“Ally is a complicated word; sometimes accomplice is better. Accomplices put their body on the line.”
—Dr. J.P. Cayungal, instructor, critical race and ethnic studies in UBC's Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice
As I joined the growing number of people standing vigil with Black Lives Matter Vancouver on July 10, I immediately recognized Constance Barnes, the charismatic mover and shaker in the worlds of culture, green space, and electoral politics of Vancouver. The last time I had seen her was four years ago. We hugged, then standing back she shook her head, “Fuckin’ really? I mean, fuckin’ really? This is why my mother and father left the States 60 years ago. And here we are, again?”
Constance’s father, Emery Barnes, was a well-known and well-respected football player turned politician. In the truest meaning of the words, he was a servant to the people.
He was repeatedly elected to the provincial government, served nearly 25 years and was the first Black speaker of the legislature in the history of Canada. But racism nevertheless surrounded her family.
“It’s not just a problem down there, in the States," Barnes said. "It’s here. Growing up I was called nigger every day in Port Moody [a suburb of Vancouver]. The kids would say ‘eeny–meeny-miney-moe, catch a nigger by the toe’ and I had no idea what that meant. I thought it was ok until one day my mother, who is White, heard me saying it. And then she had to pull me aside and explain to me the history of my father’s people—my people—down in Louisiana but also the hostility they faced in ‘progressive Oregon’. And then all of a sudden I understood why I was mocked for my lips, my hair, my skin. But it was so normal. I didn’t know.”
The Canadian silence around race
The deafening silence around race is one of the biggest differences I noticed when I moved from the U.S. to Vancouver in the summer of 2009. Under the guise of “official multiculturalism”, a definition created under Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1971, the category of “race” officially does not exist; rather there is “ethnicity” and “culture”.
Everyone has a right to their own culture which, under the Multiculturalism Act, are “deemed equal” under the law. According to the MOSAIC Institute’s 2014 report, in the past 40 years, a belief in official multiculturalism has become the cornerstone of Canadian identity, especially among "new Canadians."
But is lived “multiculturalism” the reality? Does erasing race erase racism? Does a colonial government’s official declaration of the right to live and celebrate one’s culture actually equalize power? When I asked J.P. Cayungal, a first-generation Filipino, who teaches post-colonial feminist and queer theory at the University of British Columbia, why he chose to show up to the vigil he explained, “Bodies have power. Being here is also to bear witness to the presence of a problem that is often rendered invisible. So often we can enact Canadian exceptionalism—look we are not the U.S., we are better! We are ‘innocent’. Such rhetoric re-inscribes benevolent Canadian exceptionalism.”
Acknowledging and learning from the colonial present
“As an Indigenous person it’s the right thing to do—it is my duty—to stand in solidarity with other people brutalized and continuously affected by the colonial government of Canada.”
— Vi, Metis Nation
So what does the antiracist movement of Black Lives Matter look like in Vancouver, when according to the 2011 National Household Census only one percent of the city identifies as Black?
It begins with a recognition of the colonial present. It begins by recognizing that nearly all the land in British Columbia is unceded Indigenous territory: the traditional and ancestral home of over 198 nations. The city of Vancouver is shared by the original three peoples, the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam nations.
And that Sunday at the vigil, as the usually grey clouds parted to let in the sharp northern sun, Audrey Siegl, a politically active Musqueam woman, opened up the Black Lives Matter Vancouver gathering with powerful words of welcome and solidarity. She began by introducing herself and her territory in the Musqueam language [“hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓“ as written in their orthography] then switched to English.
“This language, my culture, my people are not supposed to exist—and yet we are here. You [Black people] are not supposed to exist, and yet you are here. This is what unstoppable looks likes.” She paused as people applauded.
“We [Indigenous women] know what violence, what subjugation, and persecution feels like,” she said. “We live it. We know the pain. But we also know what it’s like to be loved from other women who know what it feels like.
