Does tradition trump all? Debate stoked over controversial Dutch character in Edmonton

Click to play video: 'Controversy surrounds a Dutch Christmas tradition in Edmonton' Controversy surrounds a Dutch Christmas tradition in Edmonton
WATCH ABOVE: 'Black Pete' is beloved by some in the Dutch community but others are denouncing the traditional character as racist. As Shallima Maharaj reports, it's a conversation now being had in Edmonton. – Dec 4, 2016

A Dutch holiday staple is stoking debate about whether some traditions need to change or end altogether.

While Santa Claus flanked by a throng of hardworking elves is synonymous with Christmas in North America, it is the image of Sinterklaas and a cluster of men in pre-colonial garb and blackface that is drawing major criticism.

Zwarte Piet – or ‘Black Pete,’ as he is also known – is a character grounded in folklore. He is the assistant to Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus. Both have origins tied to Saint Nicholas.

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“He’s a bishop and he had one assistant that was a moor,” Frank Stolk said, president of the Dutch Canadian Club.

“He comes every year in the Netherlands on a big steamboat full of Black Peters now. And the multiplication of Black Peter came in right after the Second World War.”

Stolk says while he is aware of the controversy caused by Zwarte Piet, the practice is not meant to offend anyone. Instead, he says it is a part of their history and culture.

“If that is your culture – you’re a vegetarian, that’s your culture. Why should I criticize that? If you wear a turban or you wear a niqab, it is your culture. I have no say. I respect that. That’s what Canada is all about,” he said.

READ MORE: Protest against Dutch holiday tradition that has Santa’s helpers resemble slaves

A viewer email Global Edmonton received took issue with a local Dutch bakery welcoming Black Pete to its storefront location.

“It’s meant as a family festivity to celebrate with the children and the spirit of giving,” Siebe Koopman said, the owner of Dutch Delicious.

The bakery has been open for roughly a decade now.

“As long as we’ve been open, we’ve been doing this.”

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Holland-born Koopman added: “In Holland actually for a while they didn’t do it and it was in war time when there was just nothing around, so there was no reason for giving and now that times are good, this is a fun festivity.”

Whether that tradition must come to an end has become a burning question. Protests have sprung up in parts of Europe.

READ MORE: Dutch court sidesteps debate on ‘Black Pete’ as racist stereotype

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a report in August 2015 on the subject of Sinterklaas and Black Pete, addressing the Netherlands.

It reads in part: “the Committee notes with concern that the character of Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.”

It goes on to say: “Considering that even a deeply-rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes, the Committee recommends that the State party actively promote the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes.”

Make It Awkward founder Jesse Lipscombe does not agree with the argument that tradition trumps racism.

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“You know what else was a longstanding tradition? Slavery. But it offends people,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s a good excuse to say ‘hey listen, this is a longstanding tradition, we don’t want to offend people, so don’t be offended.’ As it turns out, some things that have been tradition for a long time offend the crap out of people.”

Lipscombe is encouraging people to look into why the idea of blackface is disrespectful to black people.

“And then if you still think it’s a good idea – which I feel the vast majority of people wouldn’t – then go ahead and rock out your stupid Black Pete outfit.”

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