Sadie Kuehn has been fighting injustice in British Columbia for over 50 years. Unfortunately, in 2019 she still has her work cut out for her.
Raised in Savannah, Georgia, Kuehn came to B.C. in 1968 with her then-husband and fellow educator Larry Kuehn, who would go on to be president of the BC Teachers’ Federation from 1981 to ’84.
Sadie Kuehn worked as a school counsellor in Kitimat, and then in Midway, B.C. She also started women’s groups in Kitimat and later Kamloops, helping bridge gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, and even impacting public policy.
But it wasn’t until the family moved to Vancouver in 1982 that her political star began to shine. In 1985, Kuehn became the first Black school trustee on the Vancouver School Board.
In 1990, she was elected president of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (better known as COPE), becoming the first person of colour in Canada to lead a civic party. And in 1998, she was the first Black chair appointed to the City of Vancouver’s Family Court Youth Justice Committee.
That’s far from everything Kuehn has accomplished in her near 72 years. We wouldn’t be able to fit it all in one introduction. (This 2002 summary covers a lot of it.)
But through it all she dedicated herself to tackling injustice based on gender, sexuality, class and race — particularly, but not limited to, how it impacts Indigenous and Black students in B.C.
Which is why, when a Black student at Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver raised the alarm last fall about how her school handled an anti-Black racist video made by another student, Kuehn responded with action.
This past year, decades after serving as a trustee, Kuehn spent her time attending school board meetings to call for a return to the anti-racism policy she helped redraft in the 1980s. The board hasn’t formally used it for years.
(Why? The school board said there’ve been many policy changes since the original anti-racism policy was implemented, including a decision last year to “adopt an updated governance model” by lumping in several policies, including its anti-racism policy, into a section called Administrative Procedures.)
Kuehn also called for the reinstatement of a race relations consultant at the district, a position the board cut in 2016. Funding for a new teacher resource position focusing on anti-racism education and training was approved in the district’s 2019/20 budget.
Finally, Kuehn has been organizing with Vancouver’s Black community in an effort to change how the district responds to hateful attacks against racialized students.
“Victims of hate [should] be a priority in our city, rather than the people who perpetuate hate and target other folks being looked after, which is what we’ve seen now,” she told media in September, following a meeting between the school board, parents, police, government officials and representatives of the Black community on the response to racism.
The Tyee sat down with Kuehn earlier this week to discuss B.C.’s racism blindspots; the province’s underexplored Black history; and how in her view the Vancouver School Board’s response to racism has changed since 1985.
On her experiences with racism in B.C.:
In Kitimat, Indigenous students for the most part were all put in the courses that were not academic. And other students, regardless of where they fell, were in other courses.
At one point, another teacher in Kitimat came up to me and said, “Oh, I’ve heard about how horrendous things are in the States, and particularly in the south, and I really empathize with you.” And I said I was so struck, even after working with Indigenous communities in the U.S., at how Native people are treated in Canada, because everybody wants to believe that Canada is so much better.
But then that teacher told me he was upset, because I wasn’t grateful that he supported Black people. Because he could not acknowledge [that I was saying] that the experience of the Indigenous people here was as bad as it was for Black people in the southern U.S.
When we left Kitimat, I was investigated by the RCMP, who asked the kids I worked with if I was trying to recruit them for the Panthers. Because I had an afro, and the Black Panthers had afros, so obviously I was a Black Panther.
Then in Kamloops, my eldest kid, Donovan, he was in Grade 1 when kids were throwing matches at his hair to set it on fire because he had an afro. And other adults did not see that wasn’t okay.
During the Solidarity Crisis in 1983, our family received bomb threats and threats to kidnap our three children. It was a lot of really stressful stuff. Some media blamed me for putting my children in danger.
On the erasure of Black people in B.C.:
Most people — and a lot of progressives — cannot believe that a Black woman could do any of this stuff that I’ve done. What many of us see over and over again — it used to happen in the States, but it definitely happens in Canada — is the erasure of particularly Black women and the work that they do.
I think some of the reason it happens more here on the West Coast is we have tried very hard to blend in. Unlike Toronto, we haven’t had small, set communities. Even Alberta has small Black community pockets.
We can talk about Hogan’s Alley, but Black people existed in areas of Vancouver beyond Hogan’s Alley. None of those areas really managed to break through the general society’s sense of a community of Black folks. That played into this whole notion that we haven’t had a presence here.
And to demonstrate that: during the time of the Asian riots in Vancouver there was supposedly a Black woman who saved a group of Chinese people, but nobody can remember her name.
If we aren’t aware of some of that, then our her-stories are not as complete.
