Stratford 2SLGBTQIA+ community discuss actions to counter rise in hate-related crimes & incidents: education

After homophobic vandalism was discovered at Sirkel Foods in Stratford on the morning of Nov. 1, a meeting was planned at the Stratford Pride Community Centre (SPCC) to allow the community to discuss their feelings, thoughts and fears with representatives from Stratford Police Services, City of Stratford council and the Stratford City Centre Business Improvement Area.

This is the second installment in a three-part series of articles that document the discussion of how police investigate hate-motivated incidents and what the city and the public can do to help make the community more welcoming and inclusive for all people.

Before Stratford’s Mayor-elect Martin Ritsma jumped into the conversation about the graffiti attack on Sirkel Foods, he acknowledged the SPCC and the role it plays for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

“I was so proud to be part of the group that cut the ribbon to this location,” he said. “This is part of our community, and I’m so proud of that. It is disappointing that we must meet here tonight under these circumstances … On behalf of council, I am sorry this has happened but certainly know that we are there with you every step of the way.”

Ritsma acknowledged the idea raised during the discussion that there is underlying hate in Stratford and the surrounding area.

“It’s not how we perceive ourselves, and yet we have to recognize that it is here,” he said. “We have to be the ones to step up and say, no, that’s not acceptable. That is not who we are as Stratford. We don’t want to be that way to our residents or our businesses.”

He committed support to the Stratford 2SLGBTQIA+ community as mayor regarding policing and public forums.

Ritsma worked in the education system and he said schools are doing their part educating people.

“We need to continue to nurture that,” he said. “You talk about support, which is needed right now for our educational assistants. Those individuals that work daily on staff with our youth build that understanding and acceptance in our community through education, and that’s where it all starts. I want to publicly state that they are on both boards doing amazing work every day, and I’m blessed to be part of that on an ongoing basis. I can speak at you ad nauseum, but I want you to know that actions are much more important than speaking.”

“You are welcome to express your feelings as well, not just your thoughts, because I know this must have scared the hell out of many people,” encouraged Bruce Duncan Skeaff, the senior organizer of the SPCC. “It sure as hell did (scare) me.”

“We were deeply saddened when we heard the news, and we support the business owners and the 2SLGBTQIA+ community,” said the Stratford City Centre Business Improvement Area Chair Pamela Coneybeare. “We stand in solidarity with you and support you, but we are here to hear from you and to know how we might be able to take meaningful and supportive actions for the community. We want to listen and learn from you and let you know we are here to help in any way we can.”

A citizen asked what can be done as a community to prevent or minimize hate-motivated crimes or incidents.

Mayor-elect Martin Ritsma committed support to the Stratford 2SLGBTQIA+ community from city council regarding policing and public forums. (Colin Burrowes Photo)

The Mayor-elect said he thinks prevention comes with everyday conversations.

“You have to be bold enough to say, stop, that’s not acceptable,” he said. “That is so very important. Frequently what we do is shy away from those bold conversations. I’m guilty of that. When somebody says something negative or slanderous towards somebody or a group, it takes that bold step and the reminder to say yes; you must speak up when that moment is there to educate and indicate to that individual that doesn’t belong in our community. That is, I think, the most important step.”

With three hate-motivated incidents already mentioned in the conversation and an understanding that hate crimes and incidents have been on the rise,  a Stratford resident asked if there are any other incidents related to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community over the last two years that they should be aware of.

“I haven’t done that deep dive to see the actual specifics of the complaints,” said Stratford Police Chief Greg Skinner.

He did have the chart of the number of complaints from 2008 to 2020.

In 2008 there were nine; in 2009, six; in 2011, one; in 2012 seven; in 2013, three; in 2014, two; in 2015, two; in 2016, one; in 2017, five; in 2018, four; in 2019, two; and in 2020, eleven.

Skinner said hate crimes and incidents happen far more often than they are reported to the police.

“This is a very underreported type of incident,” he said. “People do not report these. Again if you want to talk about what we can do. We can report. We can talk about it. You can let us know what is going on so that we can prioritize. Let’s face it. The things that get the funding in policing are always around the ones that are trending and are causing the workload.”

Although Skinner did not have the official numbers for 2021 and 2022 to share at the meeting, he said they were trending up.

“I hear people say all the time, well, the police are busy, and I don’t want to bother them,” he encouraged people to report hate-motivated incidents. “Listen, it’s your tax dollar. Your tax dollar is funding the police. You are already paying for it whether you call us or not. I suggest you call and hold us accountable because that’s how things get done, and that’s how we respond to the community issues.”

A citizen asked what the police had discovered about motives when they sat down with the perpetrators of these incidents.

“Ignorance,” replied Skinner. “It’s generational. It’s taught at home. It is something that they think is okay. They don’t recognize differences. They don’t understand the impact they are causing on the community and people within the communities being targeted.”

