Dutch ‘Black Pete’ appearances in Ottawa cancelled after protest

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A post by Peter Jordens.

Blair Crawford of the Ottawa Citizen reports that, as happens every year, Sinterklaas will make his appearance at the Dutch Groceries and Giftware store in Ottawa on the first Saturday in December, but for the first time in 60 years his blackface helper Zwarte Piet — Black Pete — won’t be with him. Owners Henk and José van Zijl made the announcement on the store’s Facebook page. “Recently we have been approached by people from Ottawa who loudly protest against Zwarte Piet in his current appearance. They forcefully demand the store to change our customs,” they wrote. “The Ottawa protesters have threatened us with actions which would make this fun event impossible. It is for this reason that we reluctantly have decided that on December 2 Sint Nicolaas will visit our store without Zwarte Piet.”

The Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet dates back centuries and involves Sinterklaas — St. Nicholas — arriving on a boat from Spain with his Moorish helper. Dressed in flamboyant renaissance clothing, Zwarte Piet is usually played by a white actor in blackface, with bright, red, exaggerated lips and a dark, curly wig. In some versions, Zwarte Piet is said to be black with soot from going down chimneys with gifts. The tradition has come under fire in the Netherlands by many who say it’s a relic of a racist history. Anti-Zwarte Piet protests in Amsterdam have led to clashes, with arrests and injuries on both sides. Earlier this year, 100 Dutch celebrities, including a popular comedian who used to play Zwarte Piet on television, sent a letter to Dutch public broadcasters demanding a change to the custom.

In Ottawa, the anti-Zwarte Piet movement has been led by the Caribbean Union of Canada and Solidarity Ottawa. César Ndéma-Moussa, president of the Caribbean Union, said he was pleased to hear Zwarte Piet won’t appear this year. “However, it’s intolerable that we even had to have this conversation in 2017. It’s not enough to be pulling out Black Pete in 2017, it’s about pulling out Black Pete forever.” The character symbolizes “Black subservience, inferiority and other negative stereotypes rooted in slavery and colonialism,” he said. Soft-pedalling the character as Soot Peter is just a way of covering up the racism behind the tradition, he said.

Ndéma-Moussa had an ally in his struggle in Irene Jansen, a human rights activist who, as a young girl, watched as her Dutch mother spoke out against the tradition. “Even 35 years ago, she realized that Black Pete was offensive,” Jansen said. “She had a huge impact on my awareness of what’s right and what’s wrong.” Jansen didn’t realize until earlier this year that the Zwarte Piet tradition was still continuing. She visited Dutch Groceries and Giftware a week ago to complain about the Zwarte Piet candies they were selling and learned about his traditional visit to the store.

Reaction to the van Zijls’ decision to cancel Zwarte Piet’s appearance was mixed, with most posting support for the old tradition on the store’s public Facebook announcement. “So sad that certain people feel this way and spoil a tradition that has been around for hundreds of years,” wrote Johanne Hagedorn. “Very sorry to hear that. It is such a wonderful tradition that is now being ruined by a small minority. I am sorry that you felt you had submit to threats by a bunch of bullies,” wrote John Deknatel.

On the other hand, Simone Kortstee posted that, while she had “very fond memories” of the tradition from her childhood, Zwarte Piet “is no longer of this time.” “It obviously hurts people, even though we don’t intend to, and that should be enough to adjust and transform. We thought to just have helpers with colourful hair and clothing, but keep the faces unpainted,” Kortstee wrote.

The Dutch School of Ottawa, which teaches language classes Saturday morning at St. Thomas More Elementary School, is planning its own Sinterklaas party at the school, but Zwarte Piet won’t be a part of it. “Out of respect for diversity and heritages of all our students and their families, our International Languages Program Christmas event this weekend will not involve ‘Black Peter’ from the Dutch Christmas tradition,” the Ottawa Catholic School Board said in a statement.

A similar new article is provided by CBC News.

The image shows the announcement of the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet event organized in 2016 by Dutch Groceries and Giftware, sourced from their Facebook page

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