EMANCIPATION DAY

Some have used “apocalyptic” language to describe these pandemic times.  If we understand the root meanings of such terminology, then I would agree; that is, apocalypse is a fancy Greek-based term for “revelation,” for pulling back the curtain of illusion to see what really lies beneath the surface. These are not “the-end-of-the-world” times, but this pandemic has certainly revealed the deep fault lines in our economic, political and social structures.  Indeed, one of those apocalyptic moments came with the murder of George Floyd last May 25th, exposing the depth of racism in our neighbour to the south. 

Now, we Canadians have a habit of deploring what we see in the United States, believing ourselves to be different… kinder, nicer, better…. “We’re Canadians, you know.”  I remember participating in my first anti-racism workshop in 1974, as part of my theological education in Boston, and using my nationality as a way of avoidance  — “This really isn’t about me, I’m Canadian; there’s no racism in my country.”  Well, not true — but it took me a long time to realize and acknowledge that the colour of my skin gave me enormous privilege; and that sadly, racism was and is alive and well in Canada.  

I’m still struggling to understand what this means, and how to react.  So, in part, this blog posting is a lamentation and a confession… of my ignorance, my own blindness, the hidden rationalizations of privilege, the power of systemic injustice.

Somehow, in my mind, Canada has always been the land of freedom at the end of the Underground Railway.  I conveniently forgot that slavery had been part of Canadian life for centuries – first, with the many Indigenous people who were enslaved by the early colonizers; and then, for people of African ancestry.  It wasn’t until August 1st, 1834, that slavery was finally and fully outlawed throughout the British Empire, and thus, here in Canada – Emancipation Day!

Emancipation is a crucial first step in addressing the reality of racism, but it is just the beginning; we have to look deeper, and understand what happened after 1834.  But when we review our Canadian history with “apocalyptic vision,” it’s painful business.  For instance, I did not realize that we had segregated schools in Canada, and the last one did not close until 1965!!  I did not realize that medical schools like McGill and Queens banned black students – the latter until the mid-sixties!  This year there was only one Afro-Canadian doctor in the graduating Medical Class at the University of Toronto.   I didn’t know the story of Viola Desmond until she appeared on our ten-dollar bill.  Who could have imagined that theatre seating was segregated by race in 1946?  In Halifax!  In Canada!

When I lived in Toronto, during my time as Moderator (2012-2015), I learned from friends what it was like to live in that city as a black person, where 2/3 of black Canadians in the GTA report being treated unfairly by police on a continuing basis; where 80% of black men, ages 25 to 44, have been stopped by police in a public place; where 70% of fatal shootings by police from 2013 to 2017 were of black people, although they only constituted 9% of the population.

Such statistics, past and present, puncture our Canadian smugness.  It’s clear there is much work to be done.  And if I needed any further reminding, it came in the closing hours of our church’s 43nd General Council, August 2018, when our Intercultural Observer, Rev. Paul Walfall, a minister from Alberta who is of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, offered his remarks, and talked about his own personal experience of racism within the United Church – we who are tempted to pride ourselves on being an “intercultural denomination.”  His comments were echoed and expanded on over the next couple of hours, as one person after another — black, indigenous, and people colour – shared some of their stories.  With great wisdom, our Moderator, Jordan Cantwell, had asked that all white people stand back from the microphones: this was an opportunity to listen to the pain of our brothers and sisters… the micro-aggressions, the tokenism, invisibility, “polite” exclusion from various jobs… the historic and very present hurt and injustice that they experienced, day by day by day.

So here we are, a couple of years later.  And we know that racism continues to be alive and well, in the church, in our Canadian society.  But if you’re white… and this is more confession… it can be too easy to forget: an expression of avoidance or defensiveness or anger or guilt or shame.  But we need to remember, and we can’t expect those who experience racism to be the ones who are always reminding the people of white colour of what continues to happen.  Becoming more and more aware of my own white privilege is work that I need to be doing.

So, it helps to have built-in reminders… like a special day that is both a celebration and a challenge… a day like August 1st, Emancipation Day.  As a gay person, I know how important Pride Day is, a day which is rooted in an historical event… the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969, when patrons the Stonewall Inn,  a gay bar in Greenwich village (New York) fought back against the police when they attempted raid the bar and to arrest those who were there.  Maybe Emancipation Day can be one of those historical moments which marks a key turning point, that helps us remember; that challenges us to do better; that asserts that change is possible; that  inspires all of us to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The Very Rev’d. Gary Patterson is the 41st Moderator of The United Church of Canada.