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

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 (BIA).

This is the final installment in a series of articles documenting 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.

Stratford Police Chief Greg Skinner was asked if Stratford Police Services were working with North Perth OPP and other nearby police detachments because there have been a lot of hate-related incidents, such as the destruction of flags in both Perth and Huron Counties.

“The people from those communities come here, so there are people from Stratford, but it is also the people from other communities,” said a concerned citizen.

Skinner said they work closely with Perth and Huron County OPP on several initiatives.

“The Community Safety and Well-being Plan, which has a significant percentage of their priorities based around diversity, equity, and inclusion … and implementing collaborative initiatives across the board, so yes, we do have those discussions,” he said. “I know the incidents in the county’s north part, and we do what we can.”

It was suggested that businesses and BIA come together for training.

“That is something that we have been exploring and talking about over the last few months as an organization,” said BIA Chair Pamela Coneybeare. “We have been internally working with some facilitators and putting things out for members to engage and include them. One of the next steps, there will be a few, is to offer more training opportunities for our business members and their staff.”

On Dec. 6, a representative from the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce will be offering a half-day sensitivity and understanding seminar for businesses, particularly businesses in the tourism industry, at the SPCC.

“It is free to any business in town,” said Bruce Duncan Skeaff, the senior organizer of the SPCC. “If you think it’s something you will benefit from, please sign up.”

Mayor-elect Martin Ritsma interjected, stating that when he worked in education, primarily as an administrator, we would do annual events such as the Colour Run.

“It’s that day-to-day interaction with youth that is so precious,” he said. “I know when we had the confederate flag issue, I was just arriving back at the high school, and that was part of what I was receiving.”

Ritsma said he brought students into his office, particularly young men, in groups of two or three for education, not discipline.

“Educating because you don’t want to turn out angry people; you want to turn out educated people,” he said. “Those things impact more than me saying, ‘OK, go get your stuff. You are suspended for what you did’ … In most cases, it is the education piece you are talking about, so if you are in … your store or restaurant, your employees feel empowered to say something, and that was my mission as an educator. To educate and have individuals empowered to say something.”

A citizen said there seems to be a need for an overall plan.

“There needs to be an aspirational goal set,” they said. “There need to be administrative classes like in other communities, funding – there needs to be a multi-faceted approach to looking at police services, educators and the community to bring a holistic plan that everybody is on board with. I think that’s what is missing here.”

The mayor-elect said he would meet with the police chief soon to discuss these issues.

“But that’s excluding the community,” replied the citizen. “We’re here and need to speak about how we contribute to that without it being driven politically or systemically. What’s the third prong of that plan that involves the people sitting around here who don’t wield the power of a uniform or a political head? As a community, what are our roles and responsibility, and how do we do that together in conjunction with you following us, not you leading us, because we are the ones who have the information? Our community is being harmed … I’m not criticizing everything going on … What can we do? This has been horrific, and it has happened over and over and over again. Not just to our community but to all vulnerable communities here. Where is the plan that doesn’t just go, the police are looking after it, or council is? … Where is the plan to engage our community?”

Duncan Skeaff said the SPCC would be happy to provide the space for more meetings for people to get together and move this conversation forward to come to something workable.

“The piece missing is the public,” agreed Skinner. “We look around the province at other police services trying similar initiatives with different structures. What they are doing is all internal. They don’t have any community input generally, and where they do have community input, they have a couple of silos. They have the citizens and the police, and they are not meshing, so I think your point is right on.”

Another citizen brought the conversation back to comments made by Skinner and Ritsma concerning the education pieces before and after a hate-motivated incident.

“You are right, people who commit acts like this and consider it acceptable aren’t the ones who will go to a library talk on diversity, and they are not the ones who are engaged in these sorts of conversations,” she said. “Now I know Waterloo Region and other areas across North America utilize Restorative Justice because they are not going to volunteer forward, but when it is part of your sentencing, you must understand the impact of what you have done. Kitchener-Waterloo is spearheaded by the police services, Community Justice Initiatives, and Mennonite Central Committee. So, I don’t know that there are the same parties in Stratford currently because the onus shouldn’t be on the police for many reasons. It needs to be a community partnership, but that’s something I wonder about moving forward, so you don’t have recidivism.”

