The Fix: Bus ads anger Ottawa's Chinese community

With the Oct. 22 municipal election just days away, CBC Ottawa's All In A Day is collecting listeners' municipal gripes — and also seeking solutions.

The show invited eight listeners to share stories about a specific time they've felt the City of Ottawa let them down, from an over-proliferation of potholes to missing sidewalks at bus stops.

Their stories were gathered Oct. 3 at a pop-up community event called The Fix, hosted by CBC Radio's Alan Neal.

Amy Yee of the Chinese Canadian Collective is unimpressed with bus shelter advertisements in Chinatown. The Chinese-language ads for the Rideau Carleton Raceway & Casino are aimed directly at Ottawa's Asian community, and Yee said that's disappointing.

"The bus ad had both Chinese characters and English on the sign and it portrayed an East Asian woman with the stereotypical geisha kind of look," she said. "Every shelter had a very similar ad, and the first time I saw them I kind of stopped in my tracks."

Yee said OC Transpo should never have approved the ads.

"It has been approved by the city, and that is saying the city is OK with this depiction of East Asian women."

Rideau Carleton Raceway

The city has advertising standards, but Yee said the ads somehow passed inspection.

"They have these standards, but they're obviously not abiding by them."

On Wednesday, All In A Day gave each of the four municipal candidates in Somerset ward 90 seconds to respond to Yee's concerns.

Jerry Kovacs, Merdod Zopyrus and Catherine McKenney answered during the show, while candidate Arthur David submitted his response via email.

Here's some of what they had to say. Their answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Jerry Kovacs

There are issues of systemic racism in our community that I, as your councillor and a human rights lawyer, have a moral obligation to address, and this is one of them.

As an OC Transpo user, I have seen for many years ads that have generated complaints from the community. My job as your councillor is to help our community be empowered, to speak out and navigate the system.

We need to have solutions in place to proactively avoid offending people in the first place. How do we do that? We use common sense. We demonstrate cultural sensitivity. We ask the question, 'How would I feel if I was in that position?'

We encourage and promote inclusion that reflects the multicultural and multi-ethnic heritage and nature of our community.

All the people I have talked to during the last four months, they want to be heard. As a human rights lawyer, I will be an effective ally for the people who feel frustrated that their voice and concerns have not been heard by city hall.

Catherine McKenney

We have heard from many groups many times about the standards that OC Transpo has and the ads. In the case of this ad in particular, it is particularly egregious.

We know what systemic racism does. We know that it is that implicit messaging that continues to perpetuate racist beliefs, and it prevents people from having the same access.

We don't have to look much further than our own council table to see that we don't reflect the community very well.

I agree with Amy entirely. We knew when the raceway was being expanded that there were going to be problems. [Ottawa] Public Health warned us about those problems.

What we are seeing now is added on to that, that racist notion. I believe that the raceway owes, and the city owes, the Chinese community an apology.

Merdod Zopyrus

I think the problem actually stems from the fact that the committee, or the person who oversees the approval process of these ads, they are just not sensitive enough.

If you show this to an East Asian person or any immigrant for that matter, not only does it frustrate them, it's painful. And I know this first-hand.

You have a city that is very diverse, very multicultural, but if you look at the council or city staff, we are all being represented by white, middle-aged men. We need to step up and run for these seats, run for office and be part of the solution.

We need to have more of the minorities step up and run for office.

Arthur David

My point of view on this issue ... is that this ad should not have been approved by OC Transpo.

OC Transpo should uphold and protect against unacceptable depictions or portrayals in advertisements as outlined in their own advertising standards. I am sorry to hear Ms. Yee and others in the Chinese community were made to feel that way due to those depictions.

My hope is that the city takes proactive measures to remove these ads and take responsibility for them as well.