New Westminster Sinterklaas event cancelled due to Black Peter concerns

Sinterklaas and one of his
Sinterklaas and one of his 'Black Peter' helpers at his annual arrival at Westminster Quay.

The New Westminster Sinterklaas celebration has been cancelled for this Saturday (Dec. 3) following a complaint from the black community that the Black Peter character is offensive.

Organizers originally planned to remove the character from the event, but have since decided it's better to call it off and take a fresh look for next year.

It's one of the few Dutch traditions celebrated openly like this, said organizer Tako Slump, and it wasn't an easy decision.

"It drained us so much on the organizing committee, from all this energy that had to go into the media," said Slump. "The discussion will go on."

Roger Jones complained to organizers about the character, Zwarte Piet or Black Peter, who accompanies Sinterklaas. Those playing the Black Peter role would apply black makeup to their faces which for Jones conjured up images of American minstrel shows that used the technique to portray African slaves. Many Dutch residents say the characters' black face is due to soot from coming down the chimney, and should not be confused with the racist American tradition.

Slump, owner of the Holland Shopping Centre, pledged to remove the character and at the same time consulted with the Dutch community about what should be done.

There was a huge response, Slump said, with the vast majority saying that without the Black Peters, it was not a Sinterklaas celebration.

"You can't pull these two apart," he said.

Slump said the Dutch community has done it's part by looking into the complaint from the African Canadian community, and now it's time for those with the concerns to step forward and seek to understand the Dutch tradition more fully, and say what they want.

To that end, he said he will meet with Jones in the coming weeks, and hopes to speak with others too.

"The discussion will go on," he said.

Meantime, many Dutch Canadians will be disappointed to see the local event cancelled, he added, as it is a special event for many.

"The Quay is a perfect location for that. It's definitely one of the nicest (Sinterklaas events) because of the situation we have at the Quay, with the paddlewheeler all decorated and the river."

Roger Jones said he was sorry to hear that organizers called things off.

"The Black Peter was not negotiable," said Jones, "(but) I was very clear from the beginning that it was not my intent for them to cancel their event."

Jones said he empathized with Slump's position. But many traditions have evolved over time, he said—Sinterklaas included—and that's something he hopes will happen here too.

"It's like any other tradition that may or may not be appopriate at a certain time. It's gone through metamorphoses in the past, there's no reason it can't in the future," Jones said.

Jones said he does not have any personal animosity toward the Dutch community, and invited them to attend African Heritage/Black History Month events in February.



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