British Columbia

Students help remove racist covenant from Vancouver Island home

A Port Alberni property once owned by a member of parliament no longer has a racist clause preventing Asian residence there, after local high school students had the covenant stricken from the land title registry.

Port Alberni house had clause forbidding anyone of Asian descent from living in it, unless they were servants

Port Alberni still has a street and school named after former member of parliament and Indian agent Alan Webster Neill, who was also the former owner of a house in the city whose title had a racist covenant. (Shutterstock / Serjio74)

Sarah Higginson and Justin McFadden had no idea property ownership could be race-restricted until they enrolled in their high school's social justice class and found themselves in the middle of a real-life history lesson. 

The teenagers from Port Alberni, B.C., learned that a local house, built in 1909, still had a racist covenant that forbade anyone of Asian descent from living in it, unless they were servants of the owners.

The covenant was discovered when a new homeowner purchased the property in 2018 and learned it was still on the land title. The students learned about the covenant and its racist stipulations from Anne Ostwald, their social justice teacher at Alberni District Secondary.

Higginson and McFadden decided they would get it removed — but first they did a little digging.

The covenant on the title of the house, located on the city's Margaret Street, dated back to original homeowner Alan Webster Neill, a long-time Comox-Alberni member of parliament who served for 20 years and died in 1960. 

Neill helped initiate old-age pensions, but also supported the Indian Residential School System as an Indian agent, was pro-Japanese internment, and opposed Asian immigration. The controversial figure still has a street and school named after him in the community.

Former Port Alberni city councillor and VIU instructor Chris Alemany stands on Neill Street, named for former member of parliament and Indian agent Alan Webster Neill. (Wawmeesh Hamilton/Discourse Media)

"He was like a poster boy for racism, especially toward Asian people and of course, not so great toward First Nations people either," McFadden told On The Island in a phone interview. 

The students contacted former city councillor and Vancouver Island University instructor Chris Alemany, who told them racist covenants don't stand anymore, as long as the land title office is notified and can remove it.

So that's exactly what Higginson and McFadden did.

After contacting the land title office in Victoria, the duo said it took less than two months for the covenant to be removed.

"When we heard back that it had been removed we were all very happy," said McFadden, who credits his social justice class with opening his eyes to something in his hometown he knew nothing about.

The project began last year while the two were still secondary school students. McFadden is now studying at Vancouver Island University and Higginson is pursuing a teaching degree at the University of Victoria. 

Higginson said she hopes to inspire students to take on "projects to better the community and better us as people".

"I feel like a lot of classes are lacking that and that should be something that is more mainstream in education," she said.

Early immigrants to B.C. faced not only the hardship of settling into a new home but also racist policies — Chinese and Indo-Canadians did not have the right to own property and only got the right to vote in 1947. (CBC)

To hear the complete interview with Sarah Higginson and Justin McFadden, click on the audio link below:

Gregor Craigie spoke with two Port Alberni high school students, Sarah Higginson and Justin McFadden, about getting a racist covenant taken off of a heritage property in the Alberni Valley. 8:30

With files from On The Island

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