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Community must respond to bigots

 

Published Tuesday July 15th, 2008 - Telegraph Journal

 

http://telegraphjournal.canadaeast.com/article/354481

 

 

Last week saw a disturbing outbreak of ugliness in Moncton in the form of racist graffiti targeting Muslims, Jews, and immigrants.

 

A total of seven incidents of spray-painted swastikas, racial slurs, and other offensive messages have vandalized a mosque, a synagogue, an elementary school, bus shelters, and local businesses.

 

Given the very important issues being discussed in New Brunswick right now, I was reluctant to dedicate column inches to the maladjustments of a few racists. Kelly Lamrock's August decision on French Immersion may well affect the education of a generation. The PC leadership race will ultimately define the choice we have at the polls in 2010. Health care issues continue to pepper the headlines.

 

Also, I didn't want to sensationalize these crimes or give the offenders the gratification of more media attention. But the larger community does have to respond to these incidents, and so I will attempt to do so as well by outlining these reasons we should be talking about this.

 

First, we always respond to these types of things by saying they are not representative of the community. This is true, and we can't overstate it. Most people in Moncton, or anywhere in New Brunswick, don't believe people should be treated this way.

 

Sure, there are lots of people who may be uncomfortable with immigrants or hold stereotypes of non-Christians, but that's far different than attacking someone's community, and very few people, regardless of their attitudes and experiences with minorities, would condone this harassment. We don't, as a province, as a people, as Canadians, believe these actions stand for us in any way, and we need to say it. This is not who we are.

 

Second, behaviour based on hatred can escalate if left unchecked.

 

Last summer Saint John had its own flare-up of racist malice. Chinese students at UNBSJ were harassed and assaulted. A city councillor and staff at this paper received threats. Because the steps that come after vandalism are even more hurtful, we have to respond strongly to the vandalism.

 

Just as there is a step beyond vandalism, there is also a step before it. Very few of us, fortunately, are going to be the targets of racist attacks. But most of us will hear racist comments, opinions, and jokes. It's not always easy to denounce such attitudes in social situations, but we certainly can't support them.

 

Stetson Kennedy, an American civil rights activist who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, recommended "frown power" for dealing with those situations.

 

You don't have to start a fight when someone makes a racist remark, but you can easily let them know their comments are neither appreciated nor accepted with a simple frown.

 

The third reason is the practical fact that we as a province really do need to attract immigrants, and swastikas don't help. New Brunswick is shrinking and aging, "slowly dying" as the authors of last year's Self-Sufficiency Task Force put it, and even if you reject the Premier's 2026 goal, it's clear that we need more people. Greg Byrne, the minister responsible for population growth, reports a 58 per cent increase in immigration last year.

 

And as immigration increases, as St. Thomas University criminologist Michael Boudreau predicted in an article in Saturday's Telegraph-Journal, so will the frequency of these sorts of incidents. We need to address the problem as it presents itself, every time it presents itself, and work to prevent it from recurring as much as possible.

 

The response needs to be more education than retribution. As Dr. Boudreau pointed out, "The sad irony is that the person or persons who actually did this may not even know the significance of a swastika."

 

It's true that the offenders, particularly if they are young offenders, may not even realize the seriousness of their actions.

 

The last reason is that it is necessary to shine light on racism.

 

These vandals who operate at night, stooping so low as to spray-paint someone's place of worship, have much less power in the light of day. Similarly, the attitudes and ignorance they reinforce in each other pale in the context of the larger community.

 

At the most basic level, someone has decided to challenge our values, to challenge our freedom to live where we choose, worship how we choose, and live without intimidation, and to challenge our basic concept of human rights. And so, as we believe in these things, we must respond.

 

This isn't simply an affront to Jews and Muslims and immigrants; it's an affront to all of us.

 

Peter T. Smith teaches English and psychology at Kennebecasis Valley High School and lives in Hampton. He can be reached by e-mail at ptsmith_tj@hotmail.com. His column appears on Tuesday.

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