My Person of the Year is lawyer Selwyn Pieters

By Patrick Hunter Friday December 28 2012 in Opinion
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People of African descent in Canada face a particular kind of discrimination. It has been branded as anti-Black racism. It is most often systemic in nature, although there are far too many incidents in which its blatancy rocks you back on your heels of reality.


I believe that while most of us, individually, may face racism and racial discrimination, it is not necessarily our first instinctual response. We do not necessarily see ourselves, or think of ourselves, as Black. In our minds, we are just individuals without any qualifier.


Thus, when we are faced with a situation that, when all the circumstances are examined, suggests racism, it foments within us a mix of emotions – from humiliation to anger to frustration to hopelessness.


It bothers me, therefore, when attempts to change the language and the discourse from the very poignant “racism” to the less challenging “diversity” or other similarly “tasteful” synonyms.


It is particularly important to keep the term upfront in a society in which the mass media and other institutions, including governments, are not in our control and rarely reflect the positives of our community.They set the agenda and the opinions. We are expected to follow – and we do.


One of my favourite metaphors is taken from the “Jim Crow” south: I am tired of stepping off the sidewalk so that White people may pass.


So, I asked myself, what are some of the criteria on which someone – or an organization – would be adjudged to earn the kind of recognition as person of the year? There is no award, financial or otherwise. It is strictly based on what that person or organization has done for or on behalf of the community that bears recognition. I should note that I am limiting this anointment to the Greater Toronto Area, at least this time.


It is against this backdrop that I admire the seemingly one-man crusade by Barrister and Solicitor, Selwyn A. Pieters.


Pieters has for many years being a thorn in the side of a lot of people – immigration, customs, the police and other institutions – challenging systemic discrimination. Using his office as a lawyer, he has launched challenges based on the Ontario Human Rights Code and other legal instruments to demonstrate the inherent racism in his treatment, and the treatment of other subjects – especially in terms of racial profiling. He has also managed to get media attention for some of his activities; an important factor that keeps the issue in the public eye.


There are lot of individuals and organizations in the Greater Toronto Area that do excellent work in our community and who/which provide very important social supports to members of the community. Their work and contributions, for the most part, go largely unnoticed in the wider community. By design, they take on a non-advocacy role, as a condition for funding. It is a choice they are forced to make, in some cases, because the work they do is more immediate.


The unfortunate off-shoot of that state of affairs is that it creates a dependency label – or, perhaps more appropriately, it gives the appearance that the community is always asking for something.


There are other organizations and individuals who continue the struggle against racism yet may not garner the same widespread attention as Pieters. Among them are people like Margaret Parsons and the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC), Clem Marshall and Cikiah Thomas of the Black Ontario Public Service Network.


I know some will be surprised that I included Parsons in this category. Notwithstanding the unfortunate estranged relationship that exists between her leadership of the ACLC and the rest of the community, Parsons, in circumstances which warrant it, will call out racism where it exists without mincing words. On several occasions she has challenged the erroneous rosy picture of a racism-free Canada in the international arena.


Pieters is currently appealing a Divisional Court ruling that overturned a Human Rights Tribunal finding of discrimination in his favour. Pieters and his colleagues were asked to produce identification at a law library. In the National Post, Pieters is quoted as saying that he believes he was singled out because of his race and that if he were approached differently, chances are the results may have been different.


In many instances, Pieters’ outspokenness and legal challenges are made based on his personal experiences. If warranted, which it is in many cases, he will bring into the picture deferential treatment, based on race, of an accused in arguing for their defence. It is safe to say that a tipping point in my “award” is Pieters’ ability to publicize the racial context of his cases. I interpret this as raising awareness, both within the community and without.


We have, over the past year, lost some leading voices in the struggle against anti-Black racism. These were voices that had the attention of the larger media. We need to replace those strong voices that can command that attention. We may even tolerate some of their self-serving attributes just as long as they present the African Canadian community in an unbowed, non-subservient way.


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