I was not here in 1884 to protest our government’s banning of the Aboriginal potlatch ceremony which made criminals of people who were practicing an ancient culture.
I was not here in 1885 to protest the extortionate Chinese head tax aimed at reducing Chinese immigration to Canada.
I was not here in 1914 to protest when the ship, the Komagatu Maru, carrying 376 Asian immigrants was refused permission to dock in Vancouver because the exclusion laws of this land were “violated”.
I was not here to work alongside all the non-white women who fought for decades, until the late 1940’s, for the right to vote after white women won that right in 1921.
I was not here in 1942 when Canadians of Japanese descent, had their homes and businesses expropriated and were interned in the country of their birth.
I was not part of many fights for civil and human rights here in Canada.
When teachers here first began to fight for more funding for public education in B.C. in the 1980’s, I was living in South Africa. At the time the struggle against Apartheid had been ongoing for almost three decades. People of my skin colour were born into the fight for democracy, for full citizenship.
At birth we were all “classified” into races. I was classified “coloured”. This meant that there was a limitation of my choices in life, but not as many as I would have experienced had I been classified ‘Native/Bantu’, a term used to refer to aboriginal Africans.
Politically, it meant that I could not vote, since only White people could vote in parliamentary elections.
Economically, it meant that I could only consider work and careers designated for me under laws that controlled access to employment for all ‘races’.
Socially, it meant that I could only visit certain beaches, attend certain cinemas, ride on certain buses, eat in certain restaurants, enter post offices at certain entrances and sit on certain park benches, inconveniences shared by all non-Whites.
Being born brown-skinned in a country whose government used the legislature to pass heinous laws that robbed people of basic human rights gave me a profound education in the use and abuse of political power. My experiences in South Africa provided me with a particular political lens through which I view the actions of the B.C. Liberal government. So much of what is done in the legislature in Victoria seems familiar. Politics here may not be as black and white as they were in South Africa but sometimes the laws that the BC Liberals pass seem like just a different shade of grey when compared to the laws passed in South Africa during Apartheid.
And so, at a time when all South Africans enjoy the rights of full democratic citizenship, I find myself here, on the opposite side of the world, where democracy and civil rights are under attack.
I find myself here at a time when workers’ rights, won over many struggles over a century ago, are in danger. I am here now, when the very concept of a free, equitable, public education system is being threatened. I am here now, one of thousands, making history for the textbooks of tomorrow.
Students in the future will learn that a government in a democracy not only attempted to disregard two Supreme Court rulings but also the highest law in the land, the Charter of Rights and Freedom. They will learn that over several decades, teachers in British Columbia fought to ensure there was a fully funded public education system. They will also learn of the particularly difficult fight that began in 2002 when the government attempted to eradicate the rights of teachers to negotiate the learning conditions of students and the working conditions of teachers.
In South Africa I did not have a choice about which side I would be on in the struggle for justice. That was determined at birth. But here, in Canada, where all citizens in this province have a choice, I will one day be proud to say that I was on the side that fought to save public education from attempts to gut it financially. I was on the side that fought to save one of the most important pillars of democracy: an education system that provides for the needs of all citizens, not just those born into affluence.
Yes, when I look back on my life someday, I will be able to say, I was also there then.