Your Dispatches: December 2011 Archives

Green concrete: foundation for climate stability

 Robert Niven of Halifax wrote us to cast a Canadian angle on the green concrete issue introduced in David Common's dispatch. David met folks at MIT with a Big Bang Theory for better roads and buildings -- and climate control, considering there are three tons of concrete poured for each person on the planet every year.  

David's dispatch

 The December 8 Dispatches program

Robert Niven's reply:

 I really enjoyed your piece on green concrete today. Perhaps you'd be interested in some of the equally exciting work being done in Canada and other areas across North America. MIT is part of a broader community of industry, academics and start ups like ours that stretch from Boston to Silicon Valley and all across Canada. We are collectively on the verge of cracking the code to make carbon negative concrete that is scalable to meet the world's demand and possibly cheaper than current methods without compromising quality. This is truly a transformative change in our society.

CarbonCure Technologies is a Halifax-based company that was recently ranked among Canada's top 5 cleantech start ups. Working with academics and industry we have developed a simple device that is bolted into concrete plants that actually allows plants to consume (rather than emit) CO2 to make cheaper, stronger and greener concrete. Our plants are coming online this year in Nova Scotia, Silicon Valley and Toronto. It will possibly be the greenest commercially available concrete on the planet.


Robert Niven
CEO/ Founder
Carbon Sense Solutions Inc.
CarbonCure Technologies Inc.

CarbonCure's website

Black Pete -- the New Westminster cancellation

 The discussion continues, about the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and his sidekick Swarte Piet.  It started with a piece Lauren Comiteau did for Dispatches -- about growing concern that the kinky-haired blackface character is racially offensive and shouldn't be part of the traditional opening of the Christmas season in Dutch culture. There have already been dozens of emails to Dispatches about this.  A selection is posted in Part One  Part Two and Part Three "Black Pete" letters in Your Dispatches

Roger B. Jones of  Burnaby B.C. played a key role in the fate of Black Peter in New Wesminster, B.C.:

I was the person who initiated the action to eliminate Black Peter from the New Westminster "celebration". This was not an easy decision, because it was obvious that it would be emotional and potentially messy.

Anyone who doubts that this portion of the Sinterklaas event is inappropriate, should spend some time researching the subject and talking to people outside your social circle.

Because the idea of Zwarte Piet/Black Peter is so ingrained in the mindset of the Dutch community, I realized early on that a serious debate would be difficult (if not impossible). A quick read through comments on the Sinterklaas Facebook site (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sinterklaas/147484605352659), reveals the large rift between many African Canadians and Dutch Canadians. That said, it appears that there are some Dutch who are willing to explore an alternate version of the Sinterklaas event.

Regardless of what we read in the media, it was never my intention to cancel Sinterklaas. I believe it is a wonderful tradition that deserves to continue indefinitely. The organizers in New Westminster, decided that they wanted Black Peter or nothing. I still cannot grasp how they came to that decision.

The question is,where do we go from here? I for one, will never accept Zwarte Piet or Black Peter being celebrated in a public place in Canada. African Canadians have fought too long to be treated with dignity and respect in this country. My family has been here for several hundred years and have continually worked to make this a better country for everyone. Ironically, many of my relatives put their lives on the line at wartime, partially to help Dutch people. For this we get Black Peter in return?

We have a year to create a much more hospitable celebration, that could be welcoming to all cultures. I challenge everyone who is clinging to the notion of Zwarte Piet/Black Peter, to think deeply about what you are doing. Do not make lame excuses trying to explain away the blackface with images of soot I have yet to hear anyone account for the big pink lips and woolly hair. Everyone also agrees that the Sinterklaas story has changed many times throughout history. Why not make another change for the best? If you can convince your children that a Black man from a far-off land, comes on a boat as a helper for an old white man, passes out cookies, possibly puts little children in a sack and spirits them away; then you can easily spin another tale!

Canada is supposed to be a welcoming society. Zwarte Piet/Black Peter does not belong here. Now that we are aware of his existence, there are many who will diligently oppose any reappearance of this character.

Roger B. Jones

"Black Pete" letters -- Part Three

The discussion continues, about the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and his sidekick Swarte Piet.  It started with a piece Lauren Comiteau did for Dispatches -- about growing concern that the kinky-haired blackface character is racially offensive and shouldn't be part of the traditional opening of the Christmas season in Dutch culture. There have already been dozens of emails to Dispatches about this.  A selection is posted in Part One and Part Two "Black Pete" letters in Your Dispatches


Anthony Corrado of Toronto writes:

I first became aware of the dark side of the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas from the recent documentary Becoming Santa, where Zwarte Piet was denounced by African American historians as a demonic black-faced foil to the sainted bishop. Even if Piet's role is no worse than a gift bringing counterpart to our elves, this subservient image of dark-faced lackeys imprinted on every Dutch child seems entirely consistent with the historic attitude their Boer cousins have held toward indigenous South Africans.


