The Ottawa Valley has a racism problem. These people have been living it
WARNING: This story mentions racist insults that some readers may find disturbing
Racism in the Valley is a series of stories stemming from a violent assault on an 80-year-old woman in Pembroke, Ont., earlier this year. CBC Ottawa spoke to Black, Indigenous and people of colour in the region about their experiences, and to local leaders to find out what's being done
She was walking down a street in Arnprior, Ont. It was 2012. She was pregnant.
Suddenly, a vehicle pulled up and she was soaked.
"They threw a slushie at me and called me the N-word and told me to get out of their town," said 32-year-old Ro Nwosu.
"I remember cramping up and not being able to move … and having to talk myself out of panicking even more because of the baby."
Fast forward to 2015. Nwosu was walking across town to meet her partner after an exam at the Algonquin College campus in Pembroke, Ont.
This time, Nwosu said she was "chased off the road" into a ditch and "called a couple of really choice words" by the driver.
"Fear," said Nwosu. "You know, [I thought], are they going to run me over?"
WATCH | Nwosu recalls the slushie incident and reflects what it's like living in the Ottawa Valley:
Nwosu isn't alone in these experiences. CBC spoke to five Black, Indigenous and people of colour from the Ottawa Valley, a region stretching along the Ottawa River, who say racism is an endemic problem in their communities, and local leaders need to do something about it.
"I love the valley for the people that I know … but I think people in the valley think [racism is] not a thing — that the valley is untouched by it," said Nwosu, who's lived in the region for 13 years and now calls Renfrew, Ont., home.
To this day, strangers touch her hair and skin when she's out shopping, regularly and unsolicited. A customer at a store she worked at once referred to her as "a slave."
"Do I find that racism has gotten better in the valley as a whole? No. It seems now people are more open about it."
- 'Fear': Ro's story
- The 'dirty looks': Duane's story
- Rejected for being Black: Maria's story
- Silent for 60 years: Garland's story
- Not 'Black enough': Harry's story
The minute Duane Gastant' Aucoin takes out his Indian status card in Pembroke, the "dirty looks" start.
"Nobody says anything to me, but they don't have to. [It's] their body language, their eyes," said Gastant' Aucoin. "[It's] the feeling that you don't belong."
A feeling, he said, that takes him back to his childhood.
Gastant' Aucoin, who's half Teslin Tlingit First Nation and half French Acadian, grew up in non-Indigenous communities across Canada.
"I would avoid going in the sun because I didn't want to tan. I wanted to try to stay as white as possible, because I was so ashamed of being an Indian, being different," he said.
"The racism that I experience here just brings me back to being that little kid."
Here in Pembroke, [racism is] quite in your face.- Duane Gastant' Aucoin
Gastant' Aucoin, 51, moved from Yukon to Pembroke last October to take care of his elderly father.
"Here in Pembroke, [racism is] quite in your face," he said.
That's why he decided to create a Facebook community earlier this year called Ottawa Valley Against Racial Discrimination.
"I was like, I can't be the only one experiencing racism in the Ottawa Valley," he said.
Gastant' Aucoin wears a red face mask with a hand print, made by a Tlingit artist in Anchorage, Alaska. It symbolizes missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
"I get even more dirty looks," he said. "Oh well. It's my little silent protest."
Growing up in Eganville, Ont., Maria Petrini-Woolley and her sister stood out from the crowd.
One of her earliest memories goes back to Grade 1. As they crossed a street walking home from school, a car stopped and the driver yelled at them.
"Somebody had to call us the N-word," Petrini-Woolley recalled.
Throughout her schooling, she experienced a number of racist incidents and had to involve her parents, the principal and sometimes the police.
It's an everyday occurrence.- Maria Petrini-Woolley
Petrini-Woolley moved to Pembroke last year to be close to her sister and started looking for work.
"I've been told after I attended job interviews in Pembroke that the reason I didn't get the job was because of the colour of my skin," an experience that left her feeling speechless, the 26-year-old said.
"A lot of times, when we speak out, we're the ones who get in trouble, so sometimes I have to simply just bite my tongue."
It slowly wears her down. She's developed anxiety going out to do errands because of the number of times someone has made discriminatory comments toward her.
"It's an everyday occurrence," she said. "There's not been one time where I haven't received a rude comment, a rude stare."
"Chinaman. Ch--k. Slant eye."
When Garland Wong heard those words as a boy in the 1960s living in Pembroke, he didn't know what they meant.
"'Dad, what does ch--k mean? Or Chinaman?'" Wong recalled asking his father, who owned a Chinese restaurant in town, passed on from his grandfather, who immigrated to Canada by boat in the 1930s.
My dad used to say, 'Garland, just take it.'- Garland Wong
His father said he didn't know either. Eventually, Wong said his dad began to understand "what this culture was all about," but advised him to let the stereotyping and racism slide — from job rejections to getting picked last for sports.
"We didn't want to make waves with the local people," said Wong. "My dad used to say, 'Garland, just take it.'"
WATCH | Wong talks about how he's going to break his silence:
Wong believes he's probably Pembroke's oldest Asian resident who was born and raised there.
"You don't think it's going to happen in the Ottawa Valley," said Wong. "When I heard she got assaulted that night, that upset me."
- Read Part 2 | Granddaughter of Pembroke assault victim sets out to fix racism issue in her community
He was also bothered by his own silence on the issue.
"I kept quiet for 60 years," he said. "I just kept my mouth shut."
Wong said he's "in disbelief" that racism is still in his community.
"I have grandchildren now. I don't want them to wait 60 years for this [to change]."
"Can you say the N-word?"
Growing up in Pembroke, Harry Alorgbey Sardina said he was asked that question several times.
"It was subtle," he said about the racist microaggressions against his identity.
"I was always told that I wasn't Black enough," he said. "I was seen as someone who didn't fit 'the role' … because I was smarter or I don't talk a certain way."
If I was to be the stereotypical, young, Black male ... I would get treated equally as bad.- Harry Alorgbey Sardina
Alorgbey Sardina said he felt "sheltered" from the more aggressive racism he knows other Black people in the valley experienced, but describes his experience as a "double-edged sword."
"On one end, I'm being told I'm not Black enough," he said. "Then the other end of that, if I was to be the stereotypical, young, Black male growing up and kind of act in those ways in a small town like Pembroke, I would get treated equally as bad."
Alorgbey Sardina, now 19 and attending Western University in London, Ont., said it's better there.
"I feel like people here see you as a student before they see you as who you are [on the outside]."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.