Jan 15, 2021 Message to Members
“For in peace, our hearts will sing…”
My first job was flipping burgers at Burger King. Actually, there was no flipping; flame-grilled, don’t you know. It was late summer, and I was sixteen. It felt a little special because I was on the initial crew of BC’s second Burger King location, and I would have to travel all the way to Burger King Number 1 in Surrey for training. Less than a month later, I was offered a different job. I deliberated for about five seconds before accepting my dream job at the local record store.
I started working for the record store in late summer and as I started grade eleven, I worked as many as three nights a week. One of my favourite duties was unpacking new releases. It was even better when the new release came with a demo copy that I could play in the store. In September of 1980, a new Stevie Wonder album arrived: Hotter Than July.
One of the things I loved about unpacking the new releases and the demos was the liner notes. For the younger members of our audience, liner notes are the paper sleeves into which you slip the vinyl record before storing both together inside the cardboard album cover. Liner notes were often a rich collection of pictures and notes from the artists. They could give fans a window into the hearts, minds, and lives of cultural rock stars! I pored over all of the liner notes, soaking up everything I could learn about each songwriter and band. Thanks to Stevland Morris, I was able to better grasp the significance of January 15th.
At sixteen, I knew something of Martin Luther King Jr., but I did not know much. One side of the liner notes for Stevie Wonder’s album spoke to the powerful influence of this man. “He showed us, non-violently, a better way of life, a way of mutual respect…”. I learned of the campaign to adopt Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday in the United States, in honour of his supreme sacrifice. The other side of the liner notes presented disturbing images of injustice which could have been captured any time in this past year. And the record included a track, a song in celebration of Martin Luther King and his legacy: Happy Birthday.
With all due respect to the educators in my life who may have introduced me to truths about the history of racism in Canada and the world, it is Stevie Wonder’s liner notes that remain with me. I recognize now that my early education was incomplete.
Why did I not learn that in 1759, when the British conquered New France, this included approximately 3,600 enslaved people, both African and Indigenous?
Why did I not learn that in 1777 a number of enslaved people escaped from British North America to the state of Vermont, which had abolished slavery that same year?
Why did I not learn that in 1793, Upper Canada passed the Anti-slavery Act which laid the tracks for the Underground Railway (which I did learn about)?
Why did I not learn about the 1907 article published in the national magazine Saturday Night? It reported to Canadians that Indigenous children in residential schools were “dying like flies… Even war seldom shows as large a percentage of fatalities as does the education system we have imposed…”.
Why did I not learn that in 1910, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott wrote “It is readily acknowledged… [Indigenous children in residential schools] die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department.”
I probably did not learn these lessons for the same reason I did not learn that Japanese Canadians were interred very near my home in the Kootenays. And this is the same reason many of my own students did not learn any of this history from me either: the truth was not told.
In 1986, the United States of America officially observed the first national celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday on January 15th. This year, on this significant date, the Anti-Racism Coalition (ARC) of Vancouver invites everyone to participate in an important step to raise greater awareness of the struggle for civil rights, with a call for students and educators across BC to wear black shirts to commemorate the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights fought by Black and racialized Canadians.
All journeys begin with first steps, and we must each be responsible for taking these steps and educating ourselves about racism and anti-racism. I am grateful for Stevie Wonder’s liner notes and the many voices like his who have shared their lessons with me in different ways over the years. I will now more deliberately and mindfully educate myself, seek the voices in BC and Canada, learn their songs, and teach their truths.