Alleged racism highlights diversity divide in rural Ontario

As Canadians leave large cities for small towns during the COVID-19 pandemic, some racialized families are feeling vulnerable, saying they’ve been the target of racism in their new community. Tina Yazdani reports.

By Tina Yazdani and Michelle LePage

Canadians are leaving large cities like Toronto for smaller towns during COVID-19, according to a study by Remax, but the cheaper housing comes with a heavy price for some racialized families.

People of colour (POC) say they’ve been the target of racism in their new communities and have been made to feel unwelcome and unwanted.

One man, who spoke to CityNews anonymously, moved to a new subdivision in Beaverton, Ont., where his family could afford to buy a house. Since moving to the community, he believes his family has been targeted because they are one of the only POC families in the neighbourhood.

He says it started with some typical neighbourhood disputes — one neighbour wasn’t picking up after his dog, leaving it on the family’s front lawn — but has since escalated significantly. The family claims they’ve been harassed and verbally abused with racial slurs.

“They say you are not a Canadian. He’s calling me a f****** Black Indian,” the man said. “They are telling us ‘get out from here. Don’t live here, get out’.”

Another South Asian family that moved to the community from Toronto this year has had a similar experience.

“[Neighbours are] calling us all types of racial slurs,” says one member of the family, who also preferred to remain anonymous. “We can’t even just come out and drink a little bit of coffee without them trying to instigate and start to bully.”

“In Toronto, we hear all about racism … but we fail to look at how it is up north, the real, actual racism. There are families here going through this and it’s very sad, heartbreaking,” he said.

The families called police but said they did not issue any tickets and only spoke with the neighbours. CityNews spoke briefly with neighbours who denied all claims and did not want to be interviewed.

The local councillor, Ted Smith, visited the neighbourhood to offer his support to the families, but said there isn’t much he can do beyond raising awareness.

“This is a community that we feel is welcoming and it’s very disappointing. No form of racism is tolerated,” said Smith.

Smith said the vast majority of Beaverton is friendly to newcomers but there is room to improve.

Tracking diversity outside Toronto

These alleged acts of racism are highlighting the rural-urban divide when it comes to diversity in rural communities. In an effort to help other families looking to move out of the city, two Toronto researchers have started a project called Ninety Minutes From Toronto.

Drawing from Census Canada data, news reports, municipal websites and by talking to locals, Audra Williams and Haritha Gnanaratna are collecting information about small towns and cities within 90 minutes of Toronto.

“I want people to be able to live somewhere they’re going to feel like they have a community,” said Williams.

The project started after Williams and Gnanaratna began asking themselves if it was worth working so hard to afford living in Toronto during the pandemic since the businesses they wanted to go to were closed and they couldn’t visit their friends either.

“There was no centralized information dump for this kind of stuff,” said Gnanaratna. “Well, there is now.”

The information includes the total BIPOC population in each town or city, and other factors like LGBTQ support, pride events and BLM support, to help people make an informed decision before they choose to move out of the city.

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