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A new viral threat revives an old one: racist scapegoating –



Last Thursday, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam was busy doing her job: keeping the Canadian public informed about the spread of the coronavirus, calming our worst fears and reminding us that we’re all in this together.

Tam, who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the U.K., took to Twitter to decry the reported rise in racist acts and vile comments on social media directed at people of Chinese and Asian descent since the coronavirus caseload began to grow.

“These actions create a divide of us versus them,” she tweeted. “Canada is a country built on the deep-rooted values of respect, diversity and inclusion.”

Tam’s statement got more than 500 online comments right out of the gate — and a depressingly large number of them were themselves racist and ignorant. Some of those comments doubtless came from the usual bots sowing discord; many clearly came from actual Canadians. Tam came in for a lot of the vitriol personally — tweets telling her to “go home” or accusing her of using “the race card.”

Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam offer an update on the coronavirus caseload in Canada. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

We learned some useful lessons from the SARS crisis of 17 years ago — lessons one assumes the federal government is bringing to bear now in the fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak in China.

Sadly, one of the things we learned back then is that illness isn’t the only viral threat in the midst of an outbreak. Asian communities in Canada reported a rise in racist incidents linked to the SARS outbreak in 2003, as fear led to scapegoating in some quarters. Hate can be as tenacious as any virus.

Fear breeds all sorts of inexplicable and irrational reactions. Part of the job of public health officials and elected officials in times like these is to fight fear-fuelled misinformation and false rumours. It’s the job of journalists, too, since good information can offer a strong shield against irrational fear.

Which explains in part why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked the Lunar New Year at an event in Scarborough at a Chinese banquet hall — greeting people, hugging people, shaking hands and eating the food.

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau gathers at the head of the table for tea during a Lunar New Year celebration at Casa Deluz in Scarborough, Ont., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Now, those are all things Trudeau might have been doing anyway, but in the moment the act became symbolic — a gesture against irrational fear. “There is no place in our country for discrimination driven by fear or misinformation,” Trudeau said. “This is not something Canadians will ever stand for.”

It also took a page from former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s own approach to the SARS outbreak. During the height of the outbreak, Chrétien sat down to a bowl of soup in a Chinese restaurant in Toronto. “We decided it was the right thing to do,” he said at the time, “because there is no danger. All precautions have been taken.”

Now, as then, we’re hearing reports of racist behaviour and language targeting Asian Canadians — everything from slurs on public transit to children being taunted at school. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel rose in the House of Commons last week to talk about a racist comment she’d heard on the street.

“At time when many Chinese Canadians are struggling [with] deep concerns for the welfare of friends and family in China, we must stand against the normalization of xenophobic mores against people of Asian descent,” she said.

If the bipartisan messaging from the Commons was encouraging, some of the online response to our chief national health officer’s words of warning is not.

The social media effect

The challenge facing Tam and other public health officials may be more daunting now that it was in 2003. When SARS hit Canada, infecting 375 people and killing 44 of them, racism-driven fear caused businesses to close. SARS even damaged Toronto’s global brand when the World Health Organization briefly warned people against travelling there. But social media technology was in its infancy back then, and misinformation was much harder to spread around.

After the SARS outbreak passed, the report of a commission led by Ontario Superior Court Justice Archie Campbell identified the lessons-learned from a public health perspective: it recommended better official communication and better protection of healthcare workers, among other things. (It’s worth noting that we didn’t even have a Public Health Agency of Canada or a Chief Public Health Officer until 2004.)

We’re probably better prepared for the coronavirus now than we would have been without the SARS experience. But that experience also warned us that disease outbreaks can tear at our communities in ways vaccines can’t touch.

In 2004, academic Carrianne Leung put out a report of her own, titled “The Yellow Peril Revisited.” It explored the deeper effects of SARS on Chinese and Southeast Asian Canadian communities — effects that went far deeper than the economic impact.

“The crisis also took a mental, psychological and emotional toll on members of these communities,” Leung wrote. “The effects of racism are complex, affecting self-esteem, self-identity as well as shaking the confidence in the environment.”

The report also accused the media of stoking fear of Asian Canadians by associating SARS solely with Asian nations and amplifying “hysteria.”

Are we handling it better this time? Media outlets in Canada seem to be steering clear of describing this new virus as “from Wuhan” or “Asian.” As of publication, only four Canadians have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. No one here has died of it.

The media coverage has been far from perfect, but it’s better than it was in 2003 and it seems to be informed by a genuine sense of the responsibility journalists share with political leaders and public health officials: to keep people informed without making things worse.

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Stable weather allows fire crews to focus on containment of B.C. wildfires



Crews battling the wildfire that has forced the evacuation of more than 500 properties in British Columbia’s southern Okanagan are taking advantage of calm winds and stable conditions to bolster fire lines.

The BC Wildfire Service says the the wildfire covers 68 square kilometres southwest of Penticton, with most of the recent growth due to planned ignitions needed to create the control lines.

An update from the wildfire service says newly created control lines are “holding well.”

It says a key objective is to continue mop-up work along Highway 3A in an effort to reopen the route connecting Keremeos and the evacuated community of Olalla with towns further north.

Crews are keeping a close eye on weather conditions as a storm approaches from Washington state, bringing showers later this week and possible lightning strikes on Wednesday.

