The OPSEU Workers of Colour Caucus (WOCC) joins with workers and activists worldwide in observing the 2013 International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination.
“From the Past to the Present: the Struggle Continues.”
Established in 1966 by the United Nations, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination commemorates the tragic events that took place on March 21, 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa when 69 peaceful demonstrators were killed and thousands injured. The demonstrators had been protesting South Africa’s system of racial segregation and apartheid.
The 1966 UN proclamation called on the world community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. The resolution also recognized that racism and systems of apartheid are “denials of basic human rights” and constitute “serious barriers to economic and social development.”
In Canada, many racialized individuals and communities continue to be subject to racism, social injustice, and inequality on a daily basis. Racism and its impacts take many forms—from substandard housing and serious health inequalities in Aboriginal, Metis and Inuit communities, to the poverty and underemployment faced by many racialized groups and a devastating number of new immigrants. The current impact of so-called austerity measures also means that racialized communities are disproportionately impacted by cuts to government and social services as those who face both diminished employment and access to services.
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is a call to action. It is a reminder of our collective responsibility for promoting and protecting the goals of elimination of these forms social and racial oppression.
In commemorating this day, the OPSEU Workers of Colour Caucus present two recent news stories about racism and the individuals and communities who have fought for its elimination. The editorial “Confederate Symbol Says More Than Some Suggest” presents an important discussion about contemporary racism and hatred in Ontario. The article: “U.S. Historians Shed Light on Young Slave’s 1860 Escape — to Vancouver Island” features the story of a little known, but inspiring example of Canadians who helped secure the freedom of a slave in the 19th century.
Confederate Symbol Says More Than Some Suggest
Reprinted from The Owen Sound Sun Times
Wed Mar 13 2013: Page: A5
Byline: JAMES TAYLOR CARSON
Something strange is afoot. A battle flag that once danced over the heads of the raw-boned men who fought on the side of slavery in the American Civil War and then fluttered again, a century later, atop state capitols across the American South in grim defiance of the civil rights movement has popped up in Ontario.
Just last month — Black History month, so that there is no mistaking the intent — a handful of high school students in Sutton West, a small town just east of Lake Simcoe, sported the flag on their T-shirts, belt buckles, and pickups. When asked why they would embrace such a symbol, one student reported that it was all about "country values." "We don"t think of it," he confessed, "as a racist thing."
Then, a little more than a week ago, the flag appeared over the entrance to a new barbecue joint in Hamilton. When asked about using such a provocative symbol to market his food, the owner likened the flag to those flown by Quebec separatists or Idle No More activists and claimed that it was simply a symbol of Southern pride — the good ol" boy — although he acknowledged a few "middle-class Anglo-Saxons" might find fault with it because anti-racism is "trendy" in today"s too-sensitive world.
That flag, however, is not the only awful Southern symbol to make its mark in Ontario in recent years. Let"s not forget the man who captured a Halloween costume prize in Cambellford in 2010 by dressing as a Ku Kluxer with a rebel flag draped over his shoulders and a rope in his hand that ended in a noose around his black-faced friend"s neck. Or even the several NHLers who have been snapped in recent years in Halloween blackface to what they thought would be hilarious effect.
Such acts beg a simple question: Why would Canadians reach into one of the darkest corners of the United States" past to grab hold of a symbol that bespeaks the racism, intolerance, and menace of bygone eras and multiple lost causes?
People latch onto symbols, beliefs, and practices from other cultures, other places, and other times for any number of reasons, but having grown up in the American South at the tail end of the bitter struggles over school integration and the extension of voting rights to African-Americans, I am hard-pressed to understand how blackface, rebel flags, and paeans to "Southern" heritage can appeal to anyone anymore, let alone to certain Canadians.
As Dixie"s far-northern apologists would have it, though, they fly that flag not because they want to put anyone back in chains and not because they want to re-institute separate water fountains, train cars, and schools, but because they want to be rebels, they want attention, or they want to sell something. The most troubling thing, though, is that these people know that the flag has a dark past. They just want to wish that past away so that the flag can be turned to their own designs, but it"s not that easy.
Listen to Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy"s vice-president, who said of the Confederate nation that flew that flag: "Its foundations are laid . . . upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition."
Or, better yet, harken to the words spoken by Alabama Gov. George Wallace who, in 1963, sought to tie his racial political project to the purpose and legacy of the Confederate States of America. "It is very appropriate," he bragged, "that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom."
"Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood," he thundered, "I say . . . segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever."
One of his first acts as governor was to raise the rebel flag above the state capitol. It did not come down until 1992, and then only at the insistence of the state"s African-American politicians, but at least it came down.
Here, today, in 21st-century Ontario, we see it flying yet again. For anyone interested in repurposing such a symbol into a gimmick to stake out the newest food fad, to show off disaffected adolescence, or to pull a Halloween prank, I would like to think the flag"s story holds out a cautionary tale, but to hear it one has to be willing to listen, and nothing suggests that Ontario"s neo-confederates are.
Maybe you are — but only you know the answer for sure.
There are symbols, signs, and ideologies out there that resist renovation and instead stand to remind us that the past is never really past. Still, anyone can seize upon a symbol freighted with racism and bigotry and maybe even hope to turn it to their own ends to advance their own agendas. Such, at least, is our right as citizens of a free society.
