Ottawa·Racism in the Valley

Ottawa Valley mayors speak out about racism in their towns

As Black, Indigenous and people of colour share their experiences about racism, some mayors in the Ottawa Valley agree racism is systemic in their communities, while others blame isolated incidents. Here’s what some of them are doing about it.

While some municipal leaders accept it's a problem, others deny racism is systemic

Pembroke Mayor Mike LeMay is vowing to create a diversity committee to help educate people in the Ottawa Valley community about racism. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

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.


Several Ottawa Valley mayors say the stories about racism coming from their communities are "disgusting," "appalling," and "extremely distressing" — but not all believe the problem is systemic.

CBC spoke to five Black, Indigenous and people of colour from the Ottawa Valley who say racism is a problem in their communities. The stories stem from an incident in Pembroke, Ont., in August, when 80-year-old Nga Doan was assaulted by teenagers at her home.

"There is racism," said Pembroke Mayor Mike LeMay. "It is an issue [here]."

Shortly after the assault on Doan, LeMay vowed to do something about racism in the city of about 14,000. In October, he held the first mayor's diversity roundtable, where residents shared their experiences.

"I was disappointed, but the stories were so important," said LeMay, recalling one Asian man, born and raised in Pembroke, opening up about racism for the first time in 60 years.

"At the roundtable, in tears, it was the first time where he was able to express [those] incidents," said LeMay.

To the people doing it, grow up.- Arnprior Mayor Walter Stack

As a result of the roundtables, a diversity committee will be created to collaborate with school boards, hospitals, police and other agencies, with the goal of educating people about racism.

"It's a start," said LeMay.

After a violent assault on an 80-year-old woman last summer, Mayor Mike LeMay says his city is working to create a diversity committee to educate people about racism in collaboration with school boards, hospitals, police, and other agencies. 0:00

'It's up to us'

"To know that in our beautiful little community that people of colour would be treated like this is just unacceptable," said Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy, calling the stories "extremely distressing."

Murphy said Renfrew County, where her township is located, is reviewing its hiring practices to boost diversity. Murphy said she's also interested in learning more about unconscious bias training for her staff.

WATCH | Mayor urges residents to share racist incidents with her:

‘Now is the time to reach out and be kind and loving to one another’

CBC News Ottawa

6 months ago
1:08
Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy is encouraging residents who experience racism to reach out to her with their stories. 1:08

"Using the N-word is absolutely appalling," said Murphy in response to a community member's story from Eganville. "As community leaders, it's up to us to be working toward ending systemic racism." 

'No racism issue,' says mayor

Renfrew Mayor Don Eady said while there may be isolated incidents, "there is absolutely no racism issue" in his town, at least to his knowledge.

"I find it very disturbing to think that would even happen in our town. I've certainly never been made aware of it by anyone," said Eady. 

He said he has "zero tolerance whatsoever" for racism, and if an official complaint is made to the city, he'll look into it.

"To me this is very, very new," he said. "There's two sides to every story, so we have to be careful that when we get a complaint, it's 100 per cent legitimate."

A sign at the edge of Renfrew, Ont., bids visitors to the eastern Ontario town farewell. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Arnprior Mayor Walter Stack said while he doesn't believe racism is systemic in his town, he's disappointed with the stories coming from the valley.

"I find it disgusting, to be honest," said Stack.

He said his council needs to start thinking about how to best educate people in town about racism, and apologized to those in Arnpior who experienced it.

"To the people doing it, grow up." 

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. Before joining the CBC in 2016, she travelled across the Middle East and North Africa to share people's stories. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University and speaks Korean, Tunisian Arabic, and dabbles at classical Arabic and French. Want to contact her? Email priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca or @prisksh on Twitter.

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