One year ago, when the world first learned about COVID-19, the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a statement denouncing the harassment and scapegoating of East Asians, who were wrongly assumed to be carriers of the coronavirus. At the outset of the pandemic’s second wave, I released a statement condemning the escalating xenophobia and hate rippling across Ontario, again seemingly related to COVID-19 fear and fatigue. Regrettably, as we face an inevitable third wave filled with anxiety about highly infectious variants, discriminatory fearmongering seems to once again be in full swing and targeting some of our most vulnerable populations.
Recent ugly and disturbing events in Kenora reveal that some people are using COVID-19-related stress and insecurity as an excuse to propagate misinformation, inflame fears, stigmatize, and sow distrust toward already historically disenfranchised groups.
On February 10, 2021, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations leadership notified the public that several community members had tested positive for COVID-19. This community, located about 100 kilometres north of Kenora with a population of approximately 2,000 people, immediately went into lockdown with checkpoints and curfews. Government and some local agencies mobilized supports, and roughly 24 isolation beds were made available in Kenora for people who were unable to isolate in Wabaseemoong.
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Unfortunately, soon after this outbreak, derogatory social-media messages appeared, accusing Wabaseemoong community members of spreading the virus, and thereby exposing Wabaseemoong community members and other Indigenous peoples to further instances of racism when trying to seek services in Kenora. This divisive rhetoric blamed Wabaseemoong community members who were self-isolating in Kenora for breaking isolation rules and accused them of being lazy and not working and of infecting “innocent people” who had to work. The most outlandish claim was that Wabaseemoong community members were deliberately spitting on food in grocery stores.
These allegations are both offensive and bogus and were quickly refuted by the parent company of the two grocery stores identified in the posts. Although in circulation for only a short period of time, the posts caused significant harm to a community already dealing with tensions and distrust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, as well as coping with a COVID-19 outbreak. The OHRC has learned that the racist posts have put Indigenous peoples at further risk of abuse, violence, and surveillance in the Kenora area; there have been allegations that some commercial establishments are turning away Indigenous customers outright.
We must condemn these vile acts of discrimination. Prejudicial comment or conduct against a person because of their race or ancestry, or because the person is perceived to have COVID-19, contravenes the Ontario Human Rights Code. While obeying public-health and safety directives, store owners and service providers must treat people with respect and cannot exclude people or deny services based on stereotypes, personal biases, or misinformation.
It is clear that systemic racism deeply embedded in Canadian society is being exacerbated by fear and strife surrounding the pandemic. It also appears that physical separation and communicating through virtual means have given some people a false sense of entitlement that they can express their bigoted views as so-called issues of safety and unconvincingly veil their prejudices as public-health concerns. As evident in the hostility experienced by Wabaseemoong community members, this pressure cooker of pernicious beliefs, hate, and perceived anonymity is fanning animosity and causing real damage. COVID-19 has exposed the insidious anti-Indigenous racism that exists in parts of our province, and we all have a duty to explicitly call this out. To remain silent is to be complicit in the mistreatment.