“How do we stop the violence?” Siegl continued. “We demand accountability! Anyone who represents the colonial government needs to call it out. If they don’t, they are accepting the deaths and violence of our people. Anyone who wears a uniform or judge's robe, we need you to stand up!”
The crowd roared in approval. If elected representatives we present, they certainly were not visible at the vigil.
Siegl took a breath, and the power of her words sank in. “Get your police in check!”
She then led the crowd into the “Women’s Warrior Song”—a song that does not belong to one family or nation but was gifted by Martina Pierre of the Lil’wat nation to bring strength to all those fighting for justice.
By this time the crowd had grown to hundreds of people and one of the seven—all female, mostly queer-identified organizers of Black Lives Matter Vancouver—took the stage. Pierre thanked Siegl, thanked the crowd, and announced that as an organization committed to ending police brutality and deaths, Black Lives Matter Vancouver put their full support into demanding accountability for the murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada, noting many were either killed by or with the acquiescence of law enforcement. There was also a public pledge that some of the funds raised by Black Lives Matter would go to the Urban Native Youth Association.
What does a Black Lives Matter event look like in a city that is one percent Black?
The event continued for two hours with speeches, poetry, and song. The entire event was interpreted into sign language. All the speakers, aside from Audrey Siegl and Layla, a hijabi slam poet from Iraq, identified as Black, but as always, “Black” is a broad category: Some people were immigrants, some refugees, some from cities back east, and some were Vancouver born and raised. And although there were many references made to the deaths of Black people in the United States there was also a particular focus on the realities of Vancouver.
As the MC of the event explained, “We have mixed feelings. We are happy for the financial, physical, and emotional support we have received. But we are also feeling confusion. Why does it take bodies to be slain to remember that Black lives matter? Why does it take death to remember our lives? Why do you only see me when my brothers and sisters lay dying?”
This is one of the things that struck me, a White American who grew up in the multiethnic and racial powder kegs of Los Angeles and Chicago. In her opening remarks one of the organizers said it well: “What does all the violence in the U.S. have to do with blissful Canada? Why does it matter in our tree-topped city in the mountains?”
Canada is often seen as an oasis of progressive politics bordered by the big-bad-arrogant-violent-USA. And it’s true that things are quieter here. Canadians pride themselves on moderation and in their almost allergic aversion to direct conflict. But as Eva Mackey points out in The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada, which explores the different self-image of Canada and the U.S. in terms of racial, ethnic and Indigenous relations, it is an image that often obfuscates the harshness of reality.
As Maclean’s magazine provocatively pointed out in 2015 post-Ferguson, when looking at the numbers of people marginalized on the basis of their race and/or ethnicity, Canada may be worse in that regard than the U.S., but it is a problem that is very much “out of sight out of mind”.
Learning resistance and solidarity from my students
I have made the mistake of trying to read race and racism in Vancouver through a U.S. lens. It doesn’t work. Racism is about justifying unequal power by constructing a racial hierarchy—but what those hierarchies are, and how they are institutionalized and play out in everyday interactions, differs in the U.S. and Canada—or at least in Vancouver. Although founded by a Black man and with a population that is majority nonWhite, Vancouver has remarkably few Black people.
One of the key lessons that struck me while attending the Black Lives Matter event is the importance of context—the contexts of oppression and resistance and healing. In Vancouver Indigenous peoples and the very large and diverse Asian populations are often are the experts on race, racism, and resistance. Understanding this fabric is extremely important and, as someone who teaches courses on social justice, social inequalities, human rights, and migration in the two largest universities in Vancouver, I often turn to my greatest teachers: my students.
Over half of my students are young people of color, and many are of Asian ancestry—representing the demographics of the city, which is sometimes derogatorily referred to as “Hongcouver”. There are stereotypes in Vancouver about Asian university students: that they are conservative, that they are rich, that they are spoiled by their parents, and that they don’t care about learning but rather only getting good grades. Instructors and administrators alike often paint Asian students as blissfully socially and politically unaware. But my students have repeatedly taught me that this is not true. Many are quite aware of the intricacies of power and the intersectionalities of oppression and privilege and choose to speak truth to power.
