Thunder Bay

Baseless Facebook posts about Wabaseemoong COVID-19 outbreak a symptom of wider racism, say community members

Recent social media posts spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wabaseemoong Independent Nations are not only false, but they are creating fear and mistrust in the nearby city of Kenora, Ont., and surrounding areas, according to Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders in the region.

OPP says no truth to posts alleging First Nation members isolating in city were breaking health guidelines

A number of racist posts and comments were made in the Facebook group "Kenora Rant'n'Rave" on Friday targeting members of Wabaseemoong Independent Nation, which is currently fighting an outbreak of COVID-19. (Paul Sakuma / The Associated Press)

Recent social media posts spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wabaseemoong Independent Nations are not only false, but they are creating fear and mistrust in the nearby city of Kenora, Ont., and surrounding areas, according to Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders in the region.

Several posts and comments in a Facebook group called Kenora Rant 'n' Rave made last Friday called out Wabaseemoong members who were self-isolating in the city because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the First Nation, which is about 100 kilometres north of Kenora in northwestern Ontario.

Some of the posts claimed people were breaking isolation rules, "infecting innocent people" and going into grocery stores. Those claims are entirely false, according to Ontario Provincial Police Kenora detachment commander and inspector Jeff Duggan.

"We've received no reports of anybody spitting on any food or anything of that nature," he said. "The people that are self-isolating, they're following the public health and partner agencies directions."

The comments also included language that referenced racist stereotypes about people from the First Nations community.

An emailed statement from Loblaws, the parent company of two of the grocery stores named in the comments, said, "the statements on social media are patently false, offensive and racist."

Wabaseemoong members and leaders are asking people to stop the racial discrimination and to show compassion for those working hard to contain the outbreak.

"Be more understanding of their needs," said Dennie Courchene, a member of Wabaseemoong Independent Nations who has lived in Kenora for several years. "It doesn't have to get racially discriminatory or ugly like that. We've got to stand up for one another.

Isolation beds, services mobilized

Wabaseemoong Chief Waylon Scott, alongside a number of former chiefs, released a video on Feb. 10 informing the public that a number of people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the community of more than 2,000. They swiftly put the First Nation into lockdown and established a checkpoint and a curfew, among other health measures.

Wabaseemoong leaders have not specified the number of cases, but last week, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said there were around 60 cases in the community.

Several agencies and levels of government have mobilized staff and resources to support the First Nation — including rapid and mobile testing, food and centralized water and wood supplies. Twenty-four isolation beds have been made available in Kenora for people who cannot isolate in Wabaseemoong or must be in the city for medical purposes.

The posts were taken down within two hours of being published on social media, according to one of the administrators of the 10,000-member Facebook group, which has existed since 2015 and also includes posts about lost items and other community matters.

Dennie Courchene of Wabaseemoong Independent Nation has spent countless hours driving between Kenora, Ont. and the First Nation to deliver groceries and necessary supplies to the checkpoint in support of his friends and family locked down. (Submitted by Dennie Courchene)

But the impact of Friday's posts is lasting.

Courchene has spent much of the last two weeks volunteering his time, driving between Kenora and Wabaseemoong to deliver groceries and other necessities to the checkpoint. 

"When I saw that post, I got upset because there's really no need for causing a divide in a community that is in need of help," he said.

Courchene said the claims have affected his shopping.

"I face looks, comments, and it does bother me from time to time," he said. "I do get frustrated by hearing that, 'Oh, he's from White Dog (Wabaseemoong) and, like, he shouldn't be in here. He's probably infected.' No, I'm not."

'Is this what we want Kenora to be known for?'

Tania Cameron has been vocal about the harm caused by these posts.

"The racism in Kenora is still strong in this town," she said. "And I know some people don't like to hear it, but as a brown person living and working in Kenora, I feel it. My children feel it.

"When we have hate spilling over on social media, it impacts any kind of work — whether it's through reconciliation or trying to put aside these stereotypes and racist thoughts against other people — it sets that work back."

The OPP said there is an open investigation into threats allegedly made against the Kenora-based woman who made one of the comments but said there are no current investigations or charges planned in relation to the comments themselves and the people who made them.

Tania Cameron has been vocal about the racist posts in the Facebook group. She says these posts are racist, and they have real, harmful impacts that are lasting. (Tania Cameron)

Cameron says there should be legal consequences for inciting hatred and racism online.

"I've had private conversations with friends who are really upset that this woman has the privilege to use her white skin to go complain to the OPP because she's getting a negative response," she said.

"Imagine how we feel. You think I have the privilege [as] a brown person to go say, 'You know what, so-and-so said some terrible words that are going to have a negative impact to my people when we shop and do our business in town.' You think I have that privilege? I don't think so."

Courchene said racism in the community isn't new.

Many members of Wabaseemoong live and work in Kenora, with others relying on the town of 15,000 for medical and social services. Courchene said that even before the COVID-19 measures, the people from Wabaseemoong and other Indigenous communities coming into Kenora faced discrimination.

"They would think that we were shoplifters, that we were always drunk," he said.

Daphne Armstrong agrees. She's the director of strategy and innovation for Kenora Chiefs Advisory and has played a central role in co-ordinating support for the outbreak response. She's also a member of Wabaseemoong.

"We're a large community. Our band membership is over 2,000 people … but there seems to be, like, a perception of we're not contributing to the economy of Kenora," said Armstrong. "I just feel like there's systemic issues in our experiences in accessing service, the business community and things like that.

"I grew up both in Wabaseemoong and in Kenora, and is this what we want Kenora to be known for?"

#WabaseemoongStrong emerges in response

Many say they don't want these posts to take away from the hard work that people in the region are doing to support Wabaseemoong.

The hashtag #WabaseemoongStrong has taken hold as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the area are showing their solidarity with the First Nation in posts on social media.

"When I think about that, I think about how the community can come together as a people, get past the differences as a people and rise above it," said Courchene. "And they continue to do that time and time again."

Courchene and other volunteers are regularly making the drive out to Wabaseemoong to deliver supplies, are sharing positive messages online and doing what they can to support the First Nation, he says.

And an end to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wabaseemoong may be in sight.

At a press conference this week, Northwestern Health Unit Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kit Young Hoon did not name the First Nation but said the number of cases in "one community" in the Kenora area appears to be "plateauing," although it will likely still be a number of weeks before the outbreak ends.

When it does, COVID-19 vaccines will be ready, having arrived in the community over the weekend.

A press release issued by Wabaseemoong Independent Nation said while public health guidance is to not conduct community-wide vaccinations during an outbreak, the First Nation has been "identified as a top priority for vaccine."

With files from Matt Vis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Logan Turner

Reporter

Logan Turner is a graduate journalism student at the University of British Columbia. Born in Thunder Bay, Ont., Logan is passionate about reporting on health and environmental stories in rural, remote communities.

now