It seemed like a straightforward motion. In the B.C. legislature on Monday (March 22), Vancouver-Hastings MLA Niki Sharma introduced the following resolution:
"Be it resolved that this House recognize the historic and present-day acts of structural, systemic and institutional racism perpetuated against racialized people and reaffirm our commitment to combatting racism in all forms."
What followed were many heartfelt comments from B.C. legislators, including revelations of racism that they had experienced.
Sharma, who's won an award from Spice Radio for her consistent and longstanding advocacy for racial justice, spoke first. She stuck to the big picture.
"Last year, like many times before, people filled the streets in a collective outcry against racism," she noted. "Indigenous, Black and people of colour marched like they've done for centuries, their bodies and their spirits tired of carrying the burden of oppression and the racist systems that work against them."
She asked when it would be enough.
"The answer to that question continues to elude us even till today, as we stand here a few days after eight people, including six Asian women lost their lives," Sharma said. "Their lives and their families destroyed, while a local police officer characterized the shooter as having a 'bad day'. We continue to mourn these lives and the countless others lost. We ask: when will it be enough?"
From there, Sharma quickly ran through B.C.'s racist history, noting that previous MLAs, including former premier Richard McBride, were "ruthless" in pursuit of a mission that B.C. remain a "white man's province".
"There is too much legislation to name it all," Sharma said. "In fact, in order to limit Asian and South Asian immigration to Canada, from 1872 to 1928, MLAs in these chambers passed 89 separate bills, 49 resolutions, 7 reports and much more. There are no Hansard records that recorded it, but I want you all to imagine the debate that occurred in these walls when this legislation was passed."
The first example she cited was Indigenous people dispossessed of their lands—"the full force of the colonial structures against them and their bodies, unable to fight for their rights in court".
Sharma also referred to a "breathing tax", imposed by order-in-council against Chinese immigrants. There was the expulsion of the Komagata Maru, a vessel carrying more than 350 immigrants from British-ruled India in 1914. She also mentioned an order-in-council stripping Japanese Canadians of their assets during the Second World War.
"Former Black slaves that fled the States to Canada, only to face discrimination and laws that were operating against them," Sharma continued. "There is also no shortage of heroes who took on this place and never gave up their fight for equality, and they continue to come to us today."
B.C. Liberal says institutions must change
The next speaker, Richmond North Centre B.C. Liberal MLA Teresa Wat, pointed out how the pandemic "has shed a dark light on how deeply rooted racism remains in many levels of our society".
"In many ways, intolerance takes hold faster than tolerance and acceptance, because to strengthen our openness and tolerance, we must constantly learn and revalue our own history, culture and society," Wat stated. "We must talk, and we must listen. To promote intolerance, we simply have to become ignorant."
She pointed out that various communities have been affected, including Muslims, Jews, South Asians, and Black Canadians.
"Our Indigenous communities continue to feel the pain of our province and our country's dark history on a daily basis and continue to face a disproportionate amount of the economic and social inequalities that persist in our society," she added.
Wat disclosed that she's endured many incidents of racism because of her skin colour and her accent.
"People have always been quick to label me as a foreigner, despite the fact that I've called B.C. home for more than 30 years," she said
Wat recalled being shunned in her early days in media when she was trying to promote a colleague's better understanding of Cantonese, Mandarin, and Punjabi television. She was told by former bosses that they were only interested in "mainstream media".
"I have dedicated much of my career to promoting multiculturalism in this province," Wat declared. "It is these incidents that sit the heaviest with me, because they are a reminder that there are thousands of people in this province who will continue to share similar stories of racism, while our institutions have yet to change from the inside. I know many of my colleagues have their own experiences to share."
NDP MLA stresses power dynamics
Richmond-Queensborough NDP MLA Aman Singh reminded people in the legislature that reported anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 717 percent in Vancouver in 2020.
"I stress reported incidents, for a community that already feels over a century of oppression, and carries a sentiment that reporting it to the police may do nothing," Singh said. "The actual number, I surmise, is much, much higher than that. This has always been unacceptable and is still unacceptable."
Singh, a lawyer and antiracist activist before being elected, explained that when he talks about racism, he's referring to white supremacy. And when he discusses sexism, it's really about patriarchy and male privilege.
"It's steeped in power dynamics," Singh said. "The oppressed cannot oppress. We have to get past that point if we as a society are going to grow. Unfortunately, we have not come a long way. We should be much further along this path in 2021, but here we are."
He added that he finds solace in the government appointing B.C.'s first parliamentary secretary for antiracism initiatives (Surrey–Green Timbers MLA Rachna Singh).
Singh also praised the NDP government for reinstating the B.C. Human Rights Commission and launching the antiracism program Resilience B.C.
"Much-needed police reform is around the corner," Singh said. "We've taken positive steps in that direction as well."
Cariboo North B.C. Liberal MLA Coralee Oakes recognized how privileged she is and understands "the extraordinary power of words and the importance of taking action". She pointed to business people of Chinese Canadian ancestry who helped her grandparents survive when they arrived in the region in the 1930s.
