Racist and baseless: Facebook posts about Wabaseemoong COVID-19 outbreak causing harm in Kenora, Ont.

Recent social media posts spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wabaseemoong Independent Nations are not only false, but they are “creating fear and mistrust” within the city of Kenora, Ont. and the broader northwestern Ontario community, according to Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders in the region.

Instead, community members and leaders are asking people to stop the racial discrimination and to show compassion for those working hard to contain the outbreak.

“Be more understanding of their needs. It doesn’t have to get racially discriminatory or ugly like that. We’ve got to stand up for one another,” said Dennie Courchene, a member of Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, who has lived in Kenora for several years.

Wabaseemoong Chief Waylon Scott, alongside a number of former chiefs, released a video on February 10 informing the public that a number of people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the First Nation. They swiftly put the community into lockdown and established a checkpoint and a curfew, among other health measures.

Several agencies and levels of government have mobilized staff and resources to support the First Nation — including rapid and mobile testing, food security, centralized water and wood supplies — and 24 isolation beds have been made available in Kenora for people that cannot isolate in Wabaseemoong or must be in the city for medical purposes.

But a series of posts and comments in the Facebook group “Kenora Rant’n’Rave” made last Friday targeted members of the First Nation isolating in Kenora, claiming people were breaking isolation rules, “infecting innocent people” and going into grocery stores.

Those claims are entirely false, according to Ontario Provincial Police Kenora detachment commander and inspector Jeff Duggan.

“We’ve received no reports of anybody spitting on any food or anything of that nature. It’s people going online and either making things up … the people that are self-isolating, they’re following the public health and partner agencies directions.”

An emailed statement from Loblaws, the parent company of two of the grocery stores named in the comments, said, “the statements on social media are patently false, offensive and racist.”

Impact of racist claims reverberates throughout the region

The posts were taken down within two hours of being published on social media, according to one of the administrators of the Facebook page, but the impact is lasting.

Courchene has spent much of the last two weeks volunteering his time, driving the more than two hours between Kenora and Wabaseemoong to deliver groceries and other necessities to the checkpoint. 

“When I saw that post, I got upset because there’s really no need for causing a divide in a community that is in need of help.”

Dennie Courchene of Wabaseemoong Independent Nation has spent countless hours driving between Kenora, Ont. and the First Nation to deliver groceries and necessary supplies to the checkpoint in support of his friends and family locked down. (Submitted by Dennie Courchene)

Courchene said the claims have affected his shopping.

“I face looks, comments and it does bother me from time to time. I do get frustrated by hearing that, ‘Oh, he’s from White Dog [Wabaseemoong] and like he shouldn’t be in here. He’s probably infected.’ No, I’m not,” he said.

Tania Cameron has been vocal about the harm caused by these posts.

“The racism in Kenora is still strong in this town. And I know some people don’t like to hear it, but as a brown person living and working in Kenora, I feel it. My children feel it.”

She added, “when we have hate spilling over on social media, it impacts any kind of work — whether it’s through reconciliation or trying to put aside these stereotypes and racist thoughts against other people — it sets that work back.”

The OPP said there is an open investigation into threats allegedly made toward the Kenora-based woman that made one of the comments, but said there are no current investigations or charges planned against the people that made the comments on social media.

Tania Cameron has been vocal about the racist posts in the Facebook group. She says these posts are racist, and they have real, harmful impacts that are lasting. (Tania Cameron)

But Cameron says there should be legal implications for people that incite hatred and racism online.

“I’ve had private conversations with friends who are really upset that this woman has the privilege to use her white skin to go complain to the OPP because she’s getting a negative response.”

“Imagine how we feel. You think I have the privilege of a brown person to go say, ‘you know what, so-and-so said some terrible words that are going to have a negative impact to my people when we shop and do our business in town. You think I have that privilege? I don’t think so,” she said.

‘Is this what we want Kenora to be known for?’

Courchene says this racism isn’t new.

“Before the whole lockdown and COVID … people come from White Dog or any other community for that matter, and they were faced with racial discrimination. They would think that we were shoplifters, that we were always drunk.”

Daphne Armstrong agrees. She’s the director of strategy and innovation for Kenora Chiefs Advisory and has played a central role in coordinating support for the outbreak response. She’s also a member of Wabaseemoong.

“We’re a large community. Our band membership is over 2000 people … but there seem to be like a perception of we’re not contributing to the economy of Kenora,” said Armstrong. “I just feel like there’s systemic issues in our experiences in accessing service, the business community and things like that.”

She added, “I grew up both in Wabaseemoong and in Kenora and is this what we want Kenora to be known for?”

#WabaseemoongStrong emerges in response

Many say they don’t want these posts to take away from the hard work that people in the region are doing to support Wabaseemoong.

The social media hashtag #WabaseemoongStrong has taken hold as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the area are posting to show their solidarity with the First Nation battling the outbreak.

“When I think about that, I think about how the community can come together as a people, get past the differences as a people and rise above it. And they continue to do that time and time again,” said Courchene.

Many volunteers like Courchene are regularly making the drive out to deliver supplies to Wabaseemoong, they are sharing positive messages online and doing what they can to support, he says.

And an end may be in sight for the COVID-19 outbreak in Wabaseemoong.

At a press conference this week, Northwestern Health Unit Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kit Young Hoon said the number of cases in “one community” in the “Kenora area” appears to be “plateauing,” although it will likely still be a number of weeks before the outbreak ends.

And when it does, COVID-19 vaccines are ready, having arrived to the community over the weekend.

A press release issued by Wabaseemoong Independent Nation said while public health guidance is to not conduct community-wide vaccinations during an outbreak, the First Nation has been “identified as a top priority for vaccine.”

With files from Matt Vis

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