The events of Charlottesville, Virginia a couple of weeks ago concerned everyone no matter how far away they live. Even across the border. But hey, this is Canada, and there’s nobody that racist in the Great White North, and certainly not in Guelph, right?
Tell that to the Aurora family. They’re all natural born Guelphites, but because of the colour of their skin, they found themselves the butt of racist insults at a Guelph store according to a video produced by Spoke, a video news series put together by Conestoga Journalism students.
And while you’re at it, tell that to Yasamin Zia. She and her friends were shopping at the Stone Road Walmart back in February when a cashier demanded to see their I.D. to prove their citizenship. That cashier was fired, but the matter received regional, if not national, coverage, and hardly saw Guelph displayed is its best light.
After that, head over to Seventh-Day Adventist Church and tell it to Pastor Selburn Fray. Racist graffiti was spray-painted on the roof of their Lane Street building sometime at the beginning of the month, and so galling was the act that the mayor issued a refute complete with City of Guelph stationary.
“It is hard to believe that something like this can happen in Guelph,” wrote Cam Guthrie. “This type of disgraceful and cowardly act has no place in our city. It cannot and will not be tolerated.”
Of course, it’s actually pretty easy to believe that it happens depending on where you’re coming from. Thanks to the power of Google, I found a report called “Racism on University Campuses” on the website of the Diversity and Human Rights office at the University of Guelph. It includes an account of one woman of colour upon arriving at the U of G:
“I have experienced an intense ‘culture shock’ upon entering the University of Guelph,” she said. “I have to either laugh or cry when I think of some of the comments of some individuals who say that Guelph is not a hotbed of racism. All of my experiences in the University would disprove this statement. In the last semester, I have faced the dehumanizing face of racism nearly every day in the faces of fellow students, administrators and faculty alike.”
This was 1992, but its questionable how much has changed in the last 25 years. In November 2015, over 100 students from the U of G marched for more and better representation for black students on campus.
“A typical day at this campus is literally being stared at … like you’re an animal at a zoo,” said one student named Emmanuel Rutayisire to 570 News who covered the protest. “You go downtown to catch the bus, [and] everybody’s turning, looking at you, watching your every move.”
Those concerns are systemic, and not easy to remedy, but there are matters of racism on campus that are almost mundane. Back in my student press days, there were occasional reports of swastikas being drawn in restrooms or the hallways and common areas of residences. Frankly, it’s not unusual to see a swastika in a bathroom stall, the only way it makes the news is when it’s a matter of frequency and concentration.
With those “everyday swastikas” it’s almost easy to write it off as the work of jerks or otherwise immature people that know they can get a rise out of decent folks by drawing a simple and direct symbol of hate on the bathroom wall. Then again, as we saw in the VICE video from Charlottesville, identifying a Nazi on site is not as easy as it used to be.
Indeed, racism has been getting harder to see in general as it’s so often couched in ordinary, almost reasonable explanations, like the desire to preserve local history and heritage a la the offending statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.
I recall a group called “Stop the Temple”, who I reported about in the very early days of Guelph Politico. They opposed the construction of the Sikh temple in the south end of the city, supposedly based on concerns of increased traffic, lighting, and that fact that the aesthetic of a Sikh religious building would not suit the pre-existing character of the neighbourhood.
Unsurprisingly though, it was statements like the following that got the lion’s share of the attention: "First its a Sikh Temple. Next it will be a Mosque. Both are violent cults and next it will be a memorial to martyrs aka terrorists. We must stop this eastern influence.”
Another commentator calling herself (himself?) Layla put things a little more directly. “[I]t seems the Sikh community is seeking to expand their community in Guelph, which is what concerns residents as this can create numerous problems since Guelph is used to being the ‘conservative,’ ‘predominantly white’ community.”
To the credit of our little ‘burb, you don’t hear a lot about groups like the Canadian Heritage Alliance or the Tri-City Skins anymore. I dug up those names from an archived Toronto Star article from 2001, along with the Royal City Skins, a skinhead group that claimed to absolutely not be racist as they enjoyed ska, reggae and soul. I doubt anyone believed that at the time, but you’d probably be hard pressed to find someone who would identify themselves as a member of the Royal City Skins now in order to test that assertion.
It’s not all terrible though. For every incident, like one in 2013 where someone spray painted "Did you bring your green card?” behind Diana’s Downtown, there’s an occasion like this past January where it seemed like the entire town came together to support Guelph’s Muslim community following the domestic terrorist attack on a mosque in Quebec City. That’s the Guelph we like to think about, the Guelph we like talk about with joyous voices around the campfire.
So yes, it’s true, the character of Guelph is not built on racism, but it be wrong to say that there are no racists in Guelph, and that they’re unlikely to stick around because of a mayoral proclamation. After all, the surprise about the “sudden” explosion of white supremacy in the U.S. comes out of a misguided belief that America, having elected a black president, was now over racism.
You can’t solve a problem by pretending it isn’t real, and the truth of the matter is that for many people in Guelph racism is still very real indeed.