Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From apartheid... to a stampede

Morris mayor's roots give him a valuable perspective in dealing with town's recent strife

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MORRIS -- Gavin van der Linde is the mayor of Morris, which a few months ago was best known for fighting floods and hosting the long-running Manitoba Stampede.

And then...

In January, the editor-in-chief of the Morris Mirror, a local circular, decided to publish an editorial condemning the Idle No More movement, postulating that "in some cases, natives are acting like terrorists in their own country. Indians/natives want it all but corruption and laziness prevent some of them from working for it."

Suddenly, the community of 1,800 was making national headlines, instantly being perceived as a willing cocoon of racist sentiments.

It was a stampede, all right. The ride was just as jolting and lasted much longer than eight seconds. Residents were left to defend their community while the offending author, Reed Turcotte, went dark.

No sooner had the unattractive dust settled, however, when news broke this week that the owners of a Morris diner, both homosexual, announced they were closing their restaurant, Pots N Hands, after just four months due to anti-gay slurs.

Then it got worse. A Canadian Press story subsequently quoted (among others) George Ifantis, who operates George's Burgers & Subs, saying he personally had no issue with the Pots N Hands owners, but, "A lot of people don't like it. You don't know what they're doing in the kitchen."

This was no longer a rodeo. The chute had truly hit the fan. The story went viral.

This week, the town office was inundated with emails from across North America, laced with vitriol and disgust for a community in the crosshairs.

Exhibit A: "Please, please, construct a bypass around your bigotted (sic) town, so we do not have to drive through it and have any of your opinions of human behaviour taint our vehicles."

Exhibit B: "As a gay chef thriving in Atlanta, please pass this message on to Mr. Ifantis and his 'some people': GO F YOURSELF! They're cooking in their kitchen... what the f are you doing in YOUR kitchen? Thanks y'all."

Exhibit C, under the tag line, "Redneck Town of the Year": "Your town should apply."

For van der Linde, who had strongly condemned the Mirror editorial, the deluge of condemnation was at first staggering.

"Something like this can destroy, instantly, what we have done (in community development)," he said during an interview at the Morris town office. "It's unbelievable. You could never afford to counter the negative press we've received. This is $10 million in negative marketing."

Van der Linde's second thought: "This is unreal. Who could have guessed this? If I was sitting in Winnipeg and was Sam Katz, I'd have a whole media team behind us. I'm just a part-time mayor."

In fact, van der Linde's full-time job is senior pastor of the Open Door, a nondenominational church that draws weekly congregations of between 200 and 250 parishioners.

He is also a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, and was raised amid the rioting and violence of the struggle to end the racial segregation of apartheid.

The 45-year-old van der Linde attended a university where 75 per cent of the students were East Indian, 20 per cent were black and five per cent were white.

It was in Johannesburg that van der Linde met his future wife, Joan, at a Youth for Christ mission. He jokes: "She's the one who forced me to come here."

When van der Linde first decided to run for town council six years ago, there was little reaction to a pastor wanting to become involved in municipal politics. After all, he reasoned, "both of those roles serve the community."

The response to the pastor's bid for mayor in 2010, however, was much more critical. "That's when it blew up," van der Linde said. "People were asking, 'How can a church leader be mayor?' "

Van der Linde insisted he would not mix church and state. He believes he's kept that promise.

"My philosophy has been to outlast my critics," he explained. "There's nothing to point their finger at where I've crossed the line."

"His hats are always on at the right time," added Morris town chief administrative officer Brigitte Doerksen.

"He never brings religion into politics. He's good at defining the two."

When the mayor is asked if the pastor would speak on the topic of homophobia from his pulpit, van der Linde said no, although he would preach about the topic of human dignity. Would he welcome homosexuals into his church? "Yes," he said, noting the theme of his Open Door church is about welcoming everyone.

Yet the circumstances of van der Linde's first term have him drawing upon both his experiences in South Africa, where he was raised in a white suburb of Johannesburg, and his early church missions, where the message in the 1980s was: "You can change the laws of the country, but only when you change the hearts of the people can you change a nation."

"We should be able to listen to diverse opinions," explained van der Linde, who -- just as with the Mirror controversy -- came out publicly to support the restaurant owners and condemn the anti-gay slurs this week.

"We should be able to hold strong views and still respect the person. We don't deal with diverse opinions well. We need to get to the point of living with that tension."

Van der Linde is quick to point out racist or homophobic attitudes exist in rural towns.

He's just as quick to note that a Winnipeg man, a member of Pride Winnipeg, woke up on Easter Sunday to find the word "HOMO" sprayed on the front of his home -- an event that clearly indicates homophobic views exist outside the town of Morris. And anti-Semitic views. And anti-aboriginal views.

But Linde allowed: "There's latent attitudes here (in rural Manitoba) because people don't have to deal with these issues. You don't know what your neighbour thinks. You don't know if you're homophobic or not until you have to deal with it.

"The good news is this could make our town stronger. We've had to deal with racism and homophobia. Hopefully, we can learn from it or grow from it."

Still, the image of Morris as an intolerant, one-horse town now exists. And that horse -- for much of the public, many of whom didn't know Morris even existed last week -- has already left the barn.

But van der Linde would argue for a different headline: "Small town fights against small-minded attitudes."

The Morris Mirror? After that editorial, local residents and businesses pulled their advertising. The publication was out of business in four months.

The Pots N Hands restaurant, meanwhile, has been filled with local patrons wishing to show their support for the owners, who will close their doors on April 13th despite pleas from people such as van der Linde to remain open.

"In both cases, the town and residents have strongly spoken out against the racism and homophobia," the mayor/pastor concluded.

"You couldn't get a seat at Pots N Hands (Wednesday or Thursday). To me, that shows we aren't the homophobe community everybody's made us out to be.

"We pulled ads (from the Mirror). We didn't tolerate it and he (Turcotte) has moved on. That speaks volumes."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 A6

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