Then she mentioned a book that she's reading, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson. It looks at the history of America through the lens of caste, comparing it to the caste systems of Nazi Germany and India.
"We can't fix the problem unless we see it with all its ugliness," Oakes said. "We need to wake up the consciousness of our society."
Richmond South Centre NDP MLA Henry Yao told the legislature that it warmed his heart to witness a collective condemnation of racism.
"Systemic racism can be hidden and invisible to the individuals who are not impacted by racial discrimination," Yao said.
"I would like to share an example from my past. I still remember vividly my frustration and yet powerless realization from my past employments in Richmond," he continued. "Diversity never seemed to be an issue for front-line or low-paid positions. Instead, many of my past colleagues and I had to report to a management team that neither reflects the diversity of the population we served or the staffing. It is difficult to feel Richmond is a community where such a division exists."
He added that it's "discouraging and disheartening to acknowledge how often we're asked by management to do translation, interpretation, non-English social media, outreach, cross-culture engagement dialogue, program design, promotion to [a] diverse community, and multicultural practice understanding".
"Together we need to shatter the invisible glass ceiling often too easily felt by Indigenous, Black and people of colour," Yao said. "We can do better and we need to do better."
The next speaker on the motion, Vancouver-Langara B.C. Liberal MLA Michael Lee, reviewed the history of discrimination against Chinese immigrants to B.C. leading up to his father's arrival from Hong Kong in 1953 and his mother's arrival from Hong Kong in 1962.
Then he spoke about recent acts of racism in Riverview Park in his constituency and anti-Semitic posters going up in Kelowna.
"We must continue to work to increase the diversity of perspectives and be vigilant in addressing any bias and racism in our institutions and our communities and to find ways to foster greater empathy towards others," Lee said. "We also need to be united in our work to build a more open and inclusive society in British Columbia and not stoke division between communities."
The NDP's Rachna Singh thanked Sharma for bringing forward the motion, noting that racism has always existed in Canada. She said it's not always an easy subject to discuss.
"There have been a lot of calls about collecting race-based data," Singh acknowledged. "We are taking that very seriously. We know this is an important thing to find the barriers, the gaps, and to bring in the policies that can help the racialized communities, help our Indigenous and Black communities.
"Also, for the first time ever, British Columbia is going to introduce antiracism legislation."
B.C. Liberal MLA highlights scapegoating
Karin Kirkpatrick, the B.C. Liberal MLA for West Vancouver–Capilano, said that she wants her "young, strong, and talented Chinese-Canadian daughter to grow up in a safe and inclusive society".
She also said that when people feel frustrated or angry, they look for someone else to blame for their problems. She added that this also occurs at the community level, noting that COVID-19 has intensified pre-existing inequalities.
"But for Asian Canadians, the impacts have been magnified by racism aimed at both individuals and businesses," Kirkpatrick said. "This has been spurred on by misinformation and the seriously incorrect conspiracy theories."
She went on to say that the pandemic "has allowed us to mask our own fear by pointing the finger, unjustifiably, toward those we want to hold responsible", with messages of hate and fear easily spread through social media and the Internet.
"Children learn hate from those around them," Kirkpatrick said. "They model what they see. They can also, though, learn to be accepting, to be interested in and respecting of differences, and how to love.
"We all have an obligation to speak out when we see something, when someone is being treated poorly, when they're being teased, or when they're being hurt. Sitting on the sidelines and watching is simply cowardice."
Then she quoted South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
Surrey-Panorama NDP MLA Jinny Sims talked about her life as someone in an interracial marriage who was born in India, moved to England at a young age and who later chose Canada as her home.
"Multiculturalism, for me, is not about eating a samosa, eating pho or eating sushi and putting on a garment. It is not," Sims stated. "That is not multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is not when we tolerate each other or we put up with each other. It's when we celebrate our diversity."
She said that she thought she was immune to the hurt that racism can cause until she was recently in a car accident.
"When the gentleman came out, the only thing he kept yelling was: 'Yes, you don't want to work. You people are all like this. All you want to do is collect money from ICBC,' " Sims revealed. "I stood there, speechless. I never thought I could become speechless like that. I just didn't know what to do. I was shell-shocked.
"So racism is real. It's part of life, but we have an opportunity to take action and to change so that other people, our children, our grandchildren, can live in safe communities."
Surrey–White Rock B.C. Liberal MLA Trevor Halford, on the other hand, candidly stated that he's never experienced racism.
"But I know what it is; I know the hurt and the pain that it can cause," he said. "I know how one joke can be construed and can light a match to hate."
He added that there's a certain sense among people of his background not to see racism just because they don't experience it personally.
"We need to stop that, because what it does is it just manifests," Halford said.
The MLAs' comments came on the heels of the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It falls on March 21 every year in commemoration of the Sharpeville Massacre, where 69 peaceful anti-apartheid demonstrators were shot dead by South African police.