Community leaders in Kenora, Ont., are rallying to support First Nations individuals who say they are being denied services from businesses in town after a COVID-19 outbreak in a surrounding community.
Tania Cameron, a First Nations community advocate in the area, said she’s received complaints from nine people from Wabaseemoong First Nation who allege that some local businesses have refused them service.
Wabaseemoong, about 100 kilometres north of Kenora, was hit with a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this month, infecting several households. Kenora is a hub for dozens of rural and First Nations communities in the area that travel to the small city for essential services such as shopping and health care.
Ms. Cameron is organizing support to those who want to pursue action such as filing formal complaints to the police and Ontario human-rights tribunal. She said her own teenage children feel unsafe shopping in town, worried that others might think they’re infected with COVID-19 because they’re First Nations.
Facebook posts began to circulate last week with allegations that people from Wabaseemoong were spitting on produce at local grocery stores.
One post to the local Kenora Rant N Rave Facebook group said that people from the First Nation didn’t care about small local businesses trying to survive. The poster said they were infecting innocent people who “actually” work for a living.
Ms. Cameron shared that screenshot and another one on her own Facebook page, calling the posters “garbage people with ugly hearts” and encouraging others to “rise above their hate.”
She said she was later contacted by an Ontario Provincial Police officer who asked her to take the screenshot down because the person who posted the comment and her employer were receiving threats.
Ms. Cameron says she was only bringing attention to the harmful damage racism has on the broader community, and that there was nothing in her own posts that incited hate or violence. She says she hasn’t deleted the screenshots but has since removed the names and photos so they aren’t identifiable.
Inspector Jeff Duggan, Kenora OPP Detachment Commander, told The Globe and Mail that allegations that people from Wabaseemoong were spitting on produce were false and baseless. He said the original poster took down the post before she contacted police because she was receiving threats and realized it was harmful.
The treatment of Wabaseemoong members has drawn condemnation. On Monday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller took to Twitter to denounce “ignorant and bigoted behaviour from certain businesses and organizations in Kenora, as well as online.”
People from across the province shared positive messages and support on social media for Wabaseemoong, using the hashtag #wabaseemoongstrong, in response to the community’s COVID-19 outbreak and the racism that followed. More than 50 people were infected at the onset of the outbreak and the community went into immediate lockdown, according to information posted to the Wabaseemoong website.
In response to one of the Facebook posts, local community-services organization Firefly condemned what it called “an act of racism” from one of its employees. Firefly said the company was heartbroken to see the racially insensitive and offensive comment posted by the employee who also had their workplace identified.
Insp. Duggan said police are concerned for the safety of everybody in the area, including those from Wabaseemoong, and that if they are being denied service they should contact police to investigate.
“If they’re being denied service, that’s against the human-rights code,” Insp. Duggan said, adding that they haven’t received any complaints from anyone from Wabaseemoong.
Ms. Cameron says many First Nations people in the area don’t trust the police to investigate racist encounters and consider police action a privilege not afforded to Indigenous people.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission also issued a statement encouraging all Kenora residents to stand up to the racism in their community, advising that “discriminatory action against individuals who are Indigenous or who have, or are perceived to have, COVID-19 is a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code.”
Terence Douglas, a Kenora lawyer, is part of an ad hoc group of concerned citizens, lawyers and service providers that have come together recently to assist those who have been denied service because they’re from Wabaseemoong, including possibly filing applications to the human-rights tribunal.
“Clearly upon its face, refusal of service based on a person’s race or place of origin is contrary to and denies a person’s right guaranteed under Section 1 [of the human-rights code], and is an affront to a person’s human dignity,” Mr. Douglas said in an e-mail.
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