Anthony N. Morgan, a law student at McGill in Montreal, explains why he'd like to see an end to the practice of Zwarte Piet: 

I am the student who was involved with the "blackface" incident that took place on a university campus in Montreal this past September. I would like to offer my thoughts about the tradition of "Black Peter":

I am a born and raised Canadian of Jamaican heritage. In September of this year, I brought to the public's attention the occurrence of 20 or so students who decided to parade on a university campus in Montreal wearing blackface, carrying monkeys and chanting about consuming marijuana.

My experience with the Montreal blackface incident has heightened my interest in this debate about Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. This interest has only increased since last week when the Dutch community of New Westminster, BC decided to cancel its Sinterklaas festivities because a group of Black Canadians in their community expressed opposition to the featuring of Black Peter in the celebrations of Sinterklaas.

From my perspective, what is most problematic about the debates concerning the tradition of celebrating Black Peter is the obsession with reducing the matter to one about feelings and intentions.

If we are ever going to fully grapple with what is at issue here, we have to avoid getting caught up in the banter about who does or does not feel offended by the presence of this character. Similarly, truly unpacking the issues at play means getting beyond the overly simplistic defenses rooted in expressions like "this is part of our history, culture and traditions". In other words, true progress and understanding on the matter will only come when discussions about who is happy or hurt by the tradition of Black Peter are ignored, and when arguments about whether the intentions behind his celebration are for ill or good will, are resolutely dismissed.

From the purely objective realities of the Netherlands' deep involvement with the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the colonization of Africa and support and defense of now-dead Apartheid in South Africa, Black Peter emerges as a symbolic glorification of the enslavement of Black people by Europeans. Within this history, the tradition of Black Peter also stands as a celebration of historical notions of Black inferiority and subservience to Europeans.

Because this tradition makes a large number of people smile and feel good does not allow the clear symbolism and representation of Black Peter to be swept under the rug of historical amnesia. Advents of the internet and sites like Wikipedia make this kind of historical ignorance inexcusable and irresponsible in our present world.

Yes, slavery, colonialism and Apartheid and the unfortunate involvement of Dutch peoples and countries in these institutions is tough to face. But these are the objective facts of history. When we meaningfully engage them and situate Black Peter within this history, we should all realize why we cannot continue to embrace and celebrate the tradition of Zwarte Piet.

At this point, I can hear many responding by saying "the past is the past and it should be left there". The clanging irony is that this is exactly what those opposed to the Black Peter tradition would like to see, namely, a move away from the past and an evolving into contemporary understandings that demonstrate a commitment to an appropriate recognition of the of humanity, dignity and respect that all peoples should be equally afforded.

When the historical argument is used as a contextual basis for opposing Black Peter, it should be understood that this is not done so that we can go back and list the atrocities of the past. Rather the historical context is brought up in order to highlight that Black Peter is an inextricable part of that past and therefore has no place in our present-day globalized societies.

All the Dutch people I have had the pleasure to meet, hang out and socialize with have always been most lovely, understanding, fair-minded, intelligent, friendly and warm. Everything I have learned from them has indicated that racism is not a part of their culture. Rather, like almost every other culture, including that of Blacks, Jamaicans and Canadians, it's not perfect, and is trying to find its way in an ever changing world.

As such, I feel very strongly that empathy and support, rather than ostracism and criticism will be what ultimately helps us all work together with our Dutch brothers and sisters to bring an end to the celebration of the tradition of Zwarte Piet.

Anthony N. Morgan
Hons. BA
University of Toronto
B.C.L./LL.B. Candidate, Class of 2011
McGill University, Faculty of Law

"Santa's Black Pete" letters -- Part Two

A number of listeners wrote in response to Lauren Comiteau's December 1/4 dispatch from Amsterdam on growing offense to the blackface tradition of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten in the Dutch Christmas tradition.  This is Part Two of Your Dispatches about it.  Part One:   


Marinus R. Mellaart had a special recollection of Zwaarte Piets:

I am a immigrant to Canada from the Netherlands. When we first arrived in Canada we were unprepared for feeling of isolation we felt being separated from my mother's family, our solace was to find comfort in my father's family who all emigrated to Canada at the same time.

Our first Christmas was not the best Christmas but there was a moment that I will never forget - that was seeing the original Miracle on 34th street and Santa Claus speaking Dutch to a little orphaned Dutch girl - of course she referred to him as Sinterklaas.

My Grandfather (Opa) was not a tall man but had white hair and pale blue eyes, and was full of tradition. One of those traditions was dressing up as Sinterklaas for December 5th, but no self respecting Sinterklaas would ever go without his Zwaarte Piets! And who do you think he recruited to be those Zwaarte Piets?

Well that would be my Dad and my Uncle John. Were they black faced? No need - due to my heritage, my Father and Uncle were half Indonesian (where my Opa grew up) so black face was redundant - however they did wear bright red lipstick, and donned the traditional moor clothing. Being of mixed heritage, and living in a new country full of different cultures, racism was the last thing I thought of during Sinterklaas.

All I remember is discovering one year that it was my dad who was handing out the presents to all the Dutch and German kids in that auditorium in the Okanagan - and wondering why he couldn't pick out the best ones for me! I am sure if one analyses any tradition one can find fault, or maybe even racism - but if the nature and spirit of the tradition is all about uniting, giving, and being with family - should that not be more important?

