Students help remove racist covenant from Vancouver Island house
September 11, 2019 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Sarah Higginson and Justin McFadden had no idea property ownership could be race-restricted until they enrolled in their high school's social justice class and found themselves in the middle of a real-life history lesson. In 2018, a local homeowner had bought a Port Alberni heritage house only to learn that it still had a racist covenant on the title forbidding anyone of Asian descent from living in it unless they were servants of the owner. The two teenagers decided their class project would be to help the homeowner get the racist covenant removed. CBC Radio interview with Sarah Higginson and Justin McFadden. More on teacher Anne Ostwald and her provincially-acclaimed social justice class.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (13 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting way to bring social justice issues to students who might not be aware of them, but it's also worth noting that such covenants have been legally unenforceable in British Columbia since the 70s.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:20 AM on September 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


When my parents first came to San Francisco their first landlord "jokingly" showed them the racial covenant that his house had barring renting to Jews like my parents. He thought he was being so progressive by showing them this in the 70s. He was basically saying "see, I'm being so nice by letting you Jews rent from me". Needless to say this was only one of a few areas where this guy had real shitty judgement and my parents moved out pretty quickly.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:30 AM on September 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


A lot of houses in my neighborhood have racist covenants in the deed. I don't know how to check whether mine does, but it's more than likely. There's another neighborhood in my city where many houses have antisemitic covenants. This is super common in a lot of US cities and towns. The covenants have been unenforceable since 1948 (and housing discrimination has been illegal in the US since the '60s), but they're still in the deed.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:13 AM on September 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm in MA and there are houses in the neighborhood that have covenants. It costs more to get the deeds altered to remove them than it would to just ignore them. And it's MA, where archaic echoes of the past are deliberately preserved, especially the bad ones.
posted by ocschwar at 10:16 AM on September 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


When my parents first came to San Francisco their first landlord "jokingly" showed them the racial covenant that his house had barring renting to Jews like my parents. He thought he was being so progressive by showing them this in the 70s. He was basically saying "see, I'm being so nice by letting you Jews rent from me". Needless to say this was only one of a few areas where this guy had real shitty judgement and my parents moved out pretty quickly.

Ooof. This kind of thing is...growing up, I had a couple of "my parents don't like you because they're racist, but I think you're great" experiences when I was a kid. It always felt someone was choosing to make my life a little uglier in order to be credited with not being horrible. The Vancouver Island kids are fine -- I'm glad they're learning about this stuff, and it's nice that they want to do some good. But maybe a better use of their time and energy would be to act against racist stuff that is currently hurting people in Canada?

I'm sorry, I guess I just hate nice stories.
posted by grandiloquiet at 10:28 AM on September 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


No, it's a good lesson, because

(a) It underlines the way that segregation has been legally enforced in the recent past (rather than being a mere artifact of "free choice" and "preference" as some will have you believe, see Rothstein's The Color of Law, which should be a mandatory read for all white Americans);

(b) The skills involved--recognizing that a legal provision taken for granted is wrong and working out how to challenge it--are certainly transferable. Even lawyers reviewing documents sometimes will see a provision and think "Hm, that's a little weird, but, hey, must be a standard piece of boilerplate, probably just don't understand it" and blow by it to focus on what they think is important when it's actually something that's quite relevant and unusual.
posted by praemunire at 10:40 AM on September 11, 2019 [19 favorites]


But maybe a better use of their time and energy would be to act against racist stuff that is currently hurting people in Canada?

I think that's true, but in some ways I think that the problem may be more in the coverage than the decision the young people made. Insofar as this is them deciding to do something nice, albeit symbolically, for some local people, it's clearly a good thing. Like, you don't complain about someone sweeping your drive even though it would have been better if they'd fixed the hole in your roof. But presenting this as something important in itself, rather than in the broader context of what children and young people can learn, and the way this connects to modern injustices, does ring a little false. Like "these kids used one simple trick to beat racism".

