A Cree woman says she felt sadness, shock and fear after having racist remarks and threats yelled at her for several minutes from a group of elementary school students in Chibougamau, in northern Quebec.
Paula Menarik filed an official complaint with the school board in question and met with Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr on Wednesday afternoon.
Menarik said she was called a pig, asked if she was an alcoholic, and was threatened with being shot and sworn at for more than five minutes on Tuesday afternoon outside École Vatican II elementary school near her home. The school is part of the Centre de services scolaire de la Baie-James school board.
Some of what she endured was captured on video and has been verified via Zoom by CBC North.
"It was so hurtful and I couldn't believe it, that this was coming from children. They were like nine- to 12-year-olds," said Menarik, who has lived in Chibougamau for many years and is from the largest of the Cree communities, Chisasibi.
Taking photos of beadwork
Menarik is an avid beader of Cree, Inuk, Quebecois and French heritage. On Tuesday, she had taken a break from her work and headed out to take some photos of some earrings she had recently finished.
She went to a small, picturesque pond near the school. The bell rang and students poured outside. She could hear them in the school yard, but didn't immediately realize they were yelling at her.
"I was really in the zone. It was the golden hour … I was really happy and doing what I love," said Menarik, who was working remotely from home because she is pregnant. After several minutes she realized the children were hurling swear words, threats and racist stereotypes at her.
"The first one I really remember was, 'You F-*%/*ing pig. Are you an alcoholic? Do you drink beer? What kind of beer do you drink?' They're yelling really mean stuff at me … and swear words," said Menarik, adding a least one child was threatening to kill her and shoot her with a 'sniper gun.' There was also a threat to 'burn her black cat.' The comments were in French.
There were grown-ups in the school yard at the time, says Menarik.
"I'm wondering how come the teachers aren't saying anything? Can't they hear this? Like those kids are right beside the school and I'm quite a few meters away from the school out in the bush," she said.
The whole experience has left her feeling triggered, recalling earlier and consistent experiences with racism growing up in the territory.
"It really made me feel unsafe … if the children are saying stuff like this, what are their parents saying to them at home or amongst each other?" said Menarik.
Menarik posted about the verbal attack on social media Tuesday and was invited to meet with the mayor of Chibougamau, Manon Cyr, on Wednesday afternoon.
Cyr says she has absolutely "zero tolerance" for racism and said the whole incident is a stark reminder of how important ongoing educational efforts are. She intends to follow-up on the matter once the school board has carried out its investigation.
"For me … for the people of Chibougamau, it's something that is unacceptable. We cannot tolerate racist or xenophobic comments anywhere, but especially not in our school yards," said Cyr, who also encouraged Menarik to file a complaint and accompanied her to the school board offices and helped her through the process.
"For me it was important that she knows what her rights are," said Cyr, adding she encourages anyone who feels they are mistreated to reach out to the Chibougamau Eenou Friendship Centre or to her directly.
Menarik has a video recording of the children in the last minute they were yelling at her, but she said they stopped pretty quickly once they realized she was filming.
She also has audio of several insults and racist comments before she realized what was happening, because her iPhone photo setting was on "live," which records several seconds after each picture is taken.
Menarik said she approached an adult in the school yard, who identified himself as the principal. She told him exactly what the children had been yelling at her and that she had a video of some of the insults.
Menarik said the principal showed no interest in seeing the video, but did apologize to her and explained the children thought she had been setting a fire.
"He was gaslighting me, making me feel that I was the one doing something wrong and it was OK for these children to yell at me in the most disrespectful way. I couldn't believe it," she said.
CBC North reached out to the principal and to the school, but did not hear back.
Curtis Bosum, the chief of the Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou, said it was the part of Menarik's Facebook post where she described her exchange with the principal that impacted him.
He reached out to Mayor Cyr, who he described as a colleague and a friend, to discuss what had happened.
"We try to create harmony, but such harsh words from children it's surprising and it's concerning. I have zero tolerance for racism or any type of bullying," said Bosum, adding mayor Cyr echoed his feelings.
'We have to reach out'
For her part, Menarik said she has accepted the apology from the principal and doesn't want to make anyone look bad, including the students, the school, nor the town of Chibougamau.
She went public with what happened in the hopes that an extremely negative experience can be turned into a positive. She hopes to see more cultural, historical and bridge-building activities between the Cree and non-Indigenous people who live in Eeyou Istchee, the traditional name to the Cree territory.
"There's going to be Cree people here today, tomorrow and in the future. We're still going to be here … We have to reach out one person at a time."