts that Backhouse quotes from periodicals from the time are any evidence. Perhaps the most stark example of the prevailing attitude towards Chinese Reginans took the form of a law called An Act to Prevent the Employment of Female Labour in Certain Capacities or, more colloquially, the White Women’s Labour Law. From the text of the law: [Read more...]

Reverse appropriation

As much as we might like to ignore or obscure it, we can’t outrun our past. Many of the institutions we rely on were built, or at least conceived of, in a time when bigoted ideas were openly expressed and widely believed (unlike now, where they’re still widely believed but we at least have the decency to believe them a bit more quietly). Nowhere is this more evident than in landmarks that were named during the ‘less enlightened’ days of our civilization. Who could forget Rick Perry’s ranch at “Niggerhead” (or the more than 100 other places with the same name)?

Professional sports teams have also struggled with this issue. Coming from a time when casual racism against Native Americans was considered normal and healthy (so like… 6 years ago? 7? Less?), we get names like “Braves” and “Indians”, and perhaps the worst of all, the “Redskins” – although like landmarks, this is not the only thing to bear that name:

A picture of a taffy candy called "Redskins"

Taste the casual racism!

[Read more...]

Black History Month: Sero v. Gault

This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already. Part 1 of this series is here. Part 2 is here, and a follow-up can be found here.

Part of the main thrust of this year’s Black History Month is that while the history of black people is not defined by racism, it is almost impossible to understand the contemporary black experience without carefully examining the way racism has shaped it. As such, there is some valuable information to be gleaned from comparing how white supremacist entities treated other (i.e., non-black minorities) groups and people. Put another way, I believe it is both possible and valuable to examine, for example, the discrimination and ultimate dispossession of the black population of Halifax’s Africville by understanding other groups whose property rights (and indeed, human rights) have been simply ignored by an uncaring and paternalistic political system.

One such example (which is roughly contemporaneous with some of the more egregious aspects of the Africville saga) comes to us in the form of the case of Sero v Gault. Eliza Sero was a Tyendinaga Mohawk woman who shared custody of a fishing net with another woman, through which she gained her livelihood. A provincial government fisheries inspector named Thomas Gault seized Sero’s net on the grounds that she did not have a provincial license. This was no small matter for Sero – her way of supporting herself was caught up in that net (a net she didn’t own outright to begin with), and so she sued. [Read more...]

Wandata’s Trial and today’s Canada

While reading the chapter that informed this morning’s post, I was particularly struck by the number of parallels between Manitoba in 1902 and Canada in 2013. Now, to be sure, this is more than likely to be a big ol’ ball of confirmation bias – I have learned more about Canada’s history with First Nations in the past few months than I have in the preceding 28-odd years, so I’m sure a lot of my facts will seem to resemble each other more than they might actually in ‘real life’. That being said, there were a number of things that stuck out to me that I want to reflect on here.

First, I must once again express my shock at the racist ethnocentricity and quasi-cartoonish evil that is the banning of dancing. I am not sure why, but I honestly believed my country was never so laughably puritanical as to say that dancing threatened the moral fibre of adult human beings. Clearly I am not immune to the kind of self-flattering overestimation of Canada that I criticize in others. This new information does give me serious cause to drastically revise my estimation of Sir John A. Macdonald downward – he was not a man who was laudable or worthy of emulation, and that becomes clearer the more I learn about him. [Read more...]

Black History Month: The Wandata Trial

This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already. Part 1 of this series is here.

It is either appalling ignorance on my part (if you wish to blame me) or abysmal historical instruction from our public school system (if you want to blame society) or both (if you want to be accurate) that made me completely unaware that, for the better part of a century, Canada outlawed aboriginal dance. I suppose it should come as no surprise that a country that would make a language illegal wouldn’t restrict that chauvinism to only one method of cultural expression, but for whatever reason I didn’t connect those two dots.

Backhouse invites us to acknowledge that dance is not simply a cultural quirk or an exotic way for aboriginal people to show off aspects of their heritage – they are an intrinsic part of how aboriginal people live their lives, participate in their history, and express their existential relationship to the land and their beliefs. Beyond that, the Grass Dance of the Dakota people was also a vital component of their economic and familial tradition and practices. Far from being an ancillary (but still important) method of artistic expression as is the European tradition, dance occupies a much more central niche in many aboriginal communities.

