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By Valerie Jerome, retired teacher, Vancouver

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

On May 31, 2020, millions of people around the world watched on their television screens as George Floyd was murdered by the people who were supposed to be protecting the lives of all citizens. The murder of a Black man at the hands of law enforcement was not unique. Nor was it the only such incident that month. Many people here in Canada took up the rallying cry, “Black Lives Matter,” and poured into the streets to protest the experiences of Black and Indigenous people. Black and Indigenous people are 20 times more likely to be shot by police in Canada than are white people. If you are not a person of colour, you are privileged. 

The protests bestirred a lot of hope in some people: hope that Canadians might actually address racism. But I have seen hope before. I was 19 when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech to millions who marched or watched on television, and I was filled with hope beyond imagining.

I felt great hope when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008. I still have the remnants of the campaign decal, HOPE, on my rear windshield. Within months of putting it on my car, it was defaced with black felt pen and half of it was ripped off. This vandalism happened right here in Vancouver.

Looking at what the last four years in America has wrought, you understand that my hope has been vanquished. We have been returned to the 1950s.

Every November since I retired from my 34 years of teaching in the Vancouver public school system, requests for Black History Month presentations appear in my inbox. Some come from community organizations, but most are from schools. I welcome these invitations because people of colour in Canada have been left out of history books, have been absent until recently in advertising, and for a very long time have played only servants and other diminished roles in film and television.

I have gone into countless classrooms with an array of photos and memorabilia to share my family’s story. My maternal grandfather, John Armstrong Howard, was Canada’s first Black Olympian in 1912 and suffered horrific racism. Known as Army Howard, he was Canada’s 100m and 200m champion. He worked as a railway porter, as did my father.

From 1909 until the late 1950s, despite Canada’s worldwide appeal for immigrants, only 100 people of African descent (no matter their country of origin) were allowed to immigrate to Canada. They were mostly men and accepted only into the field of portering on our national railways. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister who enacted this law, was determined to adhere to the policy to keep Canada white.

In these Black history talks, I share the story of my family’s move to North Vancouver in 1951 and of my siblings’ and my first day of school there. On that Tuesday morning after Labour Day, our feet never touched the school grounds, because we were turned back by pelting rocks hurled by children. These kids, with every racist slur imaginable, attempted to achieve what their parents’ petition failed to do: keep the neighbourhood white.

All things about our schooling were white. In music classes we were made to sing racist Stephen Foster songs.

We lived for three years amongst hostile neighbours before we moved from that first home in North Vancouver. Most of them never uttered a word to us. The nine children of the family next door attacked us both verbally and physically on sight.

When a house fire from our sawdust furnace brought sirens on to our street at 2:00 a.m., the neighbours could be seen raising the blinds on their windows. They peered out at us, but none came out to offer a bed, or a place on a sofa, or even on the floor. Our pregnant mother and the four of us under the age of 12 went by cab to the Salvation Army Hall on Lonsdale and slept on chairs. Just as it had been on that first day of school, our advocate was away portering for the Canadian National Railway.

However, my story takes a happier turn when I continue my presentation about my late brother’s mercurial rise in the world of athletics. Obviously bearing the genes of the grandfather we never met, my brother, Harry Jerome, set seven world sprint records. He was named BC’s Athlete of the Century.

Harry and I joined a new track club in 1958 under the tutelage of our much beloved coach, John Minichiello. In our second year, we moved our practices to Brockton Oval in Stanley Park, and it was here that we experienced our greatest joy. We were judged not by the colour of our skin, but by the stopwatch and the measuring tape. Regardless of the weather, we were most happy in that place. The camaraderie, respect, and love easily overcame the fatigue, pain, and challenges of the workouts.

That July, following my 15th birthday and Harry’s graduation from North Van High, we went to the Canadian Senior Championships. I won the 60m, 100m, the long jump, and came third in the high jump, while Harry won the 100m and 200m. We were selected to Canada’s Pan American Games team, the first of three International Games for me and the first of eight for Harry.

Both Harry and I became teachers following the model of our coach. Although Harry later went on to work on behalf of youth at the government level, he fully enjoyed teaching at Richmond High and at Templeton High in Vancouver between 1964 and 1968. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. When we were students, there were only a few teachers and community leaders who confronted racist situations, and in so doing validated our worth.

Experiences of racism throughout my first year of teaching showed me nothing had changed since my own elementary school days. In 1964, I worked with a principal who entered my classroom before a field trip and said, “Give me that little darkie over there.” He proceeded to strap the child as an example for kids who might misbehave while on the trip. In the closing days of the 20th century a principal, when informed at a staff meeting that a new little girl from Haiti was being called the N-word, responded, “Well, if she is being called the N-word, she probably deserved it.” 

Throughout my teaching career, I experienced and witnessed ongoing, deeply distressing racist incidents that were either ignored or blamed on the victim.

People liked to say, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” but they could not be more wrong. The ubiquitous decision-making mechanism used by adults as well as children, “eenie meenie minee moe,” offended us constantly.

In 2020, I was heartsick to hear of the continued presence of racism in our schools. Recently, a distressed father of a Grade 1 girl told me she was being called the N-word. When he went to speak to the principal, the only comment he received was, “We didn’t have any problems with racism at this school until you came.”

Special events during Black History Month can bring awareness to classrooms and foster empathy, but it is immoral for educators to ignore the racism in our schools.

In the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Watch Valerie Jerome’s February 2020 presentation at the Vancouver Historical Society at www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3nF1xqzho0.

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