As a white person I don’t have any lived experience from which to draw when reflecting upon how visible minority Canadians might feel about the revelations concerning the Prime Minister’s actions as a young man. The portrayal of blackface is no doubt a searing and painful experience.
What I can contribute though are two observations. The first stems from my time as Executive Director and CEO of a national educational not-for-profit for four years. That entity developed curriculum-based programs, tools and interventions designed to help teachers in K-12 classrooms across Canada promote physical activity, healthy living and psycho-social wellness & resilience in their kids. It worked closely with Faculties of Education, Provincial Ministries of Education and School Boards in every province, including British Columbia, seeking to instill the latest in research and educational pedagogy into the toolkits that our trainee and full-time teachers use. I was curious so I went back to see what some of the key B.C. Education Ministry Curriculum documents said at the time (circa late 1990s up to 2000) about the learning goals and outcomes that teachers should impart to their students. I believe the Prime Minister graduated from UBC with a Bachelor of Education degree in 1998 and then taught for several years in various schools in the Lower Mainland and he doubtless would have had more than a passing familiarity with this content.
In a document entitled, The Primary Program: A Framework for Teaching (2000), under a heading entitled Learning to Value Diversity, it states:
“Effective teachers can help children develop a respect for cultural similarities and differences, while recognizing and validating the children’s own cultural backgrounds and experiences. Anti-racism education promotes the elimination of racism through identifying attitudes and behaviors that spread racism (p.112).”
From this I think one might infer that there is an onus on teaching professionals to role-model exemplary standards of conduct at all times and especially in the presence of students.
The second observation stems from an important event that occurred in my lifetime. Although I was too young, having been born in 1962, to have truly experienced the emotional reality of the great marches for voting and civil rights by African-Americans in the U.S. led by Martin Luther King and others, I do recognize the immense personal sacrifice that many of those people made. In 1990 though, Nelson Mandela, was released from a long and harsh period of incarceration by the South African apartheid regime for seeking to give his fellow country-men and women a measure of democratic and economic justice. This was a profoundly moving experience for me personally (I was 27 at the time and working as a writer in the Foreign Policy Communications Division of External Affairs Canada). His Long Walk to Freedom left a huge impression on me given the stoicism with which he bore his confinement and his subsequent lack of rancor towards his captors. The man embodied some of the greatest qualities of forgiveness and decency that I have seen in a political figure both before or since.
It is hard for me to square the struggle to end apartheid in SA, in which Canada played an important role, and the subsequent emancipation of the black population on the southern tip of the African continent, with what I have read and heard about these last few days in terms of the behavior and conduct of the Prime Minister as a young man. These were monumental global events which raised the consciousness of people everywhere, and many Canadians were deeply invested in the struggle for change at the time. I suppose I am troubled that they seemed to have left little to no lasting impression on the outlook of our future Prime Minister at the time. Given his background and unparalleled opportunities for educational and cultural enrichment growing up, I find this perplexing.
I take the Prime Minister at his word when he says he is not a racist and I believe his apology now is heartfelt, but I do think that he has done the country and its standing in the world a great disservice.