Nov 182017

Update: We got 452 signatures on our petition, and we stopped blackface performances at the store and the school. The Ottawa Citizen covered the issue, as did CBC, both print and radio. Many people contributed on Facebook and Twitter, despite the sometimes hateful and bigoted responses from trolls. Thanks to everyone who helped!

If you live in Ottawa, please visit the store and thank them for doing the right thing. They pulled Black Pete begrudgingly, claiming they were bullied and had to protect the children (nope). Let’s make sure Black Pete is not revived in 2018.

If you live in another town or province, ask your nearest Dutch store or community association if they perpetuate Black Pete. If they do, ask them to stop.


November 2017

I’m a second-generation Dutch Canadian, and I oppose the racist tradition of Black Pete. The Dutch store in Ottawa will perform Black Pete on December 2. Dutch businesses in other cities also perpetuate the custom. Let’s tell them blackface and Black Pete are racism and must stop.

Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is a racist caricature of Santa’s helper that remains popular in the Netherlands and among some Dutch Canadians. There is a growing movement in the Netherlands and abroad against Black Pete practices. In a report two years ago, the United Nations urged the Netherlands government to eliminate the discriminatory portrayals.

Roger Ross Williams’ film Is this Dutch holiday character racist? is an excellent introduction, if you don’t know about Black Pete. To learn more, see articles herehere and here. If you want to read even more about the history and current representations and impact of Black Pete, see academic papers here and here.

As Mr. Williams explains in this article: “For three agonizing weeks, many nonwhites (including myself) watch white Dutch people paint their faces black, their lips red, wear afro wigs, hoop earrings, and act like a bumbling and dimwitted servant who is kind to children.”

On December 2, the Dutch Groceries and Giftware store in Ottawa will hold its annual holiday party, with someone dressed as Black Pete. They have rows of Black Pete chocolates for sale. I went to the store this week and asked the owners politely not to promote Black Pete and blackface. They quickly dismissed me and said that there’s nothing harmful in Black Pete. They ignored me when I asked if their Black Pete will be in blackface, and they hung up on me later in the day when I asked for clarification. I interpret that as “yes”. I got emotional in the store (I was not expecting their reaction), but I tried my best to stay calm, telling them about concrete examples of how kids and adults are harmed by blackface, in the Netherlands and here in Ottawa. They had no interest in hearing that side, and they said “our customers will support us, no matter what.”

Dutch stores across Canada continue to carry Black Pete chocolate, candy and other products and celebrate the occasion, like the Ottawa store does. Of the twelve stores I called this week, in four provinces, all but two carry Black Pete products. All of them acknowledged that it’s controversial. The Dutch Market in Chatham sells Black Pete chocolates and gave me the common argument “he wasn’t a slave, just a former slave who stayed with the bishop because he was treated so well.” The woman in that store told me they won’t do blackface at their party this year because of criticism on Facebook, but they haven’t taken down blackface photos or fond memories of “bad Pete” and scary Pete. The Edmonton store promised last year to consider not doing blackface, when it was criticized. The Village Bake Shop in Whitby said Black Pete products are controversial but can still be found in the shop, “you just have to look for them.” The owner of the Dutch Store in Calgary was adamant about keeping Black Pete going: “I like it. I grew up with it. I make the orders.” The Ottawa store owners seem to be in that camp too.

Please join us in sending a message to the owners and customers of Dutch businesses on Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada. Ask them to end discriminatory portrayals of Black Pete. Please visit or call the Dutch store in your town or province. If they carry Black Pete products or host a performance, ask them to stop.

My focus is Canada because I live here, and anti-Black racism hurts and kills people here.  Black Pete merchandise and parties in Canada reflect anti-Black racism in Canada, not only in the Dutch immigrant community. Like in the Netherlands, Canadians deny our history of slavery. Anti-Black bigotry and violence are commonplace in Canada. For a history of blackface in Canada and its popularity still today, see this article by McGill professor Phillip S. S. Howard. His timeline of incidents of contemporary Canadian blackface includes recent performances of Black Pete. For a thorough account of white supremacy in Canada, see scholar and activist Robyn Maynard’s new book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present.

I first encountered Black Pete as a teenager, when my mother spoke against the practice in our Dutch community. My parents came to Canada in 1952 from Gelderland and eventually settled on a farm in Osgoode township near Ottawa. Like most Dutch immigrants at that time, many continuing to this day, they celebrated December 5 with a party where someone dressed as Sinterklaas and someone dressed as Black Pete, in blackface. My parents never dressed as Black Pete, but I heard the stories about these parties, and about the mean Black Pete of their childhood.

One year, my mother went to the party as usual but objected to Black Pete. Mom was ostracized for criticizing “tradition”, but I was proud of her; she helped me see racism for the first time. My mother, a white settler farmer in her 50s living in an entirely white and very conservative community came to understand that Black Pete is a vestige of slavery and harmful. How can Dutch Canadians today, with far more information about the harms of colonialism and racism, continue these racist caricatures?

When I told my daughter that the Ottawa store owners accused me of spoiling the party for the children, Mallory said “you’re not spoiling it, you’re helping the kids … you’re like Grinch who stole racism.”

My mother understood it 35 years ago and my 11-year old daughter understood it instantly. Blackface and Black Pete are racism. We need to stop it.