Rights, however, do not exist in a vacuum, and so in the face of that flag it falls to each of us to discuss, consider, and arrive at certain common, indeed fundamental, values that might qualify those rights. If certain individuals have chosen to fly that flag, will Ontario"s parents decide whether or not their sons and daughters should take their cultural cues from someone like George Wallace? Will the provincial marketplace we all comprise condone or condemn a restaurant that has invoked the armed defence of slavery to sell sandwiches?
We all make choices, each and every day, that when aggregated form the basis of the society in which we live and the culture in which we grow. With the recent appearances of Confederate battle flags, Klan hoods, and blackface in Ontario, we just have new choices to make — strange choices, to be sure, whose decisions will at some point let us know what kind of place we have decided to make for ourselves and what kind of past or future we will refuse or accept.
James Taylor Carson is a professor of history at Queen"s University.
U.S. Historians Shed Light on Young Slave’s 1860 Escape — to Vancouver Island
By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News March 11, 2013
Two U.S. historians have shed new light on a little-known but powerful story from 19th-century Canada, when black settlers on Vancouver Island orchestrated the dramatic escape of a 12-year-old slave from his master in Washington territory, on the U.S. side of the border.
A rare example of the Underground Railroad operating on the Pacific frontier, the 1860 rescue of young Charles Mitchell by abolitionists in pre-Confederation Victoria — and the ensuing legal battle that resulted in a landmark victory for freedom — has itself been rescued from obscurity this month with the publication of Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master on Puget Sound.
At a time when the fate of escaped slaves was always uncertain — even in the abolitionist “promised land” of British North America, where U.S. bounty hunters sometimes roamed in search of runaways — the Mitchell case reinforced the rights of fugitive blacks and helped galvanize a newfound sense of citizenship within Vancouver Island’s fledgling African-Canadian community.
Free Boy co-author Lorraine McConaghy, public historian at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, said she first learned of the Mitchell story while searching for regional links to enhance a travelling exhibit on the Civil War that came to Washington state in 2008.
“I had come up through many levels of schooling here, always being told there was no Civil War story here,” she said.
But McConaghy’s research turned up a brief, 1860 article from a Seattle newspaper headlined “A Runaway Slave Case,” and her first thought was: “A fugitive slave, Underground Railroad — this is probably Ohio or Indiana or Ontario. But no, it was Victoria. And that was me stumbling on the Charles Mitchell-James Tilton story.”
The news brief, printed in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin on Oct. 18, 1860, described how “a mulatto boy belonging to Gen. James Tilton, of Olympia, Puget Sound” had escaped to Victoria as a “stowaway” aboard the steamship Eliza Anderson.
The story indicated that certain “parties to his escape” in Victoria had alerted authorities with what was then the Colony of Vancouver Island to ensure the boy was not shipped back to continued enslavement in Olympia.
Tilton was Washington territory’s surveyor-general, a prominent figure in the pre-statehood era who had received the “gift” of a young slave boy from a relative in Maryland.
Those who helped arrange Charles’ escape were newly settled black residents of Victoria. They had been part of a group of some 600 immigrants who’d come north from San Francisco in 1858 during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush.
Several of them had apparently made contact with Charles Mitchell weeks earlier in Washington territory and encouraged him to escape on a Victoria-bound cargo ship.
In Victoria, there was a brief legal standoff during which Charles was at risk of being sent back to the U.S. Tilton’s lawyers sought to secure “the immediate delivery of said negro Charles that he may be returned to his master,” but Vancouver Island justice officials ruled that the boy’s presence on British soil guaranteed his freedom.
The story of Mitchell’s escape is “not completely unknown – it was in the newspapers at the time – but it had been forgotten,” McConaghy told Postmedia News.
“And the reasons for forgetting it are interesting to probe,” she added, noting a “conscious disinclination to emphasize a story like this one” in the history of the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
But “people brought their convictions here with them, when they settled in the northwest,” she said. “That’s as true of Victoria as it is of Washington territory.”
Nevertheless, the dominant historical narrative in the state education system suggests that rather than transplanting the battle over slavery from back east, “people came west to get away from the war. They were busy planting orchards and panning for gold.”
McConaghy and her co-author, Judy Bentley, have told the Charles Mitchell saga in a new book aimed at young readers, so the story can spread among a new generation of U.S. citizens.
And Crawford Kilian, one of the few B.C. historians to have written about the Mitchell case, applauded the U.S. authors for shining a spotlight on an important and long-overlooked moment in Canadian history.
“Charles Mitchell’s story does deserve to be better known,” said Kilian, author of the 2008 book Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia. “It shows two kinds of determination: Charles Mitchell’s determination to escape to freedom, and the Victoria black community’s determination to make him free.”
He said knowledge about the 19th-century black community in B.C. is limited to “what we learn in school — and until recently, that was very little.
McConaghy said there’s a sad footnote to the Charles Mitchell story. Another newspaper clipping — this one from an 1876 edition of Victoria’s British Colonist — describing the disappearance and apparent death of a “colored man named Charles Mitchell” and a “white man known as Bill” after their canoe, laden with shingles for delivery to an unknown destination, was found overturned near Sooke, B.C.
Charles Mitchell appears to have died before reaching the age of 30, but as a free man. The grim notice in the British Colonist said Mitchell left a wife and four children — “one of whom has been born since he left home,” the paper noted.
“This is an important story for educators,” said McConaghy, “because it’s an important story for kids — that you can remake your life, that you’re not stuck with your lot.”