“I’m just wondering if, from that information, is there any kind of program or community type of event that could be put together that could communicate some of this and dispel some of the issues that these people are having that motivate them to perpetrate these types of crimes,” a citizen enquired.

Skinner said there are initiatives that municipalities have put in place to educate and bring people together.

“I might be a naysayer, but the people doing this won’t engage in those initiatives,” he said. “They are not the type that will come forward and want to be changed. So, this is stuff that has to happen, as the mayor-elect said, this is stuff that has to happen at the youth … we have to start somewhere, and we have to get them while they are young and then they grow up thinking differently. The problem is young kids are living in households where the parents are a problem.”

A man actively listening and taking notes on the conversation chimed in.

“I’m on the affirming committee of Avondale United Church, and we are an affirming congregation,” he said. “We welcome everyone, and obviously, things like this make us, as a church, concerned that hate crimes will be committed at the church.”

In response to the question of what members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community can do, the man encouraged being open about “who you are.”

“Many of these people doing these crimes don’t think they know anybody who is Queer of any stripe,” he said.

He is  62 years old and has been with his husband for nearly 30 years.

“I’m open about who I am daily,” he said. “When talking to people at work, I talk about my husband. It doesn’t matter whether I work at the festival or the factory because I work nights. I’m working with children, to me, who don’t know any difference about when same-sex marriage was enacted in this country because they were born the year it was enacted. To them, same-sex marriage is just part of life, so many young people have a very different attitude. It’s the parents who carefully teach hate, and that hate is taught, not just by the parents, but we have some very fundamentalist churches in this community teaching hate. They don’t teach the gospel of love.”

The man said there would be hate-motivated incidents until that generational change is achieved. He is a retired schoolteacher.

“Things are changing amongst our youth,” he said. “Our schools are doing their jobs. I saw that before I retired. That was eight years ago. The schools are doing their jobs. They are doing a good job of it.”

He mentioned that some older people in the community have still been shocked when they meet a gay couple.

“The last two owners of the house next to us have been quite shocked when they find out there is a gay couple living next door – well, tough, get to know us,” he said. “Maybe you will see that your concepts that you have been battered with from your parents of what gay men do, that we can’t maintain stable relationships, (aren’t true). You have got to get to know people. Part of that is us being willing to be out and open every day, every minute of every day, because until people know that they know someone who is gay and lesbian, they are not going to change their minds because they don’t have an image outside of the hate that they have been taught.”

Duncan Skeaff added context to that comment by mentioning that the federal census started collecting figures on same-sex couples in 2016. Regarding the number of male same-sex couples per capita, Stratford was number seven in the country.

“We’re number seven,” he said. “There are more here per capita than there are in Toronto. Who knew? But many of us know because there is a large 2SLGBTQIA+ population here. It just sort of lives a little bit under the surface.”

“Because it is not safe to be anywhere else,” a citizen interjected. “Looking at the examples of what is happening downtown, if you are vocal and you advocate for yourself, and you value yourself as a human being, you are going to get your business attacked, or you will get verbally – heck, where I live two young guys are working on the house beside me, and I can hear them talking about the perv gays that are in Stratford. Do you think I am going over there as a single person to have that conversation? Not happening. I need other people in the community because, to me, that is what allyship is. I will stand up when I can, and I feel safe to do that, and I put myself out there an awful lot where it is not safe.”

She said she doesn’t expect everybody to put themselves out there, but she needs to know there is community support.

“I need to know not just that the flag gets raised in support,” she said. “I need to know that when I’m downtown eating in a restaurant, and the person beside me has some derogatory comment, I’m going to be able to go and say that it’s not OK for them to be here, and someone will back me so that I don’t have to leave that restaurant.”

Duncan Skeaff said building a community where people have support is why the SPCC was opened.

“This is a place where we can talk about all those things,” he said.

Skinner was asked if there are any 2SLGBTQIA+ community members on the police services board.

“The board is a five-member board.” He replied. “Not on the board, not to the best of my knowledge.”

Ryan Cleveland, who works security at the Stratford Festival, said that on the morning the graffiti was discovered at Sirkel Foods, he went to see the owners as soon as he found out.

“I was horrified,” he said.

He offered whatever assistance he could from the Stratford Festival.

“I was the person that asked for that flag to be raised at the festival,” said Cleveland. “We were hoping people would ask why that flag is up there instead of the Canada flag. Our response would be to tell them about this isolated incident and make people aware that there is hate in the community.”

On a positive note, he gave a shoutout to Black Swan Brewing Co., who are arranging fundraising support to help Sirkel Foods install a security system.

“We must have patience but rest assured, people are fully supporting you guys,” Cleveland said. “People are fully aware of what has happened, and as a community, we will get stronger and look after you.”

This series of articles will continue with more discussion of the reaction and preventative measures the City, community and police of Stratford may take to deal with a rise in hate-based crimes and incidents.

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