By Guest Writer, Allison Hunter-Frederick
One of the pivotal moments for me happened back when I attended a college in the Southern States. While the laws which forbade interracial marriage no longer existed, the societal norms which opposed it still did exist in certain circles. Enough that interracial dating felt like an issue, one that made anyone involved in it or witnessing it to feel uncomfortable. Worse, when this prejudice was carried to greater extremes, one would even hear questions about whether blacks should work with or otherwise interact with whites. Suddenly, I began to understand the Civil Rights movement was about more than history. The movement helped ensure the rights to freedom existed legally, even when society wasn’t always ready to fully embrace it.
Prejudice: their problem or ours?
Of course, the Southern States were a fair distance from Newfoundland. Despite my attending college there, perhaps it was still a case of events happening elsewhere. In fact, when I tried talking about it with some of my peers in my home province, they dismissed my concerns: “We have black friends. No one is prejudiced here.” Could this be true? Was Newfoundland really free from prejudice?
When my dad decided to marry a woman from the Philippines, I heard criticisms about interracial marriage. No one actually went so far as to call it wrong, but some did question his wisdom in marrying someone of another color. That bothered me, because it represented the smoldering of societal pressure. And societal pressure can often be as strong as the legal restrictions that government can put on freedom.
And let’s not forget that Newfoundland no longer has any of its own natives. While disease certainly played a factor in the extermination of the Beothuck, so too did harassment and outright murder. Once again, I could dismiss this travesty as being part of history and thus far removed from me. Except when I asked adults about why they had reservations, the answers included disparaging remarks about alcoholism, drug abuse, and laziness. Prejudice lay on my own doorstep too and it limited the freedom of anyone who wasn’t considered equal.
Not long after I returned from college in the united States, I enrolled in a desktop publishing program at our town’s community college. Girls and guys worked right along next to each other. To my knowledge, none of us ever thought anything different about one another because of our gender–except if one of us were inclined to pursue a romance with a classmate. After graduation all of that changed, however, for reasons which might surprise you. I still remember the outrage and confusion I felt as I sat next to the top two students in our class. Everyone recognized them as that. But they were being turned down for jobs in their field. No because they were women. But because they were men.
You see, the government was offering incentives to employers who offered women jobs. No doubt, it was in the name of rectifying wrings done against women. While I can appreciate the spirit behind the law, I still felt outraged and confused. Our class consisted of a mix of genders. We should have all gotten an equal chance at jobs. Yet all the jobs were going to the women in the class, not because of our skills, but because of our gender. Sometimes equality laws are the only ways in which change happens, and so there is an important place for them, but yet that day as I heard the news I wanted desperately to know that the job I next obtained would be based solely on my skills. That felt like the truest freedom to me.
The third example of a personal experience which I’ll share involves denominational schools. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this part of Newfoundland’s history, until 1997, my province operated separate denominational schools for Roman Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals. There was also an integrated system which oversaw the schooling for children of families in other mainstream Protestant denominations. All of these schools received grants from the provincial government for the operation.
Denominational schools came most under fire in the 1990s, when the provincial government decided a public school system would be more economical. Every Newfoundlander had an opinion about the rightness or wrongness of this action. Some felt the government shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with education. Ironically, this was a reason both for and against denominational schools. Government interference meant that the Christian teachers were obliged to teach evolution and sex education. Yet if Newfoundland lost its denominational schools, how long would it take before we also lost the right to assemble together in worship, carry Bibles, and pray in school? Some parents wished to keep their children, at least in their earliest years, sheltered from the negative influences of the secular world. Other adults felt that it was high time for Christian youth to face the challenges of living out their faith in a less sheltered environment.
Ultimately, I landed on the side of those who wrote letters to the Royal Commission of Education with the hopes of convincing them that denomination education was best. After all, I had appreciated knowing that my teachers and even the majority of my peers adhered to beliefs similar to mine. I treasured getting to write about my faith in our school publications. I even liked going to assemblies which at times resembled church. By the time I became an adult, I’d worked through many issues with my faith within the comforting walls of a school where being Christian was the norm. I wanted that for my siblings, but it was not to be.
To this day, I don’t know what the best answer was. Obviously, the Newfoundland government had to think first about financial concerns. I know that other tough decisions have been made over the years such as merging various small towns together, which eliminated their unique identities but at the same time decreased their operation costs. Although I understand why the government had to close schools, sadly, the result is children no longer have a denominational school.