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Rachel Décoste

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Whitewashing Canada's National Heroes

Posted: 10/30/2012 1:10 pm

I am fortunate enough to be a member of U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election team in a swing state this election season. Four years ago, I canvassed by telephone and in-person over multiple months. This election cycle, I have a prolonged and increased role in Michigan, which has given me the opportunity to visit and familiarize myself with the Great Lake State.

The Detroit metropolitan area boasts a surprising number of world-class attractions and museums. Michigan has named main arteries for national heroes Berry Gordy (founder of Motown Record Company), Rosa Parks (the woman who spearheaded the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat in a segregated bus in Alabama 1955), and Elijah McCoy (engineer and inventor of the revolutionary lubrication device which allowed trains to make continuous journeys in the 1800s). So transforming was his 19th century invention that McCoy, who begat the expression "the real McCoy", was posthumously bestowed the honour of having a U.S. federal building named after him this earlier this year.

The Detroit area is also home to the National Arab American museum to showcase the varied contributions of well-known Americans whose Arab heritage is often unknown (including Apple genius Steve Jobs).

Despite their humble beginnings, all of these legends, masters of their domain, contributed to making America what it is today.

While America's sordid history includes some particularly ugly episodes of civil war, a long-standing adherence to slavery, segregation and internment of its ethnic residents, to name a few, they seem quite comfortable celebrating the full spectrum of the American experience, warts and all.

Thinking of home, it dawned on me that there wasn't any grand boulevard named after Canada's Rosa Parks, Viola Desmond. The courageous African-Canadian woman had refused to give up her seat in a segregated theatre of New Glasgow, N.S. a decade before the feted Rosa Parks. Her subsequent arrest, her incarceration and her legacy remain buried while Parks' statues have multiplied across the USA, far beyond her home state.

By the same token, the inventor Elijah McCoy was a Black Canadian born in Ontario. His one-time Detroit home is adorned by a commemorative plaque, while there is no grand recognition of his achievements in the country of his birth. The last time our federal government saluted a scientist by placing a plaque before a federal building, it was to honour a leading eugenics advocate.

The Japanese-Canadian team which broke the colour barrier in B.C. baseball would have been properly saluted with a permanent public structure by now, had their courage been manifested on American soil. This month, the City of Montreal found a street and a park to name after American Gary Carter. Strangely, the man who put Montreal on the baseball map before breaking the baseball colour barrier, Montreal Royals' marquee player and league MVP Jackie Robinson had a plaque inaugurated in front of his Montreal home in 2011 -- not by Canadian authorities but by the U.S. government ever eager to salute transformative figures of all shapes and colours.

For their courage, it is curious that the Asahi Baseball Team have not been bestowed their due while there is seemingly an abiding appetite to commemorate Canadians of "neutral ethnicity".

In contrast, top American dignitaries descended on Washington D.C. in 2009 to unveil the bust of Sojourner Truth, the first African American woman to have a place among the statues in the U.S. Capitol. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, "We're here because of barriers she challenged and fought to tear down."

Even the new Museum of History is off to an achromatic start. Jocelyn Formsma, a Cree woman, expressed disappointment, stating "[...] there's such a fuller, more diverse history of Canada that could be represented [...]". The archival whitewash persists.

For all the racial adversity the Unites States have faced, they still elected a minority to head a major party and their country. When it comes to honouring their heroes, American cynosure comes in all colours. Canada, which professes allegiance to the multicultural mosaic paradox, could stand to learn a thing or two from this particular slice of Americana which fosters a more inclusive, more perfect Union.

 

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