KENORA – The northwestern Ontario community of Kenora is coming under increasing scrutiny over reports of discrimination and racist treatment of members of a First Nation isolating there due to a major COVID-19 outbreak.
Canada’s Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has raised concerns over behaviour faced by members of Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Kenora.
“The people of Wabaseemong are not only fighting a large outbreak of COVID-19 but it appears that some members have also faced ignorant and bigoted behaviour from certain businesses and organizations in Kenora, as well as online,” he wrote on Twitter Monday. “This must end. We are better than this!”
Many members of the First Nation located about 100 kilometres northwest of Kenora are currently isolating in hotel rooms in the city.
Health authorities have been tight-lipped on details of the Wabaseemoong outbreak, first announced by Chief Waylon Scott on Feb. 10, but it’s believed around 100 members of the First Nation have so far tested positive.
At a press conference Tuesday, medical officer of health Dr. Kit Young Hoon announced the Northwestern Health Unit had heard numerous informal complaints of customers facing racial discrimination in at least one Kenora business.
“We’ve had a couple of concerns brought forward of a business refusing service because of someone’s race,” she said. “It’s just come up repeatedly in conversation with other agencies, as they try to support the isolation centre or the community.”
However, she noted the health unit had not independently verified any details, and was not aware how widespread the issue was.
“These reports have been informal,” she said. “We don’t have any formal documentation on it, we don’t know the specific details of these incidents.”
Young Hoon said she raised the issue in hopes of ending the behaviour.
“We did think it was important to let businesses know that refusing service by race would not be a useful measure [against COVID-19], but in addition, it can be harmful to people – affecting how people feel about themselves and their community – and it goes against the human rights code.”
A number of Kenora-area government and First Nations organizations issued a statement on Feb. 19 urging residents to “remain calm and logical” and treat those infected with kindness.
“We understand that seeing a large number of new COVID-19 cases in the Kenora area is unsettling and may cause concern for some people,” it read. “We encourage kindness at this time and remind the public that this situation is not unique to our area and can happen anywhere.”
“Communities across Ontario have seen outbreaks in various population groups. No one should be blamed or mistreated for having COVID-19.”
The letter was signed by groups including the City of Kenora, the Kenora Chiefs Advisory, the OPP and Treaty 3 Police, and the health unit.
The OPP has not yet responded to requests for comment on the situation.