Former Poet Laureate Speaks at KPU’s Day to Eliminate Racism

George Elliot Clarke discussed the discriminatory aspects of Canadian society on March 21

George Elliot Clarke spoke to members of the KPU community about racial discrimination in Canada on March 21. (Aly Laube)

As the seventh poet laureate of Canada, and as an Afro-Métis man, George Elliot Clarke has a unique perspective on the country he lives in. In government, policy, and society at large, Clarke sees not only systemic racism and sexism, but also a path forward for creating a more inclusive and genuinely multicultural Canada.

He addressed KPU students in the Surrey Cedar Conference Center on March 21 for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. His presentation followed several other, similarly-themed events on campus such as an anti-racism walk, forum, and film screening.

“I’m here today to talk about the anti-racist Canada of the near future, and I want to get to that by talking about our past a little bit,” he said during his address.

Clarke went on to explain how a book published by sociologist John Porter in 1965 relates to modern-day Canada and its current legislation by looking at the nation’s Constitution, its relationship to the Monarchy, and documents delegating various sorts of citizen statuses.

“The word ‘status’ is the vivid but silent sign that Canadian society is hierarchical and has hierarchical structures,” says Clarke. “There are various forms of contingent statuses available … There are a number of statuses recognized in Canada other than citizenship. Persons registered under the Indian Act, permanent residents, convention refugees, visitors, administors, permit holders [and landed immigrants] may all lawfully be in Canada.”

All permanent residents in Canada have mobility rights, but those without that status do not. For those defined by the government as “visible minorities”—or “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour”—this can be oppressive.

“From this definition, we can compute that this terminology is a bureaucratic euphemism that has the effect of rendering the visible minority group as visually other than the majority of Canadians—that is to say, white,” says Clarke. “But this terminology also represents Canadians of colour as citizens of suspect status because they are not the same complexion as the so-called mainstream, whose citizenship status is seldom ever questioned.”

One of the most significant challenges that Clarke says he faced as Canada’s poet laureate was remaining a non-partisan federal official. However, he maintains that being able to act as a “spokesperson for the people of Canada in non-political ways, but in ways that were humane, down to earth, and humanitarian” was a “great honour.”

“I was very careful with any public discourse or critique of the government. I didn’t criticize anybody except in the most generic ways,” he says. “But what was good about the position was that I had the opportunity to visit every part of the country, to speak about issues that I wanted to speak about, and post them on my website.”

The position of poet laureate can only be held by one person for a two-year term. Every two years a new poet is welcomed into the Canadian government, and every two years the native language of that poet switches between English and French.

With his term now over, Clarke is looking forward to writing more books, plays, poems, and film scripts. He is also a full-time professor at the University of Toronto, but above all, he will be focusing on “explicating Afro-Métis identity … [and being able to] continue to articulate that and put that out there for public consumption.”

“It was so good to be invited to come here, especially this time of year,” says Clarke, about visiting KPU. “I was curious about the university, about the student body, and to experience a different audience and see what kind of support these ideas might have here.”

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