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Burnaby schools mark Metro Vancouver anti-racism group's Black Shirt Day

Jan. 15 picked to honour birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Students across the Burnaby school district are wearing black shirts today to recognize the civil rights struggle fought by Black Canadians and to stand in solidarity against all forms of racism and hate.

While it has yet to be officially proclaimed by B.C.’s Ministry of Education, Black Shirt Day is already being marked in a number of school districts around the Lower Mainland, including Burnaby.

It’s an initiative of the Anti-Racism Coalition of Vancouver (ARC), a grassroots organization that emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Jan. 15 was chosen to coincide with the birthday of civil rights leader and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

ARC has stated it also hoped that day would help get more conversations started about racism ahead of Black History Month in February.

The group missed the deadline for having the day proclaimed for this year, according to a CBC report, but is now petitioning Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside to proclaim it for Jan. 15, 2021.

The initiative was inspired by the success of awareness days such as Pink Shirt Day, in support of anti-bullying, and Orange Shirt Day, in support of Indigenous victims of Canada’s residential schools system, according to the petition.

“We believe this will be an important step in raising greater awareness of the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights faced by Black and racialized Canadians, and help to foster solidarity against all forms of racism and hate,” the petition says.

At Burnaby schools, students have taken the lead on Black Shirt Day, according to school district vice-principal of equity, diversity and inclusion Beth Applewhite.

“It has been a positive way for them to use their voice to support anti-racism and a good opportunity for schools and staff who are participating to have conversations and share learnings,” Applewhite said in an emailed statement.

Students and staff throughout the district were invited, not only to wear black shirts and show support for anti-racism, but to engage in discussions about civil rights as well, according to the school district.

Leading up to the day, for example, students at Marlborough Elementary School made daily school announcements highlighting Black leaders and their works.

“Our Grade 7 students have taken up this work with passion and pride,” said vice-principal Sheila Rawnsley.

While Black Shirt Day may be providing a good opportunity to spark discussions about racism, however, Applewhite said anti-racism work at local schools is about more than a single day.

“In our district, this is about more than a day, a week or a month,” she said. “It is about the journey we are on together to support an equitable, diverse and inclusive environment for all staff, students and their families.”

Whiteside and parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives Rachna Singh applauded the Black Shirt Day initiative in a joint statement Friday morning and pointed to $1.9 million in funding announced by the province last month for multiculturalism and anti-racism work as part of B.C.'s COVID-19 recovery plan.

“We believe B.C. should be a province that works for everybody. It is only by working together, we can make this dream a reality,” read the statement.