Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
The death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police has sparked an international debate about racism and what to do about the surprising number of racist symbols and words in the public realm. Some of these inglorious historical markers have begun to topple.
It was impossible not to cheer when British protesters pushed a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol’s harbour. Nor to applaud when Mississippi legislators voted to excise the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. And we should all laud the Edmonton Eskimos’ decision to rename the football team because there is no getting around the fact that Eskimo is a derogatory term for Inuit people.
Here in B.C., two city councillors, Marcus Wong in West Vancouver and Sarah Kirby-Yung in Vancouver, believe it is time to strike out the vile covenants attached to some Lower Mainland properties that once prohibited their sale to Asian, Black or Indigenous people. The covenants remain attached to properties in some Vancouver neighbourhoods, including East Vancouver, Arbutus Ridge and Point Grey, and in the city of West Vancouver.
One such home is owned by Mr. Wong, who grew up in the toney West Vancouver neighbourhood whose very name, the British Properties, smacks of its exclusionary past. He isn’t seeking to change his neighbourhood’s name, but as a city councillor, he is trying to strike out the racist land-title covenants. “It’s part of our history but shouldn’t be part of our present in this day and age,” he said.
Another covenant is attached to the Vancouver home of former Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Ken Sim. He supports the motions and said, “It didn’t feel great,” when he read his own deed.
The covenants have long been unenforceable and can be struck out at an owner’s request. But beneath the stroke of a pen, the offensive words are still visible. Current legislation prevents the removal of any part of a land title, which is considered a historic artifact, says Larry Blaschuk, registrar of the Land Title and Survey Authority of British Columbia. The provincial government would have to change the law to do so.
Some believe history should remain unaltered as a reminder of the systemic racism that still exists – that reading those words, however shocking, forces us to confront the truth about our past and motivates us to chart a better path for the future.
A cynic might say that removing a statue or drawing a line through an offensive passage from a land title is a token gesture that gives politicians bragging rights but does little to change people’s attitudes. But to those stung by the words or symbols, these gestures are an important way to heighten awareness of the wrongs of the past and present.
I’m with Mr. Wong and Ms. Kirby-Yung, who believe the province, as a form of reparation, should work to strike through all existing covenants.
Offensive symbols can be altered or moved without destroying history. A statue of someone whose views or actions are repugnant need not stand in a marquee location. It can be moved to a museum along with an explanation. Similarly, there may be value in allowing racist covenants to remain attached to land titles, as long as a line runs through all of them, making it clear society has evolved.
Will this eliminate racism? Will it stop attacks against Asian people, whom some irrationally blame for bringing COVID-19 to B.C., or end the discrimination experienced by Black and Indigenous people in B.C. every day? Of course not.
But it would be a recognition of the hurt the words have caused. Mr. Wong hopes it opens a broader discussion about how societies can address systemic racism. The Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s killing kick-started the conversation. There is still much work to be done in B.C., and striking through all the remaining racist land-title covenants is one small gesture that may prove a valuable part of the process.
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