Saturday, November 3, 2012

Open Letter

To the Author(s) of the "Stop Little Saigon Designation" Petition,

While I agree that public consultation is essential before any act or designation is passed by City Hall, and acknowledge that the public consultation process that Councillor Kerry Jang promised area residents last year after council unanimously passed a motion to pursue the naming of a stretch of Kingsway "Little Saigon" did not come about (if it did, I missed it), I must take issue with the argument this petition has mounted against the "Little Saigon" project.

1) To argue that the social and cultural diversity of this stretch of Kingsway mitigates against naming it "Little Saigon" is not one that celebrates diversity but exploits it in favour of the status quo. Let us not forget that the naming of what is now Kingsway came when England's King Edward visited Vancouver in October, 1913. Not only was Kingsway named after him, but so was King Edward Boulevard, a name the Aquilinis took up for their development at the south-east corner of Knight and Kingsway (King Edward Village) -- what was once, I believe, the site of the Cedar Cottage Nursery, where a diverse mix of plants were sold to those who built the houses that many of us live in today.

What also came to pass -- this time in advance of King Edward's visit -- was the removal of the Khat-Sah-Lano village under what is now the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge. While I would never argue that the Cedar Cottage Nursery was complicit in the removal of this First Nations village, the Cedar Cottage Nursery is historically contemporaneous with it and the attitudes of the day. This is not to say that I want to see the name Cedar Cottage removed, only that the name belongs to a past that, like "Little Saigon", does not reflect the diversity of the current area.

2) Like the "Little Saigon" naming project, "diversity" is the result of a similar naming process -- an update of what was once called "multiculturalism." For those who remember the 1970s and 80s, Multiculturalism was an official federal policy, a department under both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments and a key to Canada's immigration policy. Although heavily critiqued and eventually discarded (as official policy), Canadian Multiculturalism provided this country's citizens with a number of positive lessons, one of which -- the one I divined -- goes like this: if in a country dominated by one culture (mostly English speakers of European descent), then there should be provision for another individual culture to be celebrated -- not above the others but supported by them.

It is in this spirit that I have no problem naming a stretch of Kingsway to reflect a particular ethnic community. However, unless this naming comes about properly, through public consultation, it has the potential to create a negative feeling, and no one wants that. (On that note, let me add that the leaders within the Vietnamese-Canadian community that support this naming have already created a negative feeling within the very community they claim to speak for by focusing their celebration not on all of Vietnam but on the southern part of the country -- hence, "Little Saigon", and not "Little Hanoi" or, even more apropos, "Little Vietnam".)

Finally, let me say that I am thankful I live in a country where initiatives put forth by a community can be taken seriously by local government; where petitions such as the one put forth by the "Stop Little Saigon Designation" author(s) can be allowed to circulate without censure; and where I can speak as both an empathetic and critical subject to an issue that, while philosophically supportive of it, must happen in a way that celebrates not only the ends but the means by which all good decisions are made.

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