March 21 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
It’s also the vernal equinox, Earth Day, National Agriculture Day and National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day in the United States, and, according to my daytimer, Benito Juarez’ birthday. (Don’t ask – look it up yourself!)
Wikipedia says it’s also the date on which Pocahontas died, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake, and the last day on this earth of baseball player Joe “Ducky” Medwick, who, when he was introduced to Pope Pius XII, said “Your Holiness, I, too, used to be a Cardinal.”
It stands to reason that the older the world gets, the more special events there are to be commemorated. If you’re really into observances – St. Patrick’s Day and the 2051st anniversary of the occasion on which a group of Roman senators played pincushion with Julius Caesar both fall in March -- your desk calendar can start to look like one of granny’s bingo cards.
After I have made allowances for weekends, statutory holidays, religious observances – Passover and Easter almost overlap in April this year -- family birthdays and anniversaries, funerals, and appointments with dentists, doctors, naturopaths, physiotherapists, barbers, and financial advisers, there is barely time left for me to come into the office and pick up my pay cheque. I fondly recall a co-worker who liked to say “My hair grows on company time, so I get it cut on company time!”
An internet list of dates to remember includes Fat Free Living Month, National Boost-Your-Self-Esteem Month, Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month (so help me!), Correct Posture Month, Lasagna Awareness Month, and National Stamp Collecting Month. As you might suspect, National Toilet Tank Repair Month (October) follows National Prune Breakfast Month (January) and National Baked Bean Month (July).
This is not to infer that such observances are without merit. I am a big fan of all things ceremonial -- parades, uniforms, anniversaries. I learned many, many years ago that a husband’s health is directly proportional to his ability to remember the date on which he was married.
But when every day is special, nothing is special.
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was decreed by the United Nations to observe the date in 1960 when South African police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws”, killing 69 people. In most communities, the occasion goes unnoticed, overshadowed in places like Northern Ontario by the first day of spring and hopes for melting snowdrifts.
It also tends to be ignored because many Canadians are in denial that racism could even exist in their peaceable kingdom. Those, of course, are the Canadians who’ve never been on racism’s receiving end. They are people like Ron, the owner of a Sudbury auto parts shop who insults and embarrasses First Nation customers when they ask for their treaty right to tax exemption.
But there are many other people with good minds and hearts who want their grandchildren to live in a world where the Rons are few and far between. About 80 of them from all across the North gathered in North Bay in February for a symposium to discuss how to make their communities more welcoming and inclusive.
They are studying a model introduced in Europe whereby municipal governments pledge to adhere to a set of principles that will not tolerate discrimination against any of their citizens. Several Ontario cities – Windsor was first – have already signed on. Ontario Human Rights Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall recalled how she contacted a major retailer when she was mayor of Toronto to act on the complaint of one aboriginal woman. It sets a remarkable example when civic leaders speak out on behalf of their community’s most vulnerable members. That requires a level of courage we seldom see in those whose salary is paid by our taxes.
Whatever the future holds in store for such ground-breaking initiatives, there is one thing certain – fundamental change requires much more than an annual proclamation posted in the local newspaper. Even Rude Ron the auto parts guy could likely bite his tongue and be polite to Native customers one day a year.
Our biggest aspirations usually require 24-7 effort, 365-days-a-year. We can’t pencil our dreams into our calendar -- just haircuts and dental appointments.
Every day should be anti-racism day.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.