It is with this in the background that we turn our attention to the town of Rapid City, Manitoba in 1902, and the arrest of Wanduta, a Dakota elder (“Heyoka” is the title they used) for participating in a Grass Dance (also known as a Give-Away dance, due to the profligate exchange of gifts that occurs as part of the ceremony). The Dakota had been invited to perform their dance as part of hte Rapid City July Fair – a practice that was common. White settlers enjoyed the spectacle and exotic flavour of aboriginal dance, and paid handsomely to see it. While most dances were performed on reserves in cultural context, the Dakota outside of Rapid City were not averse to being part of the spectacle of the Fair. [Read more...]

Movie Friday: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Other America

There are few things that get me more irate than people who selectively quote Martin Luther King Jr. as their ‘trump card’ for their argument. While I think Dr. King had some fantastic ideas in his time, he was looking at reality through a theological lens without the benefit of scientific training; furthermore, the world he knew is now more than 50 years old. To suggest that disagreeing with Dr. King in 2013 means that your argument is incorrect is a naked appeal to authority that happens far too frequently.

Even beyond that though, most of the quoting I come across is sliced out of a single speech (the ‘Dream’ speech), without even the courtesy or intellectual rigour to quote the lines in context of the rest of the speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

If someone wants to try and reconcile that passage with the idea that Dr. King was colour blind, they’re welcome to waste their time doing so. Also everyone is invited to evaluate whether or not the conditions that prompt that speech are radically or even meaningfully different than they were in 1963.

The fact is that Dr. King wrote more than one speech, and his beliefs went beyond simple platitudes of “colour of skin vs. content of character”. Failing to appreciate this not only gives us a skewed and wildly inaccurate view of both the man and his contribution to history, but it robs us of the wealth of thoughts he did contribute. So today I invite you to brew a cup of coffee, sit down somewhere comfortable, and watch the video linked here. [Read more...]

Re: Aboriginal people in Canada and the courts

Jamie and I had, in the not-too-distant past, a disagreement over whether or not the Supreme Court of Canada (in its contemporary form) is an ally of justice when it comes to aboriginal people in Canada. Indeed, based on Monday’s post, it would be hard to make the case that Canada’s court systems are anything other than the most hypocritical arms of a white supremacist system, garbed as they are in the clothing (both figurative and literal) of justice. Any court that doesn’t recognize Canada’s current system of legislated inequality and discrimination when it comes to aboriginal sovereignty and the recognition of Treaty rights cannot really lay much claim to the title of ‘Supreme’.

That being said, I understand (perhaps better than Jamie, perhaps only differently from him) the Constitutional limitations of the court. It is the duty of Parliament, and not the courts, to create legislation, and most judges are quite loath to overturn the will of the elected government* unless there is an extremely compelling reason to do so – i.e., the law violates the Charter rights of Canadians. Judges are also bound to interpret the law according to the way it was interpreted by previous courts, making it a dispositionally conservative entity.

All that being said, as I pointed out before, the Court has made some recent decisions that I support. Decisions that I believe reflect a progressive sense of justice, and a decision-making process that prioritizes harm reduction over tradition, and attempts to balance maximum freedom with the greater good. Of course if I’m happy, that means that there are a lot of people on the political right who probably hate every single Justice, but that’s rather beside the point.

What was the point again? Oh right… Canada’s courts aren’t completely awful: [Read more...]

Black History Month: Re Eskimos (1939)

This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already.

The first case that Backhouse examines is a Supreme Court decision regarding whether or not to classify “Eskimos” (now properly known as Inuit) as Indians under the Indian Act.

The case concerned a conflict between the province of Quebec and the government of Canada, regarding the status of Inuit people living in northern Quebec. The disruption of their way of life (subsistence hunting and fur trading having been made all but impossible by the encroachment of European settlers and the disruption of the migratory patterns of carbiou) had created a dire situation for the Inuit, and there was some dispute over who had to foot the bill: the federal government or the province. The relationship between the British Crown (i.e., the Canadian government as a representative of the British Crown) and aboriginal people was codified by a legislative act, meaning that the Crown had certain fiduciary duties toward ‘Indians’, but not to non-’Indians’. [Read more...]