One of my former students, Samantha Truong was born in Vancouver to ethnically Chinese parents fleeing Vietnam. She is a proud “East Side” girl with natural leadership, facilitation, and artistic skills and a passion for justice. Together with a dozen friends and classmates she decided to make the solidarity of Asians supporting Black Lives Matter visible with their physical presence as well as some very large signs. Some were quite simple, "Asians for Black Lives Matter”, and others chose to use humour—as well as the historical legacy of racism against Asians in Vancouver—to make a point, “Yellow Peril for Black Power”. The signs were big and bold and made it on the evening news.
Resistance is about redistributing power
Those were not the only signs of solidarity. Filipinos, who are the fastest growing immigrant group in Vancouver, were quite present with Black placards inscribed with shiny silver marker that proclaimed “Filipinos for Black Lives Matter”, among other messages.
“I want to open up the conversation about the kinds of violence present in Canada,” Vanessa of Migrante B.C., an organization working to support and protect Filipino Migrants in BC, explained. “Black Lives Matter started in the U.S. and now we are seeing it in Canada. There are similarities but also important differences and particular histories here in Canada, and we need to open up that conversation…. We can explore opportunities for potential solidarity—perhaps join forces in activism against state and police violence.”
An example of the state violence Filipinas face in Canada is the domestic worker program. Up until 18 months ago, Filipinas with nursing degrees were specifically targeted by Canadian recruiters to enter the country as domestic workers with the allure of permanent residency to Canada. But this was a promise under stringent, legally sanctioned, and enforced conditions including the requirement that the women live with their employer. Thus, domestic workers were literally eating and sleeping with their bosses, the very people who had sole control over their right to live in the country. This nearly always meant that women were separated from their families—often leaving behind children—for a minimum of three to five years. Due to persistent and vocal resistance, the law has now changed and conversations of power, and abuse of power through the law and legal institutions, were directly discussed.
Vanessa and Migrante B.C. do not claim to speak for Black people but they share stories, analysis and strategies of resistance of their experiences of “the law” as a source of violence, not protection.
The solidarity, without co-optation, that was demonstrated by Filipina and Indigenous women like Vanessa and Audrey, was one of the most powerful aspects of the BLM vigil. And this is perhaps what makes Black Lives Matter north of the 49th parallel unique. In a country and culture that shies from confrontation strategic direct action—be it Idle No More, drug users demanding the right to be safe or holding a sit down in the middle of the Toronto Pride Parade—seems to shock the system into looking for strategies of change.
“What’s happening is not a system that is failing but a system that is effective,” Guy, one of the BLM speakers, pointed out. And that means redistributing power. One of the strongest examples is the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a hard fought for Indigenous-led five-year investigation that focused on the multigenerational effects of Canadian government- and church-run residential schools. After decades of trying to “sweep the past under the rug” and half-hearted apologies denying the connection between governmental policies and the unacceptable lived experience of many Indigenous peoples and communities, the government had to publically acknowledge a need for structural and systemic changes in education, law, health, media, and yes, policing—in order to truly engaged in reconciliation.
The 536-page executive summary has specific calls to action. By no means perfect, the process of the TRC explored possibilities of healing at an institutional, financial and structural level. Of course, now comes the hard work of implementation.
Witnessing, representing and healing
“The system was built to divide, weaken and destroy us,” one of the vigil speakers, a mother and a refugee from Africa, explained. “We have never had the opportunity to share and represent our own story. The more we learn about who we are the more we can build. And yes, we are building.”
Like the “Women's Warrior Song,” the visible Asian -- and especially Filipino -- solidarity was another example of a powerful, and Vancouver-specific way of making race, racism, and resistance visible north of the 49th.It is not just oppression, it is possibility. As Audrey Siegl stated in her opening, “We [Musqueam people] have words and medicines and songs for millennia that heal. And it is not just the suffering that matters but healing. And we want to share that with you. The healing.”