When Joanne St. Lewis wrote a critical evaluation of a student racism project, she could not have known the grief it would cause. And certainly not the years it would take to finally erase the racial slur that accompanied her name in every online search.
It began six years ago, and continues today in spite of an Ontario Superior Court decision in June. The decision found an Ottawa blogger had defamed St. Lewis by attaching a racial epithet meaning to "sell out," stemming from the black slave experience, to her name.
St. Lewis, a University of Ottawa law professor, has taken steps most would find daunting. Going to court, winning a decision and now fighting an appeal.
"It's extremely expensive. It’s difficult. It’s imperfect. It’s painful. And it may not always even remotely be an opportunity or a remedy for someone," she said.
But for St. Lewis, standing up against the slur, written in a blog and repeated by others, it was a sense of duty and dignity.
"If it is my fate to be the first black Canadian so publicly defiled, then it is my hope to be the last. It was essential that no other suffer as I have," she wrote after a jury found the words used against her were defamatory.
In accordance with the court’s decision, the blog post has been removed from the internet, but the term can still be found in Google searches of her name. St. Lewis was also awarded $350,000 in damages.
"I think there’s a recklessness, a casual cruelty, a complete indifference and egotism that the internet permits," she said in an interview with CBC News.
"What it seems to do is allow people to be bullies and behave like feral pack animals on the internet to target activists."
Researcher tries to quantify online racism
There is little research to quantify the extent of online racism in Canada. Irfan Chaudhry is trying to change that. A PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta, Chaudhry is tracking Twitter for terms that would be considered racist and offensive.
With Twitter, Chaudhry is able to look at racist terms and references, and which cities they originate from. Specifically he looked at Edmonton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. He chose those cities because in 2010, they reported some of the highest rates of hate crime in the country.
His three-month study found about 750 instances he considered overt racism.
"People were tweeting about things that you’d probably want to have left in your mind," he explains.
He cites examples such as people boarding a bus or plane and tweeting: "About to board, stuck beside a --- and a --- #thanks."
Other cases were far more direct. "It was someone saying ‘I hate’ and then insert racialized group here."
He found those sorts of statements were more likely directed at aboriginal populations in Winnipeg and Edmonton, while in Toronto and Montreal, racist comments were largely aimed at people of colour.
"When you break down the amount of tweets... it kind of reflected different demographic patterns," he notes.
In Thompson, Manitoba, a community with a large aboriginal population, a local newspaper was forced to shut down its Facebook page in response to a large number of racist comments.
Lynn Taylor, general manager of the Thompson Citizen, said racist sentiments have long simmered in the community, but recently surfaced online. The tipping point came when someone posted a photoshopped picture showing the front of the newspaper’s building with racist comments painted over it..
She hopes to reopen the site next year, with better monitoring of comments before they are posted.
Other media outlets, including the CBC, closely monitor or disable comments to minimize the risk of racist material being posted.
St. Lewis said part of the problem is the medium itself.
"It allows people to behave in a way that if they did it in the bricks and mortar universe amongst flesh and blood people, we know it’s not acceptable. We know there’s legal consequence. But somehow, that piece of being virtual, that piece of being on the internet seems to give this incredible permission," she said.