Vancouver resident and social activist Sadie Kuehn will never forget the time she silenced one of the most bigoted politicians in the United States.
It was 1966, and she was around 18 years old. The southern governors had gathered at the state legislature in Atlanta, Georgia, and among them was George Wallace, then the notoriously racist governor of Alabama.
Kuehn, who was born and raised in Savannah, was in the audience. As Wallace began speaking, she started to clap.
“I wanted to shut him up,” she said with a laugh during a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office.
An odd thing happened. Others in the audience mimicked her action.
“They couldn’t have this black person get up and clap—and they not clap—so they clapped too,” she remarked.
As the applause died down, Wallace resumed speaking. Kuehn started clapping again. After about 15 minutes, according to her recollection, the governor ended his speech.
For much of her 62 years, Kuehn has been at the forefront of struggles to promote equality.
By virtue of her experience and her education, the former Catholic flower girl who was raised during the era of segregation, has developed a great deal of understanding about the nature of discrimination.
In the 1980s, Kuehn wrote the NDP policy for including people of colour in the party and chaired its human rights/race relations committee. She believes she is the only person of colour to have chaired a major political party in Canada, as she did for the Coalition of Progressive Electors.
The multicultural educator says Canadians are often reluctant to talk about race—a point highlighted earlier this year in a report written by Gay McDougall, the United Nations' independent expert on minority issues.When she was a Vancouver school trustee in the 1980s, Kuehn recalled, parents of European ancestry would get “livid” over the number of children of colour who were outperforming their kids and winning academic prizes. When asked what this says about Canada, she responded that people of different races weren’t engaging with one another.
She bluntly states that in B.C. particularly and in Canada generally, “a large portion” of people of European descent have not been willing to regard people of colour as equals. They’ll be friendly with people of other ethnicities, but won’t take it to the next level.
“And people of colour are not willing to be honest, either, because they know there are penalties in being honest,” Kuehn said. “So we haven’t reached a place where people are equal. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t want to be in situations where I have to hold my tongue and not be honest with a person. I think people of European ancestry have to understand [that] for a person of colour to really be honest and straightforward with you—and to speak to you in the way that they would speak to anyone else—is an honour. It’s an honour to you, because it’s so much easier to give you what you want, and it’s safer to do that. But it’s not true friendship, and it’s not true honour.”
Kuehn knows what it’s like to be dishonoured for who she is. In 1968, shortly after arriving in Canada, she was walking down Robson Street when a group of people approached. One woman, who looked particularly angry, spat in her face.
“I grew up in the South, and that never happened,” Kuehn said.
She and her then-husband, Larry Kuehn, moved to Kitimat, where they worked in the local school. She was once asked by a local resident about the plight of African-Americans in the Deep South. She likened the situation to that of aboriginal people in Kitimat.
“That person was livid that I would dare draw any kind of correlation between the treatment of people of African descent and First Nations in Canada,” Kuehn replied. “I said 'People of European ancestry often think that black people aren’t clean, that we lie, that we don’t look after our kids.’ Very similar things were said about First Nations people.”
After leaving Kitimat, she learned from former students that the RCMP had been asking them about her and her husband. Later, they moved to the tiny community of Midway, B.C., where she was convinced that a member of the school board disliked her because of her race and politics.
The next stop was Kamloops, where she enjoyed living for nine years. There was one troubling incident, however, when her son’s hair was nearly set on fire.
“Donovan, when he was in kindergarten, had matches thrown at his hair because he had an Afro,” she recalled. “People thought that was not a problem.”
Kuehn suggested that different traditions in Canada and the United States result in each country addressing racism in distinct ways. In Canada, she said, the human-rights responses arise out of an old religious tradition of trying to help others.
But the ones being helped “aren’t quite equal, you know,” she said with a mischievous smile.
In Canada, she added, the focus is often on education. Kuehn noted a similar focus in the United States, but said it’s supplemented with stronger penalties.
She also stated that in America, human rights come out of the civil-rights movement, which never flourished in Canada to nearly the same degree.
Kuehn said that when she lived in the United States, many people of European descent knew that African-Americans would eventually be treated with more respect. But, she added, there was a fear that once people of colour gained positions of power, they would turn around and punish people of European descent.
She emphasized that she doesn’t believe this will occur.
“I think for many people of colour, they have no desire to treat people of European ancestry badly, because we understand what it is to be treated as second-class and unhuman,” she said.
When asked about beliefs held by some that we live in a "postracial" society, Kuehn responded: “For most people of colour, they would never say that. Some would, depending on the environment they’re in, but for the most part, when people are really honest, most people of colour do not say we are beyond that.”