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Hands Against Racism Award winner John Horgan says the stories of British Columbia are the stories of the world

|John Horgan. Photo by Charlie Smith
Nature's Path founders Ratana and Arran Stephens presented Spice Radio's Hands Against Racism Award to former B.C. premier John Horgan on March 19. Photo by Charlie Smith.

Former B.C. premier John Horgan says his party consciously tried to attract candidates “who looked like the mainstream” in their constituencies. And he suggested in a March 19 speech at the Surrey Arts Centre that these efforts by the B.C. NDP resulted in the legislature and cabinet better reflecting the population at large than ever before.

As examples, Horgan pointed to people of South Asian ancestry serving as speaker of the legislature, education minister, and attorney general. The former premier also mentioned that there are three Indigenous MLAs in the legislature. And he noted that half the NDP caucus is female.

“That is British Columbia,” Horgan said. “Now, when British Columbians look at their elected institutions, they see themselves reflected back. Not perfectly. Not completely. But better than it has ever been in our history.”

The former premier made these remarks after Spice Radio named him as its ninth annual Hands Against Racism Award winner. Nature’s Path Foods founders Ratana and Arran Stephens presented the award.

In her speech, Ratana Stephens highlighted that the Horgan-led government was the first in Canada to enshrine the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in legislation. In addition, the NDP government led by Horgan passed the Anti-Racism Data Act, created a parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives, and restored the B.C. Human Rights Commission.

Horgan cites importance of education

When Horgan reached the podium, he said that over the past 25 years, the stories of British Columbia have become the stories of the world.

“My wife Ellie is with me—the daughter of Dutch immigrants who fled Europe, from Nazi tyranny, following the world war,” Horgan said.

He acknowledged that he heard their stories about the hardships that they faced coming to a new land. The former premier then noted that he’s been to gurdwaras and heard these stories from Sikhs. Horgan said that some of them fought in the British army to protect the empire and king. Yet they later witnessed hockey broadcaster Don Cherry declaring on television that they should “go home.”

“These inconsistencies speak directly to the challenges we have in our education system—and why it’s critically important,” Horgan said.

In his speech, the former premier mentioned that his mother instilled in him the importance of standing up to bullies. Then he said that he thinks racism is actually rooted in bullying.

In addition, Horgan talked about Canadian multiculturalism, which he was fiercely proud of as a young man and father. But when after becoming an elected representative in 2005, he developed a more nuanced view.

“I got to know with my friends—Raj Chouhan, Harry Bains, Jinny Sims, Jagrup Brar, and many, many others—that the communities that they came from and the communities that they represented were not like the community that I represented,” Horgan said. “They were not like Peace River North. They were not like the Kootenays.”

Gurpreet Singh
Spice Radio broadcaster Gurpreet Singh photographed John Horgan joining in a Bollywood-style dance after receiving his award.

Make B.C. the “beacon on the hill”

Then he shared a story about visiting a school in 2006 with Chouhan in the Edmonds area of Burnaby. There, Horgan recalled, 130 languages were spoken.

“That is fantastic—and a daunting challenge for educators,” Horgan said. “But what a gift to the people of British Columbia to have that representation of diversity from every corner of the globe.”

He also talked about Holi, a.k.a. the Festival of Colours, celebrated by Hindus every spring. The Hands Against Racism Award event coincides with Holi because this holiday promotes togetherness. On Holi, people joyfully sprinkle coloured water on friends and strangers and set aside old grudges.

“When you’re covered in colour and flourish and excitement, what is underneath that is just humanity,” Horgan commented. “And that humanity may speak a different language. It may practise a different faith.”

Then he spoke about other faiths. He stated that the best way to learn about the impacts of Kristallnacht is to visit a synagogue. The ex-premier added that visiting a Nowruz celebration on the North Shore can shed light on challenges faced by Muslims. He also mentioned that he spent time with his in-laws in church.

He pointed out that the United States once had that reputation as the place people in the world looked for hope before some of its governments were taken over by “white supremacists and fascists”. Horgan even referred to some of the words on the Statue of Liberty. It carries the phrase “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

“As British Columbians—five million souls—we have an opportunity to make this the beacon on the hill,” Horgan stated.

Horgan listened to Indigenous leaders

He also demonstrated modesty in connection with advancing the rights of First Nations people in B.C. The former premier gave credit to their leaders.

“The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was not something that came out of my head,” Horgan emphasized. “It was something that I learned from Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and Ed John and Terry Teegee and Sophie Pierre and a legion of Indigenous people that I had the good fortune of coming upon as a local elected representative. And after 12 miserable and interminable years in Opposition, I got an opportunity to do something as premier.”

Similarly, Horgan praised NDP MLAs such as Chouhan, Bains, and Brar for keeping up the pressure for restoring the B.C. Human Rights Commission. The ex-premier acknowledged, however, that it “has its failings”, though he didn’t elaborate on that comment in his speech.

In the 11 days prior to Horgan’s speech, Pancouver published two articles raising serious concerns about Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender’s recent report on hate during the pandemic. In this 478-page document, the commissioner did not include any serious criticism of mainstream Canadian media for any role it may have played in promoting anti-Asian sentiments from 2015 to 2020.

Meanwhile, Horgan said that many acts of overt racism were recorded by cellphones during the pandemic. But he also stated that he shudders to think of how many countless other acts of discrimination and violence were not captured in this way.

“The good news,” Horgan stated, “is that when we saw these images on Global Television and on other media outlets, almost to a person, British Columbians stood together and said, ‘Not here. Not now. Not ever again.’ ”

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.