New Westminster Sinterklaas festival cancelled

Organizers of the annual Dutch Sinterklaas festival have decided to cancel the event this year after clashes of opinion surrounding the traditional character Zwarte Piet or "Black Peter."

The character drew criticisms of racism from the Lower Mainland's black community over the fact Black Peter appears in blackface makeup and contains negative stereotypes.

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Bernard Piprah, a graduate student and organizer of the annual Black History Month symposium at Douglas College, told The Record last week that the Black Peter character was offensive to many in the black community.

"(The character) is degrading, and it's racist, and it's incredibly outdated," Piprah said. "You can't erase that. You can go to your local library and read that this Black Peter was a slave. He beat children. He was dumb, and he spoke buffoonish Dutch. There are just so many insulting aspects to that character, and I can't believe they're celebrating it in New Westminster."

Tako Slump, local Sinterklaas organizer and owner of the Holland Shopping Centre, had said on Friday that the celebration would go on without Black Peter in his usual form, but he and other organizers couldn't find something that would work for everyone.

"We tried to come up with different solutions, using different colours or whatever. But at this time, we've decided to cancel the event for this year," he said. "We are sad about it, but it was too much. This whole thing has drained us so much as organizers. It's just too much for us at this time to get everything in place."

Slump asked the Dutch community for feedback after making a decision to eliminate Black Peter, but the idea didn't go over well.

"We got a lot of replies back from our customers in the Dutch community," he said. "It became pretty clear to us that we love Sinterklaas and we can't have it without Black Peter. Those two go together," he said.

This will be the first time without a Sinterklaas celebration on the Westminster Quay since 1985.

It has grown to be the largest Dutch celebration in Western Canada, drawing upwards of 500 people, organizers said.

Slump said there also seems to be a problem of perception since, in Holland, Black Peter is considered a respected helper of Sint Nicolaas, though he does understand the black community's objections to the character.

"Like I said before, I understand. I can see where they are coming from, but at the same time, the key issue is the history that is hurtful to them is totally different from what we are celebrating," he said.

He said there also needs to be a larger conversation about the tradition to bring more understanding.

"We are a multicultural country here in Canada, and we in the Dutch community should not have to get rid of our culture. This shows that this is a big part of our culture," he said. "People should be true to their feelings... There's always going to be something offending somebody. We have to accept that certain things are different, and they might have aspects that offend people."

Slump said Tuesday that he was in the process of informing the Dutch-Canadians in the Lower Mainland that this year's event would be cancelled.

He said he hopes Dutch-Canadians still celebrate Sinterklaas in their own way.

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