With the civil rights movement heating up in the United States in the early 1950s, the issue of racial discrimination also became a hot button issue on this side of the border. The most sensational racism case in Vancouver was the 1952 police beating of Clarence Clemons outside a Main Street café. Clemons was a black longshoreman who later died in the hospital. A coroner’s inquiry concluded that natural causes, not police brutality, was the cause of death, but the incident raised the issue of anti-black racism and was the subject of a campaign by a tenuous rights coalition.
More typically, anti-racist activism in the 1950s and ‘60s took on the less sensational issue of discrimination. White British Columbians smugly and disapprovingly looked at the racism being tackled by the civil rights movement in the American south, but many tended to not recognize discrimination here in the same light, if they acknowledged it at all. The first challenge for activists was therefore to raise awareness about the prevalence of discrimination in Vancouver.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters took the lead early on in advocating for the rights of black Vancouverites, many of whom belonged to the all-black union. In 1950, the Brotherhood conducted a survey of bars that revealed systematic discrimination against black patrons. Managers in this small sample voluntarily revoked discrimination policies after receiving a letter from the Vancouver Labour Council explaining why it was in their interest to do so.
A similar survey was conducted by the UBC Civil Liberties Union in 1954. Five couples composed of black men and white women were sent out to 25 bars in different areas of the city. Trailing them were caucasian couples to serve as a control group. Five of the bars surveyed would not serve mixed-race couples.
The survey found that the best and worst bars did not have discriminatory policies, but “middle class hotels catering mostly to permanent Vancouverites” did. Three of the five were within a block and a half of each other on Main Street. Again letters were sent to the managers requesting that the discrimination policies be scrapped, pointing out that their upscale counterparts did not have such policies.
In a separate incident reported on the same day in the Ubyssey, a 22 year-old student from India was refused service at the St Helen’s Hotel at 1161 Granville Street, one of the hotels surveyed. M. Ather Ali was two months into his PhD in oceanography at UBC when he attempted his first foray into a Vancouver watering hole with four white students, only to be refused service. Co-owner George Gillis later explained that “his hotel bars coloured persons from the ‘women’s section,’” and that “we can refuse service to anyone we like.” (At the time, bars were divided into “men’s” and “ladies and escorts” sections in order to curb immorality). Gillis later flip-flopped and announced that racial discrimination was not hotel policy “as far as I know” and that he was unaware of that specific incident.
Bill Symington of the United Packinghouse Workers’ Union urged the Vancouver Labour Council to picket the discriminating hotels and to hand out information leaflets “so that our members will know the true situation and refuse to patronise them.”
JE Bengert, president of the BC Hotelmen’s Association defended the hotels, saying that “I can understand the attitude of some hotels which draw the color line. It may not be because of color but because they have had trouble where colored patrons have attempted to bring in minors.”
Vancouver alderman SA Bowman criticized the survey. “I don’t believe in discrimination,” he said, “but neither am I in favour of small groups of individuals going out to create a situation.” Bowman stated that “I have my colored friends,” but warned that “there is always a danger that small groups out to make surveys of this type may adopt an arrogant attitude which may result in them not getting the service they have a right to expect.”
Similar exposés of racial discrimination were conducted around admission to UBC sororities and fraternities. In many cases, racist policies were unwritten and therefore deniable until the Ubyssey newspaper gathered and reported the evidence. When the story came out, the Alma Mater Society passed a motion that “the Ubyssey be censured for the taste employed in naming fraternities with discriminatory clauses.” The paper’s editor at the time was Pat Carney, better known for her later roles as a federal cabinet minister and senator.
In 1962, the Ubyssey turned its attention to housing discrimination, reporting that “Point Grey homeowners have built a Little Rock on UBC’s doorstep.” Reporters applied for accommodation at 50 houses selected randomly from a list compiled by the UBC administration for students. Although landlords were not permitted to stipulate “whites only” in their advertisements, a black reporter was rejected in half the places he applied and had many doors slammed in his face. A white reporter was accepted into the same places. Some Point Grey landlords defended their position. “I wouldn’t have a negro in my house,” said one. “They have a bad smell.” Another replied: “Oh, no. We don’t allow people like THAT.” One landlord blamed their neighbours: “I’m not prejudiced, but I know my neighbours are.” Of the non-discriminating landlords, some were offended by the question. One “little old lady” told a reporter, “Young woman, I am a Christian – all races are welcome in my house.” The investigation found that South Asian and Chinese students were also rejected based on race, but not as often.
Vancouver alderman and future Non-Partisan Association mayor, Tom Campbell, responded to the story by quipping “So what. Everyone knows racial discrimination exists in Vancouver. Therefore there is no reason to point it out.” Campbell accused the black reporter of “going out to look for a little trouble” and dismissed the report on the grounds that the paper was just looking for a good story. The director of International House at UBC acknowledged racial discrimination, but said a single survey was not enough to conclude that half of Point Grey landlords discriminated.
Although racism hadn’t been eradicated by the end of the 1960s (we’re still waiting), a fundamental change had occurred. The Vancouver Police Department, as one illustration, hired its first Chinese police officer in 1968, and in 1970 a young recruit from Halifax named Bruce Clarke became its first black member. While things improved over time, Clarke later recalled being frequently subjected to racial remarks and jokes in the early years on the job. (He was nicknamed “Dark Clarke” to distinguish him from the white Bruce Clarke on the force).
Simply removing discriminatory policies certainly didn’t end racial inequality, and many of the early non-white hires on the VPD did not last very long. It would be another 10 years before the department began taking pro-active measures to try and better reflect the population it polices, something it is still faced with, particularly regarding indigenous people. Vancouver’s lily-white upscale neighbourhoods, meanwhile, are only slowly becoming more diverse, while lower income neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside and Grandview remain the most racially mixed in a city that wears its multiculturalism and racial harmony on its sleeve.