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They've experienced discrimination in Petawawa, Ont. These are their stories

As community members push town council in Petawawa, Ont., to create a diversity and inclusion committee, some locals are opening up about their first-hand experience with racism and discrimination.

'We cannot change the colour of our skin, we cannot change who we are'

A three shot collage of a woman with long brown hair on the left, a student with curly red hair in the middle, and a man crossing his arms on the right stare into the camera.
From left to right, Ellen Wong-Gallant, Yulia Adeshida and Daniel Hunton. These residents of Petawawa, Ont., open up about the discrimination they've faced while living in their small town in eastern Ontario. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

From being called the N-word while walking down a street, to a gay couple's uncomfortable conversations with wedding vendors, some residents of Petawawa, Ont., are opening up about their first-hand experience with racism and discrimination as community members push for the town to create a committee to tackle these issues.

Since January, a group of residents have been advocating for councillors to discuss and vote on creating a diversity committee, like other towns in the Ottawa Valley have in recent years. 

This committee, they hope, will help address concerns about racism and discrimination some are experiencing, and help the town of 18,000 people become more inclusive and celebrate its growing diverse population.

Here are three residents and their stories.

'Do you wear a hijab or durag?'

A girl with glasses and red hair looks into the camera in front of road signs that read Concord Drive and Highland Park Drive.
Yulia Adeshida stands on Highland Park Drive. The recent high-school grad says she was walking on this street when a car slowed down and people yelled racial slurs at her. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Yulia Adeshida was sitting in an interview room for her part-time job last summer when the manager asked this: "Do you wear a hijab or a durag?"

At first, she wondered if it was a question to be inclusive of Black or Muslim applicants — terms referring to types of cloth or covering worn on the head.

Later, she found out that question had only been directed at her — Adeshida's co-workers were never asked.

"I was pretty distraught," she said. "As a person of colour, it kind of hit me harder because a lot of my co-workers are white."

That manager continued to racially profile customers, the 17-year-old said, putting her in uncomfortable situations where she felt fearful of speaking out.

"I try to compose myself when it comes to some controversial things that he says, because it's ... not funny," she explained.

"It makes me uncomfortable, and I can't exactly put that out there with him because I don't know how he's going to react."

‘It was difficult to try and find my space’

5 months ago
Duration 0:45
Yulia Adeshida, who lives in Petawawa, says the community has not always been welcoming to her, with incidents of discrimination that left her feeling excluded.

Adeshida recalled another recent incident that left her with an emotional scar.

She was in Grade 11, walking with her friend along Highland Park Drive when a car slowed down and people inside began insulting her.

"They put down their window and they start pointing at me, you know, asking like, 'What's on your head? What's that? What are you?' and all that," she recalled. Adeshida said her afro was down and she wasn't wearing anything on her head at the time.

The car looped around and came back several times.

"This time they're like telling me to go back home like I don't belong here," she said. "This is just me walking down the street with a friend, and I'm being shouted [at] like the N-word."

It hurt, and it still does, Adeshida said.

Growing up biracial with Russian and Nigerian parents, she would be one of only a handful of people of colour in school, making it "really hard to try and fit in" in Petawawa, she said. 

She hopes more education on diversity and inclusion will be introduced in schools. 

"I have two [younger] brothers, and I would never want them to go through what I did," she said.

Not welcomed by some wedding vendors

A man stands on gravel rocks near a pond. The sky is blue with clouds.
Daniel Hunton is a member of the LGBTQ community in Petawawa. Hunton shares about the difficulty they had finding wedding vendors who are LGBTQ-friendly in their small town. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Wedding planning wasn't so enjoyable for Daniel Hunton.

In fact, it was "emotionally draining," Hunton said.

Several local wedding vendors —  initially "excited and super bubbly" — suddenly became "very quiet," had a "massive tone change," and began talking about "how busy their schedule was" when the couple revealed they were having a same-sex marriage, said Hunton. 

One vendor's reaction was especially upsetting.

"I remember we had one vendor who just said, 'Oh, we don't do that sort of wedding,' and basically hung up." 

By expanding their search to a wider geographic area, the couple eventually found LGBTQ-friendly vendors, but Hunton recalls wanting to "just be happy" as they planned their wedding back in 2016.