Skinner said there are restorative justice processes in the City of Stratford.

“You are quite right. The police are part of that (but) we are not the ones who dictate (it),” he said. “That is the Ministry of the Attorney General through the courts, crown attorneys and the defence counsel. They are the ones who support and structure that. The police become an impacted party at the table. So, we do have it but understand that it is predicated on the fact that we had a crime, and we have somebody that we have charged, and now they are in the court process. Absent that, and you heard the numbers, I would say a minimal number, if not zero, ended up in a charge out of this because these were hate-based incidents, not necessarily hate-based crimes.”

“This is one of the reasons I think it is such an exciting possibility because when Community Justice Initiatives in Kitchener-Waterloo work a lot with the incidents where it is not a crime, there are no lawyers involved,” the citizen replied. “It’s a lot more like what the Mayor-elect was talking about where it’s … ‘let’s talk about why that flag is problematic. Let’s talk about these issues.’”

Another citizen spoke about the importance of identifying businesses where 2SLGBTQIA+ community members can go and know they are safe and respected.

“We also launched the Stratford Pride Guide,” said Duncan Skeaff. “An online directory of businesses that have promised to live up to our principles … If we get complaints, which we have not yet, but if we were ever to get a complaint from somebody not living up to that, we would certainly be seriously taking care of that but the more businesses we can get to sign onto that the better.”

The Pride Guide is for service providers as well as retailers.

“We also recognize that for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, we need friendly lawyers … we have directed some people to this; they may be coming out of a straight marriage and need legal advice from someone who understands leaving a straight marriage into a same-sex relationship, what the complications are. Some people will need a lawyer with experience with same-sex spousal abuse, which in some communities is a problem. We also need other professionals to help you with social service problems unique to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. We need to be able to sus out those people for people who live in Stratford to be able to go to and know that they are not going to be snickered at after they leave the room. It is essential to be able to live a true life and a comfortable life in this town.”

The next resident was crying as she spoke.

“As parents of a child who identifies as Queer, this is an important issue to us,” she said. “I do have a Pride flag flying at my house. My neighbours knocked on my door, and they said thank you for flying that flag. A flag may seem like it is not an important thing, but it is. I think that everybody who is here needs to commit to walking the talk when we leave here. It’s talking to your neighbours … we need to do that. It’s a grassroots movement that we need. Whether it is lawn signs that say there is no room for hate here. Whatever it is, we have to do it. We must make Stratford a safe place for all.”

Another citizen asked what the Stratford equivalent of Pink Shirt Day could be.

Someone else said they were elated when the SPCC opened to provide the 2SLGBTQIA+ community with a place where they could talk and meet, but they would like to see the facility be a place where people could get questions answered.

“There are organizations like PFLAG for parents, and this is where it all starts, in the home,” they said. “For parents, it is a complicated subject to approach with your child.”

The citizen said if conversations at home aren’t handled properly, it can lead to anger which can spiral into bad results, so they would like to see more done to support families.

Duncan Skeaff said that conversations with the national PFLAG organization are already happening about setting up a local chapter. Also, SPCC is hosting weekly meetings discussing what it is like to be 2SLGBTQIA+ in Stratford.

“We are seeing some parents come in with their children because they need to be able to figure out how to talk,” he said.

SPCC encourages people to visit or call 519-273-SPCC for a weekly listing of activities and programs.

“There is a dire shortage of volunteers, not just here,” said Duncan Skeaff. “Since the pandemic, many people who used to be volunteers are not coming back.”

He also noted that Stratford and the surrounding area have an extreme shortage of professionals adept at working with the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

“Stratford, for a very long time, has had an extreme shortage of specialists and professionals in these fields who can help families and individuals out,” said Duncan Skeaff. “I can’t tell you the amount of exasperation and frustration these people feel daily because they know the need here is much greater than they can handle. We need some way of getting more professionals into this town. We know what needs to be done. Resources must be put behind it. We are trying and pushing as much as we can … keep telling people, especially your elected officials in Queen’s Park or Ottawa.”

This is the final article in this series, but Woodstein Media will continue to report on activities and actions affecting the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in Perth County and surrounding areas.

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