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'Redneck' region writes own script Add to ...

To big-city ears, it can seem strangely quiet around Francis Pitia's apartment, considering where it sits -- in downtown Kitchener, the heart of a busy and growing region of a half-million souls.

At noon hour on a workday, there is little of the roar that typifies Toronto, and therefore no need to raise one's voice to be heard.

"Right now, I still have pain," says Mr. Pitia, 33, "but after that is gone, I still am normal, like before."

Mr. Pitia, a black Sudanese with a disabled right leg, is referring to the pain he still carries from the disquieting night of July 15, when he was set upon by a pack of young white thugs in the park across the street from his home. For no apparent reason, they came at him and two friends, hurling punches, kicks and racial slurs. They even beat him unconscious with his own crutch.

Had the attack happened in Toronto, it would have been safe to expect a swift round of public denunciations from police, politicians and community leaders, delivered at a news conference before the day and news cycle ended.

In Kitchener, despite extensive local media coverage, there was no such formal response, and little apparent demand for any within the community.

To those who don't know the area, the lack of official sound and fury could be mistaken for inaction, or worse, indifference. To those who do, it's typical of a region that has, from its earliest days as an enclave for German Mennonite farmers, valued quiet diligence over public horn-blowing.

"It's sort of like Canada on the world stage -- unassuming, intelligent, efficient and making a real difference," says Kenneth McLaughlin, chair of the history department at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, who has written extensively on the area. "I think two incidents in the last decade hardly constitute a reason to overreact."

Dr. McLaughlin is referring to Mr. Pitia's recent beating and the 2001 slaying of Howard Joel Munroe, a young black man, by members of a white youth gang.

While other crimes with a racial component have been reported in that time, they have been few and none have been violent.

Both the Pitia and Munroe cases drew the attention of Dudley Laws, the firebrand black activist from Toronto, who called Kitchener "redneck country" in a Globe and Mail story about the latest attack.

After Mr. Munroe's death, Mr. Laws made several appearances in the Kitchener area, where he suggested police were dragging their feet in the investigation because Mr. Munroe was black and his assailants white. This, however, drew a rebuke from local multicultural officials, who essentially told Mr. Laws to butt out.

"This is not Toronto. . . . You don't start throwing stones at our police department," Myrta Rivera, executive director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre, told the local Record newspaper at the time. "If they are to be thrown, it should be by us."

As it turned out, a massive investigation yielded three convictions, including a life sentence. And all the while it was plodding along, black community leaders were meeting quietly with police to strengthen relations and create new programs for youth.

Lauris DaCosta, president of the Caribbean Canadian Association of Waterloo Region, wrote a long thank-you letter to the police, published in the Record last month.

"While the community has been patient and publicly silent, it is appropriate, at this time, to say a public thank you to [Police Chief Larry]Gravill and his staff," Ms. DaCosta wrote. "He and his team actively listened and were not defensive."

Viewed in that light, Mr. Laws's incursions leave "a lot of frustration" with local residents, Dr. McLaughlin says. They also belie the area's experience with multiculturalism, historically and recently.

Settled by German Mennonite pioneers from Pennsylvania in the early 19th century, Kitchener, then called Berlin, was a magnet for subsequent German immigration, and evolved in a culturally distinct way from the British-dominated neighbouring towns of Southern Ontario.

Its factories, though abundant and diverse, were smaller and their owners more likely to live and work alongside their employees, Dr. McLaughlin says. There was less unionization, less class distinction and "people worked together for the benefit of the community" rather than as competitors for wealth.

"I know that sounds a bit pompous," he says, "but it comes out in the history."

Its economy has averted both deep depression and overheating throughout its history, although high-tech companies such as BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion are eclipsing traditional manufacturing in prominence. In the 2001 census, Waterloo Region had the fifth-highest concentration of immigrants in the country.

Crime rates, meanwhile, have traditionally been lower and are currently dropping faster than the national average -- which makes the beating of Mr. Pitia all the more repugnant to residents.

In his apartment last week, Jim Reusser and his wife, Helen, herself a direct descendant of the region's earliest pioneers, expressed shame over the attack, but also quiet resolve to help prevent its recurrence.

They belong to the Waterloo North Mennonite Church, and befriended Mr. Pitia soon after he arrived in Kitchener three years ago.

"This is a wonderful community, and we like to believe that everyone cares for everyone," Mr. Reusser says. "In most cases they do, but there are always others who aren't that way."

After last Sunday's church service, more than 60 congregants stuck around to discuss a response to the attack, which the Reussers say will be forthcoming in due time.

Meanwhile, a 22-year-old transient, Lacie Bradley, was denied bail last week on assault and robbery charges stemming from the incident. Police expect more arrests.

Inspector Bryan Larkin, executive officer to the chief, called the beating "a societal reminder that we don't live in a perfect world and there's still work to be done" to prevent racial intolerance, despite considerable efforts already under way. This includes the force's role in a joint effort by 10 Southern Ontario police services, including Toronto's, to share intelligence about hate crimes and extremist groups.

Waterloo Region officers also attend all local citizenship ceremonies in an effort to build trust and assure new Canadians that police are there to help.

"Our methods sometimes are a little bit different," Insp. Larkin says. "We may not be front and centre, but behind the scenes, we're reaching out."

areinhart@globeandmail.com

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