Gary Pluim of Barrie, Ont. has a different reaction to his childhood experiences:

Dear Rick,

I listened with great interest to your episode last night about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. In our family the racial undertones of this tradition have also come up few times over the years. We grew upwith annual visits from these two figures at Christmas time, at our extended family gatherings on my father's side.

In a rented hall for a large Dutch family of over 50 members from my grandparents on down, my relatives were eager to preserve this tradition.  Staff in hand, it was one of the tall uncles who usually dressed up as Sinterklaas, and a diminutive aunt who blackened her face and toted a sack as Zwarte Piet.  They made a grand entrance, distributed the toys and sweets, and left.

As a child, unfazed, I never saw this as anything but aracial (white master--black-servant) relationship.  There was never really any indication otherwise - no chimney in the hall, no other context provided.   It was only once I was a little bit older and asked my Dutch-born parents about the details of the relationship, was assured that it had "nothing to do with race"; Zwarte Piet is black because he is a Moor, and, of course, because of the chimney situation.

The ceremony was particularly uncomfortable because our family was of mixed race. I suppose enough of the Canadian-born grandkids asked their parents about the tradition because one year my dad's Jamaican-born brother-in-law played Sinterklaas, this time opposite a non-blackened skinned aunt.

Looking back twenty-five years, I think this was a pretty progressive move, especially seeing the tradition had "nothing to do with race" to begin with. Afterwards there was no formal debrief, or synopsis by any of the elder family members. But, in some ways I think it was good that we were left to draw our own conclusions; I'm sure more than one conclusion was drawn that Christmas. It wasn't many too many more years after that that my grandparents passed away.

Since then, unfortunately, we no longer gather together during the holidays. But up until that point, we continued to meet with our growing family to celebrate and distribute gifts to the youngest generation. Although - it never really occurred to me until now - in the final years of our family celebrations, the gift giver had quietly transitioned to Santa Claus, with the help of a colourfully-dressed elf.

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"Santa's Black Pete" -- racially offensive or just good fun?

A number of listeners wrote in response to Lauren Comiteau's December 1/4 dispatch from Amsterdam on growing offense to the blackface tradition of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten:


Roisin van der Put of Port Hood, Cape Breton has some personal experience with Sinterklaas and Zwartepieten:

I am an Irish woman who lived in Holland for 11 years. All my children were born there and attended regular Dutch school. I was at first quite taken aback when I saw the Zwartepieten and even more so when I noticed how all children (and parents) adored these mischievous, fun loving characters. But having lived there for 11 years and seeing how innocently children of all races accept and love the zwartepieten I realize that there is no malice or offense intended. To take the zwartepieten away who be the equivalent of taking Santa Claus away from Canadian children.

We Moved to Port Hood, Cape Breton, NS two years ago from Holland. My husband is Dutch.

I enjoy listening to your show.

All the best

John Kellner of La Ronge, SK agrees:


I caught the end of your piece about the "Black Pete" tradition around the Christmas season in the Netherlands - and could plainly hear that the correspondent telling the story was not comfortable with the Petes made up in what would be called "blackface."

It seems clear to me that this is a tradition that is very old.  Generations and generations of Dutch children have grown up with Zwarte Piete, and he is associated with the joy of the season - not a mockery of a skin colour or a race.

Children love this character, not because he is funny in a mocking way, but because he is kind, giving, colourful and a part of the culture and the season.

This was evident in the comments from the Dutch man who brought his children to a Christmas event when he said that Black Pete was not a symbol of racism, but rather a part of the Dutch Christmas tradition - and definitely not racist.

I'm positive that all Dutch people are not racists, and either am I.  It's about intent, what's in your heart, that matters. It's Christmas in the Netherlands, and if you don't like it you should celebrate Christmas somewhere else.

PS: I do not come from a Dutch background.


Anna Bookelaar of Summerland B.C. adds this:

Hello, something is getting really twisted here, Black Peter has a black face because he is African.  Years ago when St Niklaas came to town there were not very many people of African descent around to play Black Peter so white fellows blackened their faces to play the part.

It isn't meant to be a racial slur, it is meant to represent who the helper of St Niklaas was, a Moor from Spain.  As kids we were scared of him not because of his colour but because he was said to gather up bad kids and turn them into cookies, hows that for creeping out kids? 

I am first generation Canadian but still had my kids put out their shoes on the 6th of December to get a chocolate letter and some goodies.  Please do not make an issue of Peter's skin colour, it's who he is.



Ronald Barnes of Vancouver writes about Sinterklaas being cancelled in New Westminster, B.C.:

Hello Rick,

I love the show, one of my favourites. Story in Georgia Straight today:

The Sinterklaas website carries the following message:

Dear fellow members of the Dutch community,
We regret to inform you that the Sinterklaas celebrations for 2011, at the New Westminster Quay as well as at the Holland Shopping Centre have been CANCELLED.
We thank you all for your input in the Zwarte Piet discussion, and we encourage the community to keep up their Sinterklaas tradition.
For those of you who feel this is a great loss, we agree. We too are greatly saddened by the events of the past few weeks.
The Sinterklaas Event Organizers


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