Dundas moms band together to battle racist graffiti with scrub brushes

When swastikas and racist slurs were scrawled across the schoolyard at St. Bernadette Catholic Elementary over the weekend a group of Dundas women didn't hesitate to take action.

Police say they're investigating the offensive words as a hate crime

Celia Rothenberg stands near the spot at St. Bernadette Catholic Elementary where she found racist graffiti over the weekend. (Dan Taekema/CBC News)

Celia Rothenberg and her husband took a familiar shortcut through the schoolyard of St. Bernadette Catholic Elementary this weekend and found themselves confronted by messages of hate.

Scrawled across doors and the blacktop in yellow chalk were swastikas and swear words, along with racial and anti-Semitic slurs.

While the words were obviously offensive, Rothenberg, a Jewish Studies professor at McMaster University, says her first reaction wasn't surprise.

"Was I shocked and horrified? Horrified? Yes. Shocked? No," she said. That's because Jewish and black people have long been targets of hate, especially in the current social climate where statistics show the number of hate incidents targeting those two groups continue to rise.

Moms react right away

Rothenberg says she wasn't content to let the words stand. She knew something had to be done.

"It's terrible," the professor explained. "It's obviously a double-whammy when that kind of thing is on a school playground just waiting for kids to come and be exposed."

Unsure of the best course of action, she logged on to Facebook and posted some pictures of the graffiti in a group called Dundas Moms Network.

She describes what happens next as "absolutely amazing."

Everybody just wanted it gone. Nobody wanted to wait for someone else to do it.- Celia Rothenberg

Three or four other moms agreed the offensive words needed to go. In no time at all they joined her out at the school yard, scrub brushes and "great big gallon jugs of water" in hand.

"I felt extremely supported," said Rothenberg.

Katharine Spencer was one of the moms who answered the call to come clean up.

She grabbed some sponges and water and walked over to the school to "minimize the distress" the graffiti could cause, knowing she wouldn't want her kids to see those words.

"The longer it stays up the more it can possibly give ideas to other people to join in," Spencer explained.

A skimmed down section of a slide at the Veterans Memorial Park playground is the only sign of the swastika that was carved into it. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Sajah Stiller came along too.

She says she felt just commenting on Facebook about how hateful and hurtful the graffiti was wasn't enough so she decided to take real action.

"As Canadians have this idea that it doesn't happen here, we're nice people," said Stiller. "But we have racism ... homophobia, antisemitism [they're] all are alive and well in our society. If we don't speak up about these things they continue to happen."

It took a bit of time to clear up the sticky chalk, but soon enough all that was left of the graffiti was faint smears of yellow.

Not the first time offensive graffiti has shown up

The women note this isn't the first time offensive words have appeared in their community.

Racist and homophobic words, as well as swastikas have also been spray painted and carved into playground equipment and along paths at the nearby Veterans Memorial Park. Those incidents were reported several times to police and the city in recent weeks, but some of the graffiti wasn't covered up until after CBC asked questions about it.

In a statement emailed to CBC News Tuesday, a city spokesperson said staff had been working to erase the words "over the last 24 hours and that work completed late today."

On Wednesday the remnants of the graffiti at the popular park were covered in black paint. But a swastika could still be seen etched into a sign explaining exercises despite it being reported to the city several times.

Faint white letters can still be seen beneath the black paint that now covers racist and homophobic graffiti spray painted at Veterans Memorial Park. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Some of the moms question why it took so long for the city the react.

"It's pretty sad really and doesn't give much faith in the city that they're actually going to remove stuff when it's brought to their attention," said Spencer.

City investigating delayed response

In its statement, the city says it typically aims to clean up graffiti on city property within 24 hours.

"We are looking into why the delay happened in this location," the spokesperson added. 

As for police, the service says it's investigating both incidents which are considered criminal offences and hate crimes.

A Hamilton Police Service report delivered in March showed while the overall number of hate/bias incidents reported to police dropped dropped from 2017 to 2018, there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of Jewish people targeted. There was also a 2.5 per cent increase in incidents — 40 in total — targeting people who are black.

For her part, Rothenberg said she's encouraged by the way her fellow moms reacted.

"I think the mom's network was remarkably fast and efficient and took it extremely seriously. Everybody just wanted it gone," she said.

"Nobody wanted to wait for someone else to do it. Nobody wanted to wait for Monday for kids to come and see it. It was just an immediate 'Let's get this out of here and we can do it and we don't have to wait for anybody else to do it.'"