To follow the movement on social media, see Zwarte Piet is Racisme, Reason Against Racism and Kick Out Zwarte Piet.

Nov 012017

I sent this letter explaining why I support OPSEU profs, as a student. Please consider signing the students4faculty petition, and let continuing education students know Algonquin is offering full refunds if they want to withdraw.

I wrote the letter below to Cheryl Jensen, President of Algonquin College ( and Robyn Heaton, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Media and Design ( I copied Fiona Murray, Academic Manager, Continuing Education ( and Victoria Ventura, President, Algonquin Students’ Association (

I also wrote Don Sinclair (, Employer Council CEO, and the provincial government: my MPP and Minister Mathews.

Feel free to share my letter if it’s helpful to the striking profs.

Dear Ms. Jensen and Ms. Heaton,

I am writing as a continuing education student who supports the striking professors. I am disappointed with Algonquin College for forcing me to choose between dropping my course or crossing a picket line. I invested a lot of time and energy in my photography class, but I refuse to take your side and undermine the faculty. Algonquin should do what George Brown and perhaps other colleges have done: cancel continuing education classes until the dispute is settled. And the College Employer Council should sit down with OPSEU and negotiate a fair settlement.

I have gone to the picket line every week, and I’ve heard touching and heartbreaking stories that confirm my resolve to boycott Algonquin until they offer a fair contract. Algonquin is lucky to have such dedicated professors, and it’s a wonder they’re still so committed to their jobs, given their work environment.

As you likely know, these faculty are dedicated to their students. I admit that I was skeptical the first time a professor on the line told me “I love my job. I can’t wait to get back to teaching.” It was day three of the strike, and I thought “no, it can’t be, no-one loves their job that much”. She saw my disbelief and described what she loves about the job: the subject (her passion, even after years in the field), the students (for whom she goes above and beyond) and working for a non-profit college. She convinced me, but I thought maybe she was the exception. Nope. I’ve heard story after story, profs talking excitedly about their field, what they’ve done to improve their courses, their amazing students and how devastated they are to be forced into job action. I heard those stories in week one, then week two, and now week three.

I also hear anger from profs – about the steady erosion of education quality and working conditions on campus. I heard about Algonquin hiring lab instructors in a rush, last minute, without regard for qualifications, to cram more students into classes and increase enrollment/revenue. (Forgive me, I’m not from this sector, and I might be using the wrong occupational titles.) I heard about Algonquin acting like a temp agency, creating more and more precarious positions, not caring how it harms staff and students. One prof I met is juggling three positions at the college and still donates his time, unpaid, for faculty meetings, course design, meeting students, marking and likely more work that he didn’t even list. When full-time profs talked about their contract colleagues, I asked “why do you care enough to go on strike over their working conditions?”, I heard things like …

“I was temporary for ten years. I know what it’s like.”

“It’s just not right. I get three times the pay and see my colleagues have to volunteer hours to attend meetings and help students.”

“By treating profs and students that way, the college is telling me they don’t respect my profession and they don’t care about the value of the credential.”

“The college is running an experiment, but these aren’t rats, they’re students. Some of them come from far away and invest a lot. All of the students deserve better.”

I heard profs describe ways they’ve taken initiative, improved their programs, brought consistency to curriculum and assessments, kept on top of industry developments … all of this on their own, without support from the college. In fact, they’re patching up holes that the college created in the first place.

I’m truly inspired every time I talk with your staff. People are so smart, dedicated and compassionate that I always stay longer than I’d planned. It’s hard to leave because their stories are compelling, and their action is important.

Your action as a college towards me and my fellow continuing education students, by contrast, has been shameful. By continuing the CE classes, you’re telling us to betray our principles and the unionized professors by crossing the picket line. You’ve forced CE profs to undermine the action of their unionized colleagues, putting them in an even more difficult position, one that will have lasting negative consequences for morale, recruitment and quality of education when the strike ends.

I took advantage of the withdrawal option, but I only heard about that option by chance. I strongly recommend that you inform continuing education students that they can withdraw with full refund.

Let me close by telling me how you’ve affected me personally, as an indicator of how you might be affecting other continuing education students. I devoted many hours to class and many more to the assignments, and my family pitched in to help. I was taking an evening photography class, as professional development. Every time I found a free moment, I worked on my assignments. I have a folder of hundreds of photographs, painstakingly created, and I had whittled those down to a selection that I was going to submit for my assignments. I was proud of my work and put my heart into it. I was a keen student, sitting at the front of the class, totally engaged, as the instructor Harry Turner can attest. It’s been demoralizing, having to abandon the class. And it throws a wrench into a professional project that was supposed to begin in January, for which I needed the photography training.

My loss is a small fraction, I’m sure, of what my fellow students have lost. Among those who have, like me, boycotted classes, some may not have the financial means to take another class. Some may be single parents or family breadwinners, with more at stake. Some need the training for their livelihoods.

CE students who’ve continued in the program have also lost something: their dignity. Crossing a picket line is, for me, akin to stealing, cheating and harassment. It’s a completely immoral action.

I hold Algonquin, the employer council and the provincial government responsible for putting workers and students in this situation. I will continue to stand with profs on the picket line and social media, and I will continue to press the college, the employer council and government to resolve the impasse in bargaining.

I look forward to your response, including to my recommendations that you publicize the withdrawal option and cancel CE classes until there’s a settlement.


Irene Jansen