Eganville – The challenging topic of racism in the Ottawa Valley came before Bonnechere Valley council last week with appeals from the mayor for more inclusivity, education and words from councillors about how accepting the community is.
“There have been so many good people in this area,” Councillor Tim Schison said last Wednesday during a ZOOM meeting of council. “I feel like they were thrown under the racial bus with some comments.”
Councillor Brent Patrick noted he had found Eganville and BV to be very welcoming, pointing out the community welcomed two Syrian families a few years ago and sponsored their first year in Canada.
“We are a very inclusive community in a lot of aspects,” he said. “I just don’t want that to get lost when you have some instances like what happened in Pembroke.”
The issue in Pembroke, where an elderly Vietnamese woman was harassed and subjected to a racially motivated assault, made national headlines in late summer. More recently a CBC series of articles about labelled Racism in the Valley has created more furor. One article focused on specific examples of people who have experienced racism in the Ottawa Valley, including Eganville. A second spoke to local mayors, including Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy, about racism in their communities. In that article the mayor encouraged residents who experience racism to reach out to her and promised to do more as a community leader to work against systemic racism.
As a follow up she brought the issue to BV council, noting she feels there is not only racism as an issue but also religious and sexual orientation bias.
“We as community leaders have a role to play in educating ourselves, our staff and residents,” she said.
The mayor said Pembroke is currently doing a Mayor’s Round Table on Diversity and the County of Renfrew is also doing an inclusivity and diversity hiring program. She said as well, there is someone in the community who offers “unconscious and implicit bias” training. She suggested to council staff look at training programs on inclusivity, racism and implicit bias. She said more information could come to council in January.
Coun. Schison said he was aware of the articles and some of the messages on social media. He said he was concerned the articles “slammed” some people in the area.
“Some of the people in our area feel they were singled out,” he said. “These people felt they were inclusive in so many ways and are trying to be.”
Having this kind of labelling as racist has brought people to tears, he said.
“It made them feel rotten about themselves, how they were included in certain groups,” he said. “They were included in a group of people they did not want to be.”
He questioned the labelling of the Ottawa Valley as racist. Labelling a whole community on a couple of bad apples doesn’t make sense, he said.
“Why are we being attacked for something we haven’t done, or we have done the exact opposite?” he said.
Mayor Murphy said she has been told some horrific stories.
“I certainly would never accuse someone of being a racist or a sexist or anything without proper proof,” she said.
Councillor Merv Buckwald pointed out some of the training is compulsory and it would be good to get started finding appropriate training.
Coun. Patrick pointed out he had received a lot of training from his days working in student housing. He said people in BV and Eganville do agree racism and racist slurs are wrong.
“The majority of people are great people and they are inclusive,” he stressed.
He added he has no issue with staff bringing back recommendations but cautioned “inclusion and diversity and unconscious bias are massive topics.”
Coun. Patrick also questioned if the Ontario Provincial Police have statistics on race motivated crimes in the detachment area and suggested that could be investigated.
CAO Annette Gilchrist said staff will look at training.
“I can look at myself and say I am inclusive and welcoming, but I probably have unconscious bias,” she said.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader