Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Poison in a small town

When racism surfaces, fighting back is the only option

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MORRIS -- When the next chapter of Canada's civil rights history is written, this one-traffic-light town may be a bleak footnote. Morris is the dot on the map where the editor of a small paper used his pulpit to promote hatred against aboriginal people.

In the Jan. 14 issue of the Morris Mirror, editor Reed Turcotte wrote: "Thumbs Down to Canada's native community and those of Manitoba who are demanding unrealistic expectations of the government and who in some cases 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."

A week later, U.S. President Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term. In his remarks, Obama said: "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."

Remember those words.

On Jan. 21, Turcotte ran a selection of letters weighing in on his comments. A few were critical. Most weren't. He headlined one note "B.S. Movement."

"Good for you. I agree with your article 100%," the letter read. "(I)f (only) the Indians would put as much effort into employment as they have for this movement."

"I would like to say congratulations for having the guts to say what everyone else is thinking," read another. "Maybe if they had jobs they would be too busy to set up roadblocks etc. Thanks for having the balls to tell it how it is."

They. Them. The others. Not like us, the righteous. They are different and, by inference, inferior. Every culture has an underclass, it seems, and by God, First Nations people are ours.

Morris was previously best-known for its summer pro rodeo, and as one of the places people pass through on their way to the American border. Its neatly kept Main Street is a stretch of Highway 75 where the speed limit slows to 50 for a few blocks, then rips quickly back up to 100. You can get a massage, have a decent meal, pick up groceries, gas up the car and stop for a beer along Main Street. This was a small town like any other, before hatred oozed out.

Turcotte is owner, publisher and editor of the free, twice-monthly newspaper. He has published more often since the controversy began, capitalizing on the Canada-wide attention.

The majority of Morris residents say the editor does not speak for them. Lawyer Daniel Orlikow promptly cancelled his front-page ad.

"I had to," he says. "I know there are a lot of people who supported him, but I had to."

Tax accountant Helga Rose Hoeppner also pulled her ads. She's got a client on nearby Roseau River First Nation who says residents there may boycott advertisers.

"I don't want to make it look like I support him," Hoeppner says. "I'm all for freedom of speech but there's a line you don't cross, singling out a race like that."

But there are the number of fence-sitters who won't take a position on Turcotte's words or the barrage of supportive racist comments. At Bartlett's Barber Shop, the proprietor pretends he hasn't heard about the controversy. His visiting friend claims he's deaf and can't hear a journalist's questions. One real estate agent, asked if she'll continue to advertise in the Mirror, says she has no comment. She doesn't want to get involved, she says. Her words are echoed up and down Main Street. This is a small community, many say, and we can't afford to antagonize anyone.

You can't waffle on this one. Turcotte dragged Morris into the 1950s American South, where uppity negroes were put in their place, and that place wasn't where decent, God-fearing white folks lived. That attitude wasn't right then and there, and it's not right here and now. Unless Morris wants to join Selma, Ala., in the annals of shame, it's time to stand up and be counted.

Turcotte is laying low. He didn't respond to email and telephone requests for an interview. The Mirror offices, tucked into a strip mall next to the Let Go Let God Ministries, are locked. When a writer and a photographer went to his home, a woman peered out the window but refused to answer the door.

Morris Mayor Gavin van der Linde is talking about the poison in his town. He was born in South Africa, moved to Canada 14 years ago, and has been town mayor for two years. Some Mirror readers suggested he move back to Africa after he denounced the editorial. Van der Linde says he is struggling to find something positive in what he views as an appalling attack on aboriginal peoples.

"There have been some conversations initiated that should have taken place a long time ago," he says. "There is a time when people need to stand up, speak out and refuse to tolerate these attitudes. It's not going to help our country if people are entrenched in their opinions and won't consider the other side."

Retiree Bill Fulford agrees. The 73-year-old has lived in Morris for "the best 35 years of my life," served on town council and is an articulate coffee shop habitué. He says Turcotte's words and the supportive comments he published are "disgusting."

"It's racism. We have a serious problem in this country. We have people who exist as a subclass who just want what we all want. Why is that wrong?"

Fulford says he can't imagine right-thinking people will continue to advertise in the Mirror.

"Can you imagine having your name in there? That is just so wrong. Even if it costs you money, you've got to stand up for it. People know the difference between right and wrong."

People do know that, as they know many uncomfortable truths.

Montgomery, Ala. Little Rock, Ark. Memphis, Tenn. Unless Morris, Man., wants to join the roll call of shame, the majority of decent people here must stand up and agree name-calling is no substitute for reasoned debate.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 j2

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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