News

Sinterklaas event cancelled in New West, new one starts in Langley

Sinterklaas arrives in New Westminster, at a previous event, joined by Black Peters. - NewsLeader file
Sinterklaas arrives in New Westminster, at a previous event, joined by Black Peters.
— image credit: NewsLeader file

Sinterklaas will not be making a return trip to New Westminster.

Until last year, the Dutch tradition featuring Sinterklaas and his 12 helpers called Zwarte Pietens—also known as Black Peters—had been staged the first Saturday in December by the Holland Shopping Centre in New West.

It had been a local event since 1985, drawing people from all over the region.

Sinterklaas would arrive by paddlewheeler and then go to the shop for celebrations the rest of the day.

But last year it was called off at the last minute after a complaint from a member of the black community. Roger Jones said the Zwarte Pietens reminded him of old minstrel shows that used blackface to depict African-American slaves.

Although his original suggestion was to remove the Black Peters, Holland Shopping Centre owner Tako Slump opted to cancel last year's event after many in the Dutch community said Sinterklaas would not be the same without the Black Peters.

"You can't pull these two apart," he told the NewsLeader last year.

Since then he has decided not to have his staff involved in organizing it at all any more.

"It creates too much controversy, and basically to protect my time," said Slump.

Despite his decision, Slump maintains the event is not racist.

"We're a multicultural country, we should accept everything from other cultures," said Slump. "The response from the Dutch community—you've seen how much there was against the cancellation, how the community was upset about it. They were more upset about the fact the Dutch community cannot celebrate around traditions the way we like to. The Dutch community really felt attacked."

That community has responded by organizing an event in Langley for Dec. 1. While it outlines a full day of activities, the Sinterklaas 2012 website, www.sint.ca, does not reveal who is putting it on, of say if Black Peters will be involved. However, the site does include a history section with the background behind Zwarte Piet.

Emails to the website ticket and blog contacts were not returned by the NewsLeader's deadline. The site does say last year's controversy spurred the volunteer committee to have a "fresh start," so Dutch families could enjoy their traditions.

"It really comes down to how much do we want to tolerate from each other," said Slump. "It's part of history, part of traditions. It's just how people receive it and think about it themselves."

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