On racism in Canada vs. in the U.S.:
I think a lot of Americans, we romanticize Canada, even Black people. Harriet Tubman always talked about the North Star and following it to the Chatham, Ontario, area. But Black people in those areas were treated very poorly as well. You read some of the anecdotal stuff from when Tubman came to live in that area, she talked about how much the racism extended into Canada.
To me, it should not have been a major surprise, because we have a common ancestry. Our basis for laws and governments and everything else is basically all the same.
Most Canadians have no clue that Black people have any place in Canadian history. We have an overtly European bias to our history, and that needs to change. I’m not suggesting that we just throw stuff in. We have an unbelievably rich history that actually includes a whole bunch of folks from a lot of different communities and cultures.
When I lived in Kamloops, I was just fascinated with the outlaw history of that whole region... Kamloops has this really interesting history that the first trained dentist in that region was a Black man. But how many Canadians know that? Very few.
On racism in Vancouver schools in 1985:
It was actually seen to be a problem, and I have to say that COPE — people like Pauline Weinstein and Harry Rankin, who had his limitations, and some other people — understood that racism existed, because they’d been getting feedback from a variety of people about kids experiencing some pretty harsh things within the system.
On the Vancouver School board’s first anti-racism policy:
How do you change a system that has a seasoned staff that doesn’t have a lot of turnover? You bring about change through policy. Yvonne Brown helped draft the first anti-racism policy; I was involved in subsequent redrafting and hiring, but not the initial policy. The policy spells out what is expected from all staff of the system: that they will deal with everyone in a fair, non-racist and unbiased way.
We had an agreement on the board that every year it would be circulated to all the schools, through the school administration, and that all principals made parents aware of the policy. But it would be naive to say that there were no incidents, because there were. And the issue around anti-Black racism was quite profound.
The policy is still there. I think the board would prefer not to see it.
On the board’s motion about racist hate crimes after the Lord Byng student video, which read: “That in light of the recent anti-black racist hate crime at one of our secondary schools, the Vancouver board of Education publicly acknowledge the incident that occurred and affirm our ongoing commitment to anti-racism in the district — in particular, to the maintenance and continued development of safe and inclusive spaces for all students that are free from all types of bullying and discrimination.”
My impression as a communications person is that the board was mealy-mouthed. You really could not tell what they meant and any direction they might be taking. You don’t have to paint yourself into a box to be clear to say: “If in fact this racist video was made, we will take appropriate action.” That would have been a soothing kind of a statement, not just for the Black community but also for the community in general and certainly the parents that have got kids in the school system. It’s that willingness to articulate clearly a commitment to take some form of action.
It’s not about throwing people under the bus. It’s about as a representative of the whole community on the board you should be able to articulate a clear position around these matters. That’s why you’re there, and why you have all these communications people, to help you form those things. Not to try to stay as far back from any kind of controversy.
How the school board could respond to racism:
I couldn’t have a better example: St. George’s [a private school in Vancouver] had an incident. The way that they dealt with that situation was clear, concise, to the point, and similar to ways I suggested to the board that they could deal with challenging situations. They don’t have to talk about a particular student; they could say, “This is our policy. These are the core values that we hold. Yes, the courts and human rights commission and tribunal have the last word. But we do not tolerate abuse, attacks, racism and other forms of bigotry in our schools.” Simple, and I have no idea why [the VSB] finds it so hard to be able to do that.
Yes, there has to be a commitment to the protection of privacy to a certain extent, but a general statement about where the district stands on matters of abuse and violence, there is no reason a school board can’t make that statement.
[Editor’s note: We asked the VSB to shed light on its response to the racist video in the sidebar to this story.]
On the health impacts of racism:
I’ve had three major scares of being told that I’m close to death, and the last one I developed clots in my lungs. My ability to breathe was really bad. I went for surgery last year in Toronto.
I’ve had a rare form of kidney cancer for a number of years. In both kidneys, so I only have a portion of a kidney left.
There are a number of studies about the fact that there is bias towards Black people in the medical system that leads to misdiagnosis and improper medication, and Black women have higher rates of mortality from cancer, heart disease and other circulatory issues than white women.
But also racism is poisonous to the system, both mentally and physically. And I believe that. I’ve chosen to work across issues, across groupings, and in places I’ve been, I’ve often been the only person of colour. Some people cheer me for being willing to do that. But the other part of it is, you’re in environments often that are extremely toxic and hostile.
You’re sitting in a highly intense political environment, you’re the only person of colour and people are making comments like, “Why do you people think you should be able to do this,” or “You people want to have this and this,” because there is a misconception that people of colour get special treatment in Canada compared to white people. And you’re like, “Well, cause equal treatment is for all of us because all are human.” But then other people sit there and nobody says a word. And this isn’t just one time. This is over and over.