Hate speech arrests lead to calls for unity

Arrests were made last week after two area residents were arrested for posting hateful and threatening comments on social media.

Two people, a 25-year-old female from Denare Beach and a 32-year-old female from Flin Flon, were arrested on July 31 for uttering threats and public incitement of hatred – an offence listed in Canada’s Criminal Code as a hate crime.

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An arrest of a third person, who has not been identified by RCMP, is currently pending.

The posts were made after an incident of vandalism on July 29. A vehicle and home were spray painted by unknown assailants overnight, with phrases including “Terror Squad” sprayed on the vehicle. RCMP have not made an arrest in the vandalism case, but say an investigation is ongoing.

“We have some leads to follow up on,” said Cpl. Ray Hamilton with Flin Flon RCMP.

Later that day, multiple people took to social media to vent about the vandalism. Not long afterward, some posters posted comments to personal Facebook pages and the Flin Flon Post It page to voice views that have received widespread condemnation.

The comments included calling for a “shoot a (sic) Indian day” and a “24-hour purge,” referencing the horror film The Purge, which shows a world where all crime – including murder – is temporarily allowed.

Comments spread quickly, first on social media, then reaching major regional and national news outlets. CBC’s The National and CTV National News both led their national nightly newscasts with the story, along with screenshots and descriptions of the posts.

Concern and disapproval of the posts have come from both within and outside the community. Several indigenous groups, including the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations condemned the comments and commended RCMP on making the arrests.

“Thank you to [Manitoba RCMP] who took these complaints seriously and took appropriate action without delay,” wrote AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde in a social media post on July 31.

“There is no place within society for publicly threatening the lives of First Nations people.”

Locally, there has been nuance and debate, along with denunciation.

In a Facebook live video, Denare Beach resident Tom McDermott voiced his concerns about the situation. McDermott, who is indigenous and a member of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, spoke for more than an hour about racism and prejudice in Flin Flon.

“This is difficult,” he said.

“When I heard the comments and read the comments on Facebook, I wasn’t surprised. I grew up experiencing that all my life, still today. I continue to move on. Racism – that’s not a pretty word, but it has to be talked about, and the time is now.”

At one point in the video, which had garnered around 35,000 views at press time, McDermott likened endemic racism to a volcano.

“That volcano has erupted now. As it erupts, it shoots off these balls of fire. It has hit Flin Flon, North Battleford, Saskatoon, Regina… all over Canada, all over the world,” he said.

“I’d like to think Flin Flon people in general are better than that. I know a lot of people in Flin Flon, they’re very good friends of mine, ever since I was a small kid.”

“These are my friends. I don’t call them my white friends – I call them my friends. There’s not a title to that. I wish people would think differently of us, as First Nations people. We don’t say things to spite people or the general public – we say things because we believe in them.”

The posts also caught the eye of Adrianne Markham Werbicki. An indigenous woman who grew up in Flin Flon and The Pas before moving to Ontario, Markham Werbicki recalled instances of racism in her own past after seeing the comments.

“I found it mostly when I would enter stores alone and I didn’t recognize or know the people working,” she said.

“There were a few incidents that I can recall walking away feeling very vulnerable or stigmatized, which I will admit is not a feeling I was used to. I knew it was because of the way I looked.”

Flin Flon city councillor Colleen McKee, who identifies as Métis, said she was shocked to see the comments.

“I was very surprised. It was hard to take in, just a difficult, difficult thing,” she said.

“I can understand the frustration of people having things vandalized and destroyed – I get that, but I think people need to stop with divisive attitudes and start seeing people as people and stop this. They’re genocidal comments. You just can’t do that in this day and age. I guess part of me hoped we had moved past that but apparently, this sort of underlying stuff is still there.”

Markham Werbicki has elected to not contribute to social media comment threads on the subject, and said she tries to understand the perpetrator’s mindset instead of judging.

“Growing up, I was kind of raised not to make judgments about racism. I grew up as an indigenous girl among what felt like not a lot of people with my own skin colour. I’ve always tried to be careful about making judgments or saying things, simply because I’ve been on the other end of that stick,” she said.


Next step

With the underlying issue of racism in Flin Flon now at the forefront, the question of what comes next is being raised.

McDermott believes the answer is not in further division, but in discussion and reconciliation.

“We all have a responsibility to change this now,” said McDermott in the video. “Yes, things were said. Yes, people were hurt. Yes, people are very, very mad, upset. However, we can move on and we will move on.”

McKee believes the community is not represented by the actions of a small group of people.

“Flin Flon has been, and will always be, an incredible place to visit and to live. We are not without problems, just like any other place, but I think the good here totally outweighs the bad. I think Flin Flon is a forgiving place and it’s a place where I like to think we celebrate individuals,” she said.

“I guess I always hoped we were exempt from this, but what’s happening in other communities is now happening here. We’re going to have to adjust. This is our reality now.”

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