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B.C. marks Black History Month

February 6, 2021

Black History Month celebrates the achievements and contributions of citizens of African ancestry to the rich, diverse and pluralistic culture of British Columbia we now share. But with the plays, music, literary evenings, church services and panel discussions comes a sobering reminder of where we have come from — and how far we’ve yet to go.

Black men and women have been part of B.C.’s fabric since its inception. They came before Canada existed; helped frame both the creation of the province and its entry into Confederation; helped build the economy and the cultural, social and political landscape, as energetic, civic-minded citizens.

They came not as supplicants fleeing slavery in the United States, but as self-determined individuals who chose to make a life here. Black volunteers provided the province with its first militia at a time when American expansionism was feared. They provided the first formal policing at a time when the capital had been transformed from sleepy outpost to raucous mining camp. They helped create local governments to bring civility and the rule of law to a boisterous culture of saloons and spittoons. They built churches.

And yet, a century ago, the Ku Klux Klan, most notorious of the white supremacist organizations, was oozing north from the U.S. It drew 500 supporters to its first meeting in Shaughnessy Heights. The KKK claimed 13,000 members across B.C. by 1927, targeting Asian, black and other visible minorities with demands for punitive restrictions on property ownership, immigration and employment opportunities.

But if this unpleasant episode is a part of our collective past that Black History Month asks us not to forget, so is Vancouver’s response worth remembering. Despite racist attitudes embedded in popular culture, the city passed a bylaw outlawing the public wearing of masks like those favoured by KKK recruiters, and more thoughtful citizens spurned the organization and its values. British Columbians elected black politicians right from the outset. They accepted black teachers in schools. They patronized black businesses and professionals. The KKK collapsed, supporters melted back into the woodwork, and what’s left of it today is a fringe of zany misfits, exhibitionist contrarians, hate-deluded dunces and anonymous pamphleteers. The mansion where the KKK met to plot a future that B.C. rejected is now home to Canuck Place, a symbol of caring, colour-blind compassion.

None of this is to diminish either past or present realities. Racism, prejudice, intolerance are real. But they are the lesser part of who we are and what we want to be. Yes, black history deserves to be more fully entrenched in the school curriculum. And yes, Black History Month reminds us of the need for vigilance. It also reminds us that we have together built a better, richer, more tolerant community than we had. And it reminds us, too, that our province is a work in progress and we all share an obligation to make it better yet.