Nova Scotia

Joachim Stroink apologizes for Zwarte Piet blackface photo

An emotional Joachim Stroink, Halifax MLA, fought back tears Monday afternoon as he apologized for a photo he posted of himself posing with the controversial blackface Dutch character Zwarte Piet.

Character is a controversial part of Dutch holiday

RAW: Joachim Stroink apologizes

10 years ago
Duration 5:32
An emotional Stroink fought back tears as he apologized for a photo he posted of himself posing with the controversial blackface Dutch character Zwarte Piet.

An emotional Joachim Stroink fought back tears Monday afternoon as he apologized for a photo he posted of himself posing with the controversial blackface Dutch character Zwarte Piet.

"I do acknowledge that the whole blackface culture, there is no place for that in Nova Scotia, nor in our culture. There was no malicious intent. This is a Dutch tradition I grew up with and never in my deepest heart thought that this would be portrayed in this manner," said the Halifax MLA.

"Looking back, I guess I can see how the blackface prospect is unacceptable in today's culture and society."

Joachim Stroink, far right, poses with Zwarte Piet at a Sinterklaas event in Halifax on Sunday night. (Twitter)

In the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is Santa Claus's helper. Stroink tweeted a photo of himself with a person in blackface portraying Black Pete at an event Sunday. 

Stroink swiftly deleted the photo, but it had already spread on social media. 

"This wasn't an intentional attack on the black [culture] of Nova Scotia, it was celebrating a Dutch tradition. I completely offended an African culture. I get that and I apologize for that," he said.

He said the tradition "can't continue as it is."

'I didn't sign up for this'

Stroink, who is a first-term Liberal member of the legislative assembly in Nova Scotia, said the backlash stunned him.

"It's been incredibly hard. I didn't sign up for this. I did this because I wanted a better Nova Scotia," he said about entering politics. "Finding the balance between an MLA and being Joachim Stroink, I feel that that's gone."

He met with Tony Ince, the minister for African Nova Scotian affairs, said he understands why the photo upset people. He hopes it can become an educational moment about bridging the two cultures, he added.

"I want to be able to celebrate this tradition and maybe Zwarte Piet is no longer part of this tradition. That's a discussion the Dutch community has to derive on their own, hopefully with the help of myself and Minister Ince."

Stroink had earlier posted an apology on Facebook.

Stroink stressed that Dutch culture has long emphasized a black elf-like character as part of its Sinterklaas celebrations.

For many people at least in Amsterdam, it's not acceptable anymore. [Black Pete] is seen as a slave.- Jessica Silversmith

"As a child growing up and celebrating the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition, the blackface did not lead me to think less of my African Nova Scotian neighbours and friends, and as such I was not sensitive to the potential to offend," he wrote.

A traditional song refers to the character as a "servant" to St. Nicholas, but in recent years, those references have largely been replaced with the notion that he is black from chimney soot as he delivers toys for children.

"While the history of Zwarte Piet and the blackface have contributed to perpetuating negative stereotypes, to ignore or to disavow Zwarte Piet would be to ignore that history within the Dutch community," Stroink wrote.

Nova Scotia New Democrat MP Peter Stoffer, who was born in the Netherlands, said the tweet was taken out of context.

"Zwarte Piet has been a Dutch tradition for many, many, many years," said Stoffer.

"If the tradition is to change then that would be up to the Dutch government and the Dutch people to do that in that regard. In 16½ years, no one has ever come to me either in writing, email, fax, personal visit or phone across the country to raise this issue with me."

Tradition 'not acceptable anymore'

But Jessica Silversmith, director of the Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam, said it's time for the Netherlands to move on from the tradition.

"For many people at least in Amsterdam it's not acceptable anymore," she said. "He's seen as a slave … his role is also a problem."

Silversmith told CBC’s Maritime Noon that her group heard 240 complaints about Zwarte Piet in 2012.

"It's so strange to see a Dutch immigrant living in Canada and he's introducing Black Pete while in his former home country we don't like Black Pete. It's remarkable," she said.

"Traditions are most of the time never innocent. You have to look behind the tradition."

Members of the Twitter community took the newly elected politician to task.

"I'm Dutch too. I love Sinterklaas, but we've got to let Zwaarte Piet go. Surely you can see how this could offend," tweeted Ben Diepeven.

"Traditions are also a great way to spread racist sentiment," wrote Matt Neville.

"You can't delete the photo from my hard drive," tweeted user @musekaltweet.

With files from The Canadian Press