"It was sort of hurtful. It was sort of like, 'Hey, my money is as good as anyone else's money. Why does my wedding vendor care who I'm marrying?'" 

Two men lean on a wooden fence in a field of grass, looking at each other, with trees in the background.
Hunton, left, with their husband on their wedding day. Hunton ran into issues with some wedding vendors who did not want to service a same-sex marriage. (Submitted by Daniel Hunton)

Hunton opened up about another incident.

"I got screamed at recently, walking my dogs," they said. "Someone passing by just sort of cat-called at me with a slur. It's one of those things you get used to living around here, but it's still painful every time."

The couple feels uncomfortable at times holding hands in public or expressing affection — something they don't feel in bigger cities.

"There is just a feeling here that like there are eyes on you and that many of them are disapproving and it's backed up by the things that ... town council decides," Hunton said. 

‘It’s still painful every time’

5 months ago
Duration 0:46
Petawawa resident Daniel Hunton says they experience anti-LGBTQ slurs on a regular basis, despite some positive changes to community attitudes in the last several years.

Though they've seen a gradual change living in Petawawa for more than a decade, Hunton wants to see more support for the LGBTQ community from town leaders, who repeatedly turned down the idea of flying the Pride flag at town hall for Pride Month.

"It would be lovely to see a town that celebrated ... its diversity. But I think we have a really long way to go," Hunton said.

"It's so discouraging to live in a town that won't listen to you."

'Where are you from?' Born and raised here

A woman with long brown hair sits on a patio chair and looks into the camera. There is a reddish brown fence behind her.
Ellen Wong-Gallant is biracial and proud of her Chinese culture. She knows of several BIPOC residents in Petawawa, Ont., who've been asked where they're from, including herself. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Ellen Wong-Gallant says she's often asked by strangers, "Where are you from?" 

"I'm half Chinese and half Caucasian," Wong-Gallant said. While she's open to discussing her ethnic background, Wong-Gallant said people frequently make assumptions about her identity or inquire whether she's Hispanic or Indigenous.

She's not alone. She knows others who receive similar questions at grocery stores or even the local McDonald's.

"I don't stop others and ask them where they're from.... I grew up here. So when people hear that they're just so surprised," said Wong-Gallant, who was born and raised in the Ottawa Valley and has lived in Petawawa for the past six years.

Last week, while visiting a local pub with a friend, a stranger began sharing with Wong-Gallant what he thought was a funny joke about Chinese people.

"It's really hurtful," Wong-Gallant said. "We cannot change the colour of our skin, we cannot change who we are on the inside.... If you're going to make fun of me, that hurts very deeply. And I'm very proud of my culture."

Why sharing these stories matter

Wong-Gallant said she's collected stories from residents young and old who've experienced discrimination, and presented them to town council in January. One example involves a 12-year-old Black girl being told to "wash her skin" while she was riding her bike. 

    "The list goes on and on," said Wong-Gallant.

    She's part of a small group of community members pushing for the town to create an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee.

    "The point ... is to have representation of everybody in our community," she said. 

    The town clerk told CBC a report he created on the EDI committee will be reviewed soon, and he plans on presenting it to council in August.

    Wong-Gallant hopes the seven-member council will vote in favour of creating the diversity committee.

    "It needs to be a committee that's attached to the town," she explained. "Then we have that piece of reassurance that the town will follow through with some of the ideas that we have."

    Why this resident says it’s important to have an equity committee in Petawawa

    5 months ago
    Duration 0:46
    Ellen Wong-Gallant, who was born and raised in the Ottawa Valley, says fellow Petawawa residents have asked where she’s from or have even used racial slurs around her.

    Residents want the committee to be a safe space where people of colour, LGBTQ community members and other equity-deserving groups can bring their concerns forward, organize cultural celebrations, recognize days like the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and raise the Pride flag during Pride Month — something the town has rejected several years in a row, citing what some call an "outdated" policy from 1998.

    "I want to shine a light on some of the issues that we have. A lot of people might not see that there are issues in our community because they're just not exposed to it as often," said Wong-Gallant.

    "For people of colour like myself ... we see it more than often."


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    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang

    Reporter/Editor

    Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Ottawa. She's worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, and CBC North in Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University. Want to contact her? Email priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca

    With files from Trevor Pritchard

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