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Politician breaks down over blackface photo

Politician breaks down over blackface photoNova Scotia Liberal MLA Joachim Stroink makes an emotional statement as he addresses a news conference in Halifax on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013. Stroink had tweeted a photo of himself sitting on the lap of a blackface Christmas character at a Dutch holiday event on the weekend. Stroink said the use of blackface is unacceptable and there is no place for it in the province's and in Dutch culture. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX - A Nova Scotia politician fought back tears Monday as he discussed a photo showing him sitting on the lap of a blackface Christmas character, telling the province's African community he's sorry for any offence and wants to be part of a conversation about whether Zwarte Piet has a place in the Dutch community's holiday celebrations.

Liberal member Joachim Stroink tweeted the picture of himself and his wife at a Dutch Christmas event Sunday in Halifax, which he said he has attended for several years to mark the start of the holiday season. After receiving some criticism, he deleted the photo from his Twitter account and apologized Monday for any offence he caused.

"I do acknowledge that that whole blackface culture, there is no place for that in Nova Scotia, nor in our (Dutch) culture as well," he said at a news conference.

"There was no malicious intent whatsoever. This is a Dutch tradition that I grew up with and never ever in my deepest heart, ever thought that this would be portrayed in this manner."

The picture showed a smiling Stroink sitting on the lap of Zwarte Piet, or "Black Pete," a Dutch character who has been at the centre of debate in the Netherlands.

"Giving some love to Zwarte Piet and Sinterklass (sic) thank you to the Dutch Community for putting this event on," Stroink tweeted.

A traditional song refers to the character as a "servant" to the elderly St. Nicholas, but in recent years those references have largely been replaced with the idea that he is black from chimney soot as he scrambles down to deliver toys and sweets for children who leave their shoes out overnight.

Stroink was on the verge of tears as he discussed how difficult it has been to deal with the reaction to the photo and why he got into politics.

"It's been incredibly hard," he said. "I didn't sign up for this. I did this because I wanted to better Nova Scotia."

Stroink said he met with Tony Ince, a black member of the legislature and the minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, to discuss the tradition and he wants to be part of a discussion to determine its future.

"I don't know what that character is going to look like in the future," Stroink added. "I don't know if he's part of it or not here in Nova Scotia."

Ince said while he was disappointed the incident happened, the fallout provides an opportunity to talk about the issues surrounding certain cultural traditions and how they might affect others.

"I think in order for us to move forward we have to look at traditions overall," said Ince. "Traditions aren't static. Traditions can be changed."

The photo, screen grabs of which were making the rounds on social media, generated instant condemnation on Twitter, with many saying Stroink should have recognized the sensitivity around the image despite its cultural significance in the Dutch community.

"It is, frankly, astonishing that a politician would not know about black face, regardless of Sinterklaas tradition," one person wrote.

"Traditions are also a great way to spread racist sentiment," said another.

Kyley Harris, the director of communications for Premier Stephen McNeil, said the image showed a "great error in judgment, given his role as an elected representative" and should not have been posted.

Harris said an official in the party retweeted the photo after seeing a small version of it on a Blackberry without fully understanding what it was.

Werner van der Velden, one of the organizers of Sunday's event, said no one thought twice about including the character in the annual celebration.

"It's something that's been going on forever, basically," he said in an interview.

He said this year will likely be Black Pete's last in Halifax and he believes others will soon stop using the character as well.

"I think in the next few years there will be no such thing as a Black Pete anymore," van der Velden said. "People see it as politically incorrect."

Stroink was elected for the first time in the provincial election in October, winning the riding of Halifax Chebucto. The owner of an outdoor adventure store in Halifax was a high-profile candidate, winning a riding long held by the NDP.

In the Netherlands, people have held protests against "Black Pete," a clown-like figure that traditionally leaves cookies, chocolate and other treats for children in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Opponents say the character — a servant who wears blackface makeup, red lipstick and frizzy "Afro" wigs — are racist caricatures and should be banned. Others say he is a positive figure of fun and that the dissent is a sign of political correctness gone overboard.

The debate intensified this year after it emerged that cultural experts with the United Nations were examining whether the tradition is racist.

Verene Shepherd of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said on Dutch TV she "does not understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery, and that in the 21st century this practice should stop."

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