They do seem to have done a nice thing. But I guess, in a racist society, it's just far too easy to praise and feel good about symbolic and uncontroversial acts of anti-racism, while the brutality continues unabated.
posted by howfar at 10:46 AM on September 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


I've actually been thinking about trying to map the racial covenants in my city and maybe post it on a website or something. On one level, it's not the most important thing to do. But on another level, I think it could push back a little bit against the narrative that our community is so historically white because that's just the way it is, like the whiteness is a feature of the landscape or an act of nature. It's not an act of nature. There were all sorts of legal and extralegal ways in which the whiteness of the community was enforced and maintained. People here think that racism isn't our problem because we've always been white, and racism was something that happened in other places. If there's racism now, it's because new people are coming from outside and imposing on the community. But in fact, racism is the reason we've "always" been white. (Actually not always, because there's so much erasure in the idea that we've always been white.) Racism is baked into the dominant culture, and it's not a new reaction to interlopers intruding into white space.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:56 AM on September 11, 2019 [10 favorites]


Considering that most deeds are transferred by superstition, with the recording attorneys afraid of making any modifications lest they make an error that leaves them liable somehow somewhere, this isn't surprising. In most offices you're not even allowed to retype old deeds verbatim for fear of making a mistake, so I've seen copies so many generations old that they're nearly illegible be recorded. It would take almost nothing to simply strike these from the new deeds, but lawyers are scared and clients don't know any better. Heck, in some places all you have to do is ask the county clerk to strike the covenant from your deed and they'll do it for free!
posted by 1adam12 at 11:11 AM on September 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


My town. It does give hope that the racist idiots in my town (which are many) aren't the only ones here. I remember being wtf about Aw Neil when I asked my mother about my junior high. It's incredibly hard to do any progressive work here because it's a dying logging town that is very slowly trying to transition to something else. I mean we only started having a regular pride a few years ago. Strange to see it here. We have some of the worst child poverty and drug ODs on the Island. It's hard to have hope here so it's good to see any little step and gives hope about these new kids.

Tho we also just made the news also because 2 kids killed people and went on that national wide manhunt. The coverage of my town in that pissed me off.

See my profile for a link to the history of First Nations abuse here. And you will see why little steps are a least a tiny start.
posted by kanata at 11:50 AM on September 11, 2019 [9 favorites]


I think that would be a worthwhile project, A&C.
posted by praemunire at 11:51 AM on September 11, 2019


So one of the things the students discovered when they did their digging was that the original person who put the covenant on the house was a member of parliament, Alan Webster Neill. Neill was also an Indian Agent, a person responsible for enacting and enforcing racist treatment of First Nations people in Canada. Port Alberni has a street and a school named after him in Port Alberni, and one of the things the students mentioned was that after learning about Neill's racist history of opposing Asian immigration, and oppressing First Nations people, they thought it was inappropriate for the town to honour him by having his name on things like streets and schools. This places the issue of removing the racist covenant within a larger context of British Columbia's monuments to colonizers and oppressors. I mean come on, this is the kind of thing that's been gaining lots of press with arguments of whether statues of people like Canada's first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, should be removed, since he was the architect of the Indian Act that forced Indigenous children into residential schools and put people on reserves and essentially treated them like second class citizens. The effects of the Indian Act reverberate today; why are we honouring him by having things named after him? Similarly, why is Port Alberni continuing to have a school and street named after someone who was so racist that (among other things) he put a covenant on his house that no one who was Asian could ever own it?

It's stuff like this--encouraging students to delve into the history of things around them that they might take for granted--that I think the social justice class really excels at. It is about changing students' thinking and making them aware of how seemingly minor things are actually really important to those who are oppressed. Sure, this one thing might seem minor, and yes, the racist covenant would not stand now, but it was still on the deed. As a half-Chinese person myself, it was strange to realize that if I, for example, had bought this house, there was technically a legal provision (unenforceable, I know) stating that I could not live in that house unless I was the owner's servant. If it had been me who bought that house, I sure as fuck would want that covenant officially removed from the title, whether or not it had any legal teeth in 2019.

If you listen to the interview with the students, or read the article about the teacher and her class, you will hear them and others talk about the long-term effects the class has had on their thinking and the way they view the world. Sarah Higginson is now in university to become a teacher herself, and it is classes like this (and teachers like this, and projects like this) that cement the concept that a) social justice is something that still needs attention today, maybe more than ever, and b) even symbolic things matter, and c) as individuals, they have the power and responsibility to find ways to make the world a better place via anti-racist/anti-misogynist/anti-fascist activism.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:55 AM on September 11, 2019 [32 favorites]


"He was like a poster boy for racism, especially toward Asian people and of course, not so great toward First Nations people either," McFadden told On The Island in a phone interview.

Not so great toward First Nations people... bit of an understatement.
posted by flyingfox at 4:52 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


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