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Sinterklaas celebration upsetting

Sinterklaas and one of his
Sinterklaas and one of his 'Black Peter' helpers at his annual arrival at Westminster Quay.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER FILE

Although he's lived in the New Westminster and Burnaby area for 21 years, Roger Jones knew nothing about the Sinterklaas and Black Peter tradition that has been carried out by the Dutch community in New Westminster since 1985.

When he found out recently, he was shocked. It reminded him of the old minstrel shows that used black face to depict African-American slaves.

"Just looking at the images of this was quite upsetting," said Jones, who is a member of the black community and grew up in Nova Scotia. "It's from ancient times. We just don't need it. It's time to look at different things."

The celebration is held on Dec. 5 of every year. Sinterklaas comes down the Fraser River in a paddlewheeler and disembarks with 12 'Zwarte Pietens' or Black Peters before heading off to the Holland Shopping Centre on East Columbia for events the rest of the day.

Black Peters are Sinterklaas's mischievous assistants. The origin is vague, with Zwarte Piet being the name for evil in the middle ages. There is some evidence the figures eventually were portrayed as Black African, possibly from Dutch colonial days or from an occupation of Spain.

After seeing the Black Peters, Jones hit social media to see what others in the black community thought.
"I couldn't sit still, I had to do something," said Jones.

Many of the responses have been of shock, especially from those with U.S. backgrounds. Jones pointed out that recently there have been protests about the portrayal in The Netherlands.

"Even there they're realizing this is something that's not appropriate," said Jones. "You just can't say it's our tradition and we're sticking to it. Who wants a celebration which has a big negative thing to it. It doesn't make any sense to me."

He sent an email to the organizers, and they promised to get back to him with a detailed explanation.

Tako Slump has run the celebration ever since taking over the store in 1995. It's grown over the years, he said, with about 400 to 500 people attending and about 30 volunteers from the Dutch community.

"Those are not slaves. If I'm correct they are people who are freed by Sinterklaas. They became his helpers," said Slump. "In Holland, it's a big party. As the Dutch community we celebrate here in B.C. as well. It has nothing to do with racism. It has nothing to do with discrimination. This is just the way we celebrate it. Black Peters are really well liked in the whole celebration. We never have problems filling those positions."

Slump said if organizers wanted to they would have no problem getting 20 people to fill the Black Peter role, but there's only room for 12, along with Sinterklaas, in the limousine that transports them from the Quay to the centre.

"I know if I take the Black Peters out the Dutch people will be offended," said Slump.

He said he will meet with Jones and any other groups upset about the Black Peters to listen to their concerns and to explain what it's all about.

One of those who has participated in New Westminster's Sinterklaas in the past is school trustee Casey Cook, who was born in The Hague, and moved with his family to Canada when he was four. He believes it might be time for the Dutch community to make a change.

"It's tradition in Holland and has been for years and years. I would say that given the context that we are in today, I think we need to be sensitive to the issue that the African community is raising," said Cook.

"If they are offended, then I think the Dutch community should take that into account and they need to make adjustments, and if that means elimination of (Black Peters) then that's fine. I don't have a problem with that.

"What the festival portrays is not as important as how a black person would view the implications of how Sinterklaas plays out."

This year's celebration will be on Sunday, Dec. 4, with Sinterklaas's arrival at 10 a.m., with events and a party/food tent open to the public from 10:30 to 4 p.m.

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