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Confronting Racism, Promoting Respect

By Tom McKenna

The British Columbia Teacher's Federation (BCTF) has a Program Against Racism. I've been a teacher for 25 years and a member of three teacher organizations in the United States. None has had anything remotely similar.

My experience tells me that unions in this country don't have programs against racism. Unions negotiate contracts. Unions lobby for school funding. Unions back political candidates. Unions do a fair amount to support teachers but they don't focus on social justice work or on the lives of students. Yet a Canadian union, the BCTF, has had a Program Against Racism for almost a quarter of a century. How can that be?

I admit that I knew very little about British Columbia before undertaking this investigation of the Program Against Racism. Though I live only a 75-minute plane ride away, Vancouver has always felt much more distant.

Before my visit, I knew some basics. I knew that Vancouver is quite diverse (its English-as-a-second-language population in the public schools hovers around 50%; approximately 25 different languages other than English are spoken at home), and that the city has a lower crime rate than comparable U.S. cities. I had once thought about moving there during the Vietnam War. Overall, I assumed BC was similar to the United States, just a kinder, gentler version.

My first visit to Vancouver shed light on some of the similarities. I found a provincial premier mired in scandal, a large urban school district faced with a funding crisis, a newspaper decrying an influx of immigrants "who aren't appropriate for this country,"and an electrical engineer from India who has to drive a cab to make a living.

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