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Posted: May 21, 2018

It’s time we have a public conversation on race

“Perceptions” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

Cranbrook is in the news again, and as has often been the case, not for a good reason.

But this time it isn’t for our roads, our allegedly ugly strip or lack of civic amenities. This time it’s for a much different and unfortunate reason after a local resident had an alcohol-fuelled meltdown in a Lethbridge restaurant and unleashed a racist tirade that thanks to social media echoed around the world throwing our fair city into a harsh and negative light.

So, like it or not, I think it’s time Key City residents had a serious public conversation about our reputation – good or bad – as it’s the latter you hear most often. Are we a racist town? A redneck town or what?

Firstly, it should be said, that the actions of one individual, hateful as they were, are in no way typical of an entire town. Cranbrook’s social and ethnic mosaic is made up of numerous races and ethnic groups and to the best of my knowledge we’ve never had a race riot in Cranbrook. Volunteer organizations in Cranbrook have helped Syrian refugees relocate here and local citizens have been generous in their support.

But all of this isn’t to say that racism is entirely absent in our town. The recent ugly racist outburst of a Cranbrook resident in Lethbridge should disabuse our minds of that. And if you look to the past, insidious signs of racism are there to be seen with a little looking. For years a small lake on the southwest edge of Cranbrook near Lumberton was known as “Nigger Lake.”

It’s now listed on the map as “Negro Lake,” but who knows if the former racial epithet has disappeared from the local vocabulary. One would certainly hope so.

Just up the road in Kimberley in the 1940s there used to be a Capital Café. “All white help,” its sign proudly said. Indeed, we used to have a “Redneck Café” in town and it served good food too.

But Cranbrook isn’t alone in its racism. It’s a big part of B.C. history as well A chain of restaurants known as the “White Lunch” operated in Vancouver until the 1970s. Race riots against the “Yellow Peril” also occurred in Vancouver and Victoria back then and we’re all aware of the racist internment of the Japanese in the Second World War, which resulted in them being stripped of almost everything they owned and being shipped to Kootenay communities surrounding Cranbrook.

But I can hear you say that was then and this is now and things are different. Really! I’m not so sure of that. Remember the provincial election of 2009 when former Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett was accused of running racist campaign ads when he was running against a member of the St. Mary’s Band next door to Cranbrook? In his advertising, Bennett asked voters to vote for him because he is “one of us,” whatever that was supposed to mean.

What he meant got a little clearer in subsequent campaign advertising when voters were encouraged to vote for him because “you want someone who pays taxes.” Not too subtle there, although Bennett and his campaign manager vehemently denied there was any hint of racism in the advertising.

However, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs demanded an “immediate apology” and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said the ad played on “racist stereotypes.” But apparently, the voters of Kootenay East and Cranbrook agreed with Bennett because when the election rolled around he increased his victory margin by almost 2,000 votes. So, if Bennett played the race card in the 2009 election, Kootenay East voters weren’t buying it or didn’t care.

But I think it would be a stretch to call the East Kootenay’s biggest city “racist” on the basis of a single election even though race came up as an issue during the campaign. Maybe Bennett had a weaker opponent in the campaign. Maybe voters preferred his policies in general. It’s impossible to know for sure.

But getting back to the current issue there can be no doubt that it was an egregious act of racism that damaged Cranbrook’s oft-criticized reputation.

It would have been nice if the mayor or some well-respected local citizen spoke out publicly and condemned the incident on behalf of the city like the Mayor of Lethbridge did.

It would have been even nicer if the perpetrator herself made a public apology for her racist rant and explained what she meant by saying “that’s not who I am.” But she didn’t. In the end, the only act of public contrition for the racist outburst was made by the woman’s employer who issued a critical condemnation of her behaviour and fired her. I think every Cranbrook citizen owes him a vote of thanks for that.

In light of all this, don’t you think it’s about time Cranbrook had a public conversation in some way to tell the world we’re not a redneck, racist, biased little berg always spouting hate and venom? Surely such a conversation is long overdue?

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist that’s not afraid to admit his record hasn’t always been perfect on race.

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