Ottawa

Cornwall girl victim of racist attack on school bus, mother says

Agnes Etaka says her 10-year-old daughter Bella was struck, spat on and called racist names while riding the bus to school in February. Now, with the spotlight on anti-Black racism in the U.S., Etaka wants people to know it's happening here, too.

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details of a racist assault on a child

Agnes Etaka sits with her 10-year-old daughter Bella. CBC is concealing Bella's face at her mother's request. (Submitted by Agnes Etaka)

Feb. 28, 2020, is seared into Agnes Etaka's mind. 

"That's a date that I think I will never forget," the Cornwall, Ont., woman said.

That was the day Etaka's 10-year-old daughter Bella came home and told her mother she'd been punched, spat on and called n--ger while riding the school bus.

Bella said one child — the same one who spat in her face — told her she looked like "cow shit" and had hair that resembled "a blackbird's nest." When one of Bella's friends, who is also Black, tried to intervene, he was also called a n--ger.

Let's call it what it is. It's a hate crime. They assaulted my kid on the school bus.​​​​​​- Agnes Etaka

Etaka vividly remembers what it felt like to hear her daughter's account of the assault.

"My reaction was anger. Frustration. Pain. Deep pain. I felt like I had failed to protect my kid. I felt like the system has failed my child, the school has failed my child. And I just cried," Etaka said. "Let's call it what it is. It's a hate crime. They assaulted my kid on the school bus."

Etaka said she's going public with her daughter's story now because she feels the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests have created a general willingness to talk about racism. 

"Back in March, racism was … a dirty topic and people didn't want to talk about it. So if I had gone public then I feared repercussions. I feared not being employable after that. I also feared … [doing] more harm to my daughter. So why now? I think people are more receptive now," Etaka said. "Racism is something that people have denied for so many years. It took George Floyd."

Contacted school, police

Floyd was killed last month in Minneapolis, Minn., when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His death, which was captured on video, sparked widespread protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism.

Etaka said she's discussed Floyd's death with her daughter. 

"We watched [the video] together. She knows what happened to him, and it terrifies her," she said.

After the bus incident, Etaka contacted the principal of Bishop Macdonell Catholic School, Walter MacDonald, who initiated an investigation and asked Bella to write down an account of what had happened to her. "That letter still makes me cry when I read it," Etaka said.

This is the letter Bella wrote to her principal describing the Feb. 28 incident on the school bus. The names have been redacted. (Submitted by Agnes Etaka)

Neither MacDonald nor the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO) would provide details about what happened next, but Etaka said one student was suspended from school for three days and another has been barred from riding the bus.

Etaka also complained to the Cornwall Police Service, but said an officer initially told her there was nothing that could be done. On Friday, after CBC inquired about the incident, Etaka said she received a call from a different officer who arranged to meet with Bella on Monday "to see how to build trust in the police again so she could feel safe in the city."

Not the first time

That could take some doing. Etaka said the incident on the school bus wasn't the first time her daughter has been the target of racist taunts in Cornwall, nor was it the first time authorities dismissed her complaints.

After an earlier incident of name-calling at school, Etaka said "the vice-principal said, 'Oh they're just kids. And I said, 'They are just kids? You think it's OK to call a child Black and ugly?'"

In an earlier incident at the now-shuttered St. Columban's Catholic School, Etaka said Bella was also called the N-word, and told by another child they were "allergic to Black people." After that, Etaka decided to move her daughter to Bishop Macdonell, where she hoped things would be different.

It's painful to me that she's experiencing these things now in 2020.- Cornwall Mayor Bernadette Clement

In a written response to CBC, the board said it already had policies in place to deal with racism, as well as a committee on equity and inclusion, prior to the incident on the bus. Teachers also received anti-racism training in the past year from an expert from the Centre for Urban Schooling at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, the board said.

"Catholic teachings clearly identify that every child is created in the image of God," the board's statement concluded.

But Etaka questions whether that message is getting through to other children. "They went from using words to attacking her. She was punched, her hair was pulled and they spat on her. To me, that is the ultimate disrespect. They told her, 'You're just a piece of garbage because you're Black."

Etaka says she, too, has faced racist insults on the job as a nurse. (Submitted by Agnes Etaka)

Meeting with mayor

In the days following the school bus incident, Etaka also reached out to Cornwall Mayor Bernadette Clement, who is the first Black woman to be elected mayor of an Ontario city.

"I need to hear this," Clement told CBC, adding she was also the victim of racist slurs when she was growing up.

"It's painful to me that she's experiencing these things now in 2020," she said. "I thought ... we've moved past that. No, we haven't."

Clement offered to meet with Etaka and her daughter, but the meeting was postponed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Etaka says her daughter has been happy during the pandemic because she's safe at home. But she fears what will happen if school resumes in September and Bella has to get back on that bus. (Submitted by Agnes Etaka)

But the pandemic has also given Bella a welcome break from school, and the bus.

"She's a different kid. She's happier," Etaka said. "That toxicity is not there anymore. She's happy. She's safe at home."

Etaka, a nurse at a rehabilitation facility in Cornwall who's working toward becoming a nurse practitioner, said she has faced racism on the job.

"I've had a patient tell me, "I don't want the n--ger looking after me," Etaka said.

But since the death of Floyd, Etaka said she's noticed a change. "Now I go to the grocery store and the cashier, instead of just not acknowledging me, now I get a smile. I get a, 'How are you doing?' Which wasn't the case before."

But how long will it last? Etaka said the prospect of seeing her daughter board the school bus again in September frightens her.

"I have been thinking about it with a lot of panic," she said. "I'm scared it's gonna start again, and it's going to be worse."

 

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