The wildfire service has recorded 564 blazes since the season began, 58 of them in the last seven days, and lists the fire danger rating as high to extreme on Vancouver Island, the entire B.C. coast and across the southern quarter of the province.

Of the eight wildfires of note currently burning in the Kamloops and Southeast fire centres, only the blaze near Penticton continues to keep residents out of their homes.

None of the other seven have grown significantly in recent days and the wildfire service website says the roughly three-square-kilometre fire in grasslands northwest of Kamloops is now listed as “being held,” allowing crews to finish building control lines.

Wildfires of note are either highly visible or pose a threat to people or properties.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2022.


The Canadian Press

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Warrant issued for man in Amber Alert, Saskatchewan children believed to be in U.S.



REGINA — Saskatchewan RCMP say an arrest warrant has been issued for a convicted sex offender at the centre of an Amber Alert for two children.

Police say seven-year-old Luna Potts and eight-year-old Hunter Potts, along with their mother, are believed to be in South Dakota with 50-year-old Benjamin Martin Moore.

“We are very concerned about the well-being of those children,” RCMP Chief Supt. Tyler Bates said Tuesday.

“We feel they are in danger.”

Bates said Moore has a history of sexual offences against children and was previously convicted of sexual interference with a minor.

Moore now faces a charge of failing to report information within seven days of changing his address, which is required for convicted sex offenders.

RCMP said Moore was being investigated by social services when he left with the children and their mother.

Officers went last week to their home in Eastend, southwest of Regina, to question Moore but found it abandoned.

Police issued the Amber Alert on Monday evening for the girl and boy. Bates said RCMP enacted the alert after social services received an apprehension order for the children.

Bates did not say why police believe Moore crossed the border into the United States, but said RCMP were looking to extend the Amber Alert into South Dakota.

Moore is described as being five feet 10 inches tall and weighing 200 pounds with black hair.

Police also said Moore, the children and their mother may be travelling in a 2015 dark blue Chevrolet Equinox with the Alberta licence plate CGC 2492.

Police have received a slew of tips in the case.

Bates said officers have also been contacted by a person who is believed to be a victim and encouraged any others to come forward.

Court records show Moore was convicted in 2009 for sexual interference of a minor. He was sentenced in Regina provincial court to two years and two months in prison.

Records also say he served another three months in jail in 2011 after he was convicted of breaching a recognizance order.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2022.


Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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Senegalese diplomat arrested by Quebec police owed former landlord more than $45,000



MONTREAL — The detention and alleged beating of a Senegalese diplomat by Quebec police last week occurred while a bailiff was attempting to seize property at her residence in connection with a court judgment against her.

Quebec’s rental board in June ordered Oumou Kalsoum Sall to pay a former landlord more than $45,000 for damage to a furnished home she occupied from Nov. 1, 2018, to Oct. 31, 2020. The tribunal found that she caused flooding that led to structural damage and that her use of the property forced its owner, Michel Lemay, to replace most of his furniture.

“The pictures speak for themselves,” Anne A. Laverdure, an administrative judge, wrote in her ruling. “The furniture is full of cockroaches. Pieces of furniture are scratched and scuffed. Some are missing. Everything is dirty.”

Laverdure awarded Lemay almost $13,500 for structural damage to the home and $23,000 to replace furniture. The administrative judge awarded Lemay another several thousand dollars for other damages.

Court records show that the debt was not paid and that a bailiff went to Kalsoum Sall’s residence in Gatineau, Que., across the river from Ottawa, on Aug. 2 to seize property in connection with the debt.

Kalsoum Sall is a first counsellor at the embassy of the Republic of Senegal in Ottawa, according to a federal government database of foreign delegations. The Senegalese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has claimed that the diplomat had to be hospitalized after being handcuffed and beaten by police.

Quebec’s independent police watchdog said Monday it opened an investigation into the incident. Gatineau police have said that they were called to the residence to assist a bailiff and that they arrested a woman with diplomatic status after she allegedly hit a police officer in the face, adding that she was tackled to the ground after allegedly biting another officer.

Global Affairs Canada has described the incident as “unacceptable,” adding that the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations — which Canada has signed — gives diplomats immunity from any form of detention or arrest.

Gilles Rivard, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and to Haiti, said that while he doesn’t know exactly what happened during the Aug. 2 incident, some diplomats can be aggressive because they believe there will be no consequences for their actions.

“They can be aggressive because they know that they have immunity, so they believe that they can do whatever they want,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

While police are not officially supposed to arrest a diplomat, Rivard said, it’s possible a police officer might handcuff an individual while they wait to confirm the person’s diplomatic status.

“But if after that, that person shows that she is a diplomat, or he is a diplomat, normally they have to be released,” he said.

In 2001, a Russian diplomat struck and killed a woman while driving in Ottawa. The Canadian government asked Russia to waive the diplomat’s immunity so he could be charged in Canada, but Russia refused, Rivard said, adding that Canada’s only option in that case was to expel the diplomat.

Rivard said he doesn’t think the Aug. 2 incident is serious enough to damage Canada’s very good relationship with Senegal.

The Senegalese Embassy in Ottawa did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment Tuesday afternoon. A call to the embassy was not answered.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2022.


Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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