Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bomber legends visit troubled town diner

Stegall, Khan drop by to offer support

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Two of Winnipeg's most famous Blue Bombers visited the town of Morris Saturday in support of the local diner owner at the centre of alleged racial discrimination -- but hardly any of the residents turned out to do the same.

There were only about a dozen customers in Thea's Diner at 2 p.m. Saturday when CFL legend Milt Stegall and longtime Bomber Obby Khan were scheduled to arrive.

Mayor's message posted on town website

To The Town of Morris: I am impressed with the way our community has responded positively over this time to Thea as she has been going through some difficult times. Last week Thea told me that she had never received an negative word from a Morris resident. Let us keep it that way and find an opportunity to be an encouragement to her when you see her. Let us continue to rise above media bias and continue to be the supportive community we have always been. Don't allow the negative media to set our tone, we are better than that.

We have a strong history of standing up against discrimination in any of its many forms. That has largely been ignored by the media, but we have had the opportunity to stand up with a united voice and speak out loudly against both racism and homophobia. Very few communities have been able to say that they have taken the public stand we have. Let us remember that and make the commitment to continue to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Never compromise on that even in adverse situations.

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and much peace as we celebrate this season with family and friends.

Thank you,

Gavin van der Linde

Mayor of this Great Town

"I just hope the town of Morris realizes what's going on here. There's a problem here. They might try to sweep it under the rug, but there's a problem here," said Stegall, who played for the Blue Bombers between 1995 and 2008 and is now retired and living in Atlanta, Ga.

Jamaican-born Thea Morris, 54, opened a Caribbean restaurant on the corner of Main Street and Charles Street West in Morris, home to about 1,800 people, about five months ago. Business was steady the first few weeks the diner was open, she said, but it quickly began to dwindle and there were days that no one came in at all.

Morris said she was told by a longtime resident of the town her business was struggling because she is black. When Morris posted an ad on Kijiji to find kitchen help, she received a reply that read, "From: kkk@morris.ca You guys still chasing colors (sic) out of your towns out there? I believe the KKK has a chapter in South Dakota you should join! You can respond to kkk@morris.ca by replying to this email." The email address does not exist.

"I get the feeling like people are afraid to come in here... It's not that they hate me, it's not that they hate the food, but they don't want to be seen going in here -- they might get in trouble or something," said Morris, who has had to clean up defecation on the urinals in the washroom at the diner and has had groups of people come in, sit down, order drinks and then leave before they arrive without paying.

Morris Coun. Mike Hinchey was at Thea's Diner to lend his support and meet Stegall, but had to leave for a family engagement before Stegall arrived around 2:45 p.m.

"Thea's a member of our community at this point and I personally support any member of our community," said Hinchey, who has eaten at Thea's Diner a few times.

'You go 20 miles outside of Atlanta, you realize you're still in the south. I've been stopped; stopped while being black, as they call it, for no reason.'

-- Milt Stegall

Morris Mayor Gavin van der Linde did not stop by. Hinchey said van der Linde was at the Manitoba legislature for a memorial service for late South African anti-apartheid crusader Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5. Mandela's funeral is today in his home village, Qunu.

While Hinchey said he couldn't speak to why more community members weren't out to show support, he did say he wasn't aware of any other major events going on in the area that day.

Morris said she doesn't link the incidents she experienced to the residents of the town in general.

"Individual people are not coming in here prejudiced toward me," she said. "Nobody has said nothing bad to me. Nobody has shunned me or made me feel uncomfortable."

Morris, who previously lived in Winnipeg and will be moving back at the end of the month, said she received an outpouring of support from people across the country when she announced on Facebook the reason she was closing and the media caught wind of it.

"I was so surprised. I thought it was a joke," Stegall said.

He said in all his years in Manitoba, he never experienced racism.

"You go 20 miles outside of Atlanta, you realize you're still in the south," he said. "I've been stopped; stopped while being black, as they call it, for no reason."

Khan, who played for the Blue Bombers before opening his own restaurant in Winnipeg called Shawarma Khan, said he's disappointed Morris is leaving the town.

"I wanted to show support and tell her to keep going," Khan said.

Khan, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, said he is also no stranger to racism, but has not experienced it in the restaurant business.

However, allegations of discrimination have plagued this corner in Morris.

The owners of Pots N' Hands, the restaurant that previously occupied the space, closed their doors in April following a series of homophobic verbal attacks. The owners were gay. Emails inundated the town office, labelling it "Redneck Town of the Year" and much worse.

"Its an unfortunate set of events that have happen this year," Hinchey said. "It's one thing to have your own opinion, but it's another thing altogether to force your opinion on others."

The closure of Pots N' Hands came on the heels of another much-publicized incident in which the editor-in-chief of the now defunct Morris Mirror, a local circular, published an editorial condemning the Idle No More movement, saying "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."

Anna Fehr and Abe Redekop moved to Morris 10 years ago. They are both German Mennonites born in Mexico.

"There are picky ones here who like to slander just about everything that you're doing, but the next person is nice," Redekop said.

While the pair said they are on a fixed pension, when they can afford to eat out, they are happy to do so at Thea's Diner.

"It's up to her what she chooses, but we would keep her here," Fehr said.

Landlord Peter Jordan said he has found a new tenant for the space as of Feb. 1.

"We were very disappointed that she was leaving. We wanted her to stay," Jordan said.

"We don't care who's in there as long as they can run the restaurant and keep it going."

Hinchey said he doesn't see the residents of Morris "pushing people out."

He said the former owners of Pots N' Hands, with whom he is good friends, live on the outskirts of town and still do business there.

"They haven't given up on Morris and I would just ask the general public not to," Hinchey said.

roberta.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2013 A3

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