Racism is an insidious disease that afflicts individuals, communities and societies. Untreated it can flair up and manifest in the form of physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual attacks against minorities. Peterborough, like many other communities in Canada, must confront and exorcise these crippling demons. A recent outbreak of hate crimes in the downtown vicinity has provided Peterborough residents with an opportunity to examine this problem and explore possible solutions.
The issue of racism has captured media attention as of late making the front pages of both the Peterborough Examiner and Peterborough This Week. On June 18 two local men, one a visible minority, were attacked by a group of men. The attack, which was preceded by the yelling of racial slurs, left one victim with cuts and scrapes to his head, a swollen eye, and a broken jaw. The other victim had cuts, scrapes, black eyes, a bruised jaw and a concussion. The police consider the attack a hate crime and arrested Kristopher Italiano for assault.
Although the papers made a laudable effort in reporting the hate crimes they did little to address the underlying issues that led to the attacks. “How have [the attackers] reached a point in their life where they feel it is acceptable yell homophobic or ethnic slurs?” queries Sarah Lamble, who has taken an active role in informing and educating the Trent and Peterborough communities about racist and homophobic activities in the downtown area. Lamble feels as a community we need to be looking at prevention instead of dealing with the crimes after the fact. “In my interview with Peterborough This Week, I kept on talking about prevention yet there was nothing about it in the article.”
According to Sergeant Rob Messacar of the Peterborough Lakefield Community Police Service there were 12 reported hate crimes last year and 5 so far this year. “Whether that’s a statistical anomaly or whether that’s par for the course, I can’t answer that.” Messacar points out there is probably not a community in the world that does not deal with racism and homophobia and emphasizes the community’s reaction to the crimes as a testament to its character. “I think it speaks well for the community that the community’s shocked by these kind of allegations,” says Messacar. “I think that the actual number [of hate crimes] we have are small and as far as cases reported to us, I think it speaks well for the community.”
Mayor Sylvia Sutherland believes racism and homophobia reflect negatively on any individual or community “I think Peterborough generally speaking, there are incidents here; we know that. There were incidents I suspect I didn’t know about when I grew up in a little town called Midland,” says Sutherland. “It reflects negatively when it happens. I think the attempts to be an open community reflect positively, so it’s a mixed bag. But if you are a victim of this sort of prejudice then you’re certainly going to feel uncomfortable and negative in any community in which you find yourself.
Ron Zinck, coordinator at Community and Race Relations of Peterborough compares the recent racist attacks in Peterborough to a canary in the mine “You can’t see the gas but you know it’s there when the canary dies.”
Zinck cites a lack of interaction between the various communities within Peterborough as one root cause of the problem. “Peoples’ opinions are not as enlightened or developed because they may not have the experience of working with someone on a day to day basis.”
Ziysah Markson, a Settlement Counselor with the New Canadians Centre, believes there is a lack of education about the cultures where people come from. “A lot of people ask me where I work, and when I tell them the New Canadians Centre they’ve never heard it before. ‘Really? There’s a place like that in Peterborough? Are there a lot of newcomers in Peterborough?’” recounts Markson. “People have this idea that Peterborough is a very Christian white community, and in some respects it is – that’s who has the power in this community, but there are more and more newcomers.”
According to Carmella Valles, Executive Director of the New Canadians Centre, there are between 43 and 45 nationalities represented in Peterborough. “I think 5% are visible minorities so relative to its size that’s quite significant.”
Like many other towns, Peterborough has a long history of racism, and much of it is not accurately represented in local history. Zinck cites a recent article in a local newspaper that chronicled the history of a Chinese restaurant that has been on George Street for several generations. What the article did not contain, however, were the struggles faced by the family. “As a culture we have amnesia about [racism]… there was a racist petition in the 1920s to prevent them from getting a business license. However, there were some fair minded people on city council.”
Zinck identifies a lack of funding as a major challenge. “Very few resources are put in locally for and prevention on race ethnicity and diversity. We have a very small budget from the city.”
A large problem such as systemic racism is not easily eradicated but many feel education and dialogue between communities are the best solutions.
“No child is born as a bigot. No child is born as a racist. No child is born as a homophobic. You have to learn those things,” says Sutherland. “And I don’t think municipal government has the answers to all of this. I think collectively as a society beginning with how we raise children and our educational system, that’s where you begin.”
Markson admits that preventing racial discrimination and racism is a really long term project. “That’s why we have people talk more about addressing it after it happens, or treating the criminal. They are sort of band-aid solutions that are easy things to do immediately. In terms of changing attitudes in Peterborough, that will take a really long time and I think the way to do it is education and connection.”
Lesley Harries-Jones of Victim Services at the Peterborough Lakefield Police thinks that people need to speak out about racism. “If people see incidents that are perhaps race related or hate related people have to be challenged to speak about that. just because it isn’t happening to you it doesn’t mean there isn’t something for you to do.” she states that support expressed by individuals that would not be targeted by a hate crime lends validity and courage to individuals who are potential targets. “To lend support by being vocal, by identifying what people are seeing giving incredible courage for someone who can’t walk away from the reality that when they walk down the street they could be subject to name calling.”
When racism or homophobia does manifest itself as violence, attacks victims are encouraged by police to come forward. Messacar emphasizes the police department’s commitment to tackling hate crimes. “We partnered our initiative with many community groups and certainly are always looking for other partnerships to form but our greatest tool in combating these types of offences is simply to partner with the community itself and have people who have been victimized by this to realise we do take these offenses very seriously, and to come forward and assist us in helping them from reoccurring in the future.
Harries-Jones echoes this statement. She envisions a community where targeted groups and individuals would not fear coming to the police, but instead would be one of the first things they do after a hate crime. “If we do not know about the situations that are occurring there is no way we can assist in transforming and changing the reality of targeted groups. The fear of what could happen, of what might happen.”