New Westminster gets it EXACTLY right

Here’s a rarity: a bit of good news on the racial front right here at home:

John Stark, the city’s senior social planner, said the Chinese reconciliation process undertaken by the City of New Westminster is the first such process taken by a municipality in Canada. He said research done by staff confirmed that city council acted in a discriminatory matter, particularly by restricting employment opportunities and by asking senior governments to pass discriminatory laws.

I was a bit dumbfounded, to be honest, when I read the rest of the article. Usually, apologies like this are simple declarations that the problem existed, and that the current office-holders are sorry that it happened. While those kinds of apologies do have some merit, at the end of the day there’s very little concrete difference in the lives of those affected. New Westminster has taken an extra (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) step of rolling out an ambitious agenda of a way to make recompense to the community, including the establishment of a cultural monument and earmarking funds to document and incorporate the contribution of the Chinese community into the history of the city. That’s a real apology (are you paying attention, Catholic Church?)

I spoke in a previous post about the merit of acknowledging the mistakes of the past, but I didn’t really get to put a very fine point on it. There is a common refrain that comes from people who are ignorant of or ambivalent toward race issues when things like this make it into the news: “Why dwell on the past? We have to move forward, and separating people by race only makes things worse.” While I’m sure their hearts are in the right place, this argument is largely nonsense. It’s essentially a re-hashing of the “colour blind” argument that I debunked two months ago. Briefly, the reason why colour blindness doesn’t work as a strategy to improve race relations is because it requires all people to be blind to race, particularly those for whom their race exposes them to discrimination. It is an attempt to paint over rust – it might make things look better but it fails to address the underlying problem and allows it to get worse.

The problem with the “why dwell on the past” argument is that we have buried or otherwise distorted what the past actually is. Immigrant groups (Chinese, African, South-Asian, Irish, eastern European, the list goes on) built this country in just as real a way as English and French immigrants did. First Nations Canadians made real contributions to the foundation of the country before it was even a country. All of these groups suffered systemic and ongoing discrimination for centuries in this country – many of them continue to experience it. Ignoring that legacy isn’t a step forward toward racial harmony, it’s another step along the line of having those types of discrimination become endemic in the social fabric. While it might make some people feel less guilty to have to acknowledge our country’s history of racism, the recognition that we are all a part of that history is a real opportunity to move forward.

Until we acknowledge and accept the real history of prejudice and racism in Canada, as New Westminster has done, we will continue to founder in our attempts to build a nation of equal Canadians. I applaud the city council of New Westminster for taking this step, and I hope it is so successful that other municipalities cannot help but take notice.

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