Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No room in town for racism

Morris needs to support Jamaican-born diner owner

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Thea Morris

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Thea Morris

MORRIS -- The spectre of racism, like most things in life, isn't always as obvious as the large black and white floor tiles one notices on entering Thea's Diner.

It can be as covert as the way white people abruptly cross the street when they see a black person coming.

Or as overt as the threat-inferred, KKK-referenced email 53-year-old Jamaican-born chef Thea Morris got last summer after she went on Kijiji looking to hire help for the restaurant she operates in the southern Manitoba town of Morris.

A town that, rightly or wrongly, has an image problem for intolerance its leadership isn't helping with its self-serving siege mentality.

An image problem that began earlier this year in the same restaurant location when the previous operators -- a gay couple -- made national news when they fled the town after some homophobic customers made them feel unwelcome.

After making national news herself, Morris seems to be headed in the same direction. Back home to Winnipeg to stay.

This week, with her business in decline and after posting about the KKK-referenced email on her Facebook page, Morris told Free Press reporter Randy Turner she is going back to Winnipeg. This after several incidents that -- while not as obviously race-related as the KKK reference -- have left Morris feeling uneasy and fearful of being alone.

Even if Winnipeg's Impact Security arrived unannounced at the diner to offer their services for free.

But Friday, when I visited her over the lunch hour, it was obvious she didn't really want to leave, even if that's what she was saying. Since the story first broke in the Free Press, Morris says she has been getting messages of support, and even offers of money, from all over Canada. But not so much from the people of Morris, she said. It was folks from surrounding Mennonite towns and Winnipeg who had been coming through the doors in support this week. Early Thursday morning, she posted a comment of gratitude to people from across the country who had written her.

"Wow!! Man, I just cannot believe the support I am getting... I have to say my faith is restored and thanks to everyone..."

Well, maybe not everyone.

Morris Mayor Gavin van der Linde dropped by for coffee Thursday evening, and suddenly Morris's buoyant outlook changed.

The mayor later told me he intended to visit as a show of support.

But, as she suggested when I arrived at her restaurant just before lunch Friday, the mayor came across as anything but supportive of her and her feelings.

It was the town's feelings he was more concerned about.

"It's the first time I felt unwelcome here," Morris told me. "I need to get out of here fast.

"I felt I shouldn't be here. It's bad for me to be here."

She felt that way because of the show-and-tell the mayor put on for her over coffee.

The mayor referenced a bunch of emails the town has been receiving from people attacking and accusing the community of being intolerant.

Then, as Morris recalls it, the mayor said this: "I have to protect the Town of Morris at all costs."

Over the phone the next morning, I asked the mayor if he said that.

"I could have said something very close to that," he acknowledged.

The mayor also said something that backed up Morris's sense of feeling unwelcome after his visit.

He pointed out there are other ethnic minorities operating restaurants, suggesting without saying it there have been no racially motivated incidents involving them. Then he said this: "If we're going to play a race card on this issue, one would have to see it elsewhere."

I asked why he used the term "race card."

"That's how this is being portrayed," he said. Did that mean her concerns were bogus? The mayor said he doesn't doubt Morris is feeling discriminated against.

"But that's not why the restaurant is not doing well."

What the mayor was suggesting, of course, is complaints about slow service and bad food.

Her 41/2-star rating on the restaurant's Facebook page would suggest some people understand it takes longer to prepare some food she considers fine dining.

But in his need to protect the town at any cost, by disparaging her and her restaurant, the mayor is missing the real issue. It's not about the food. It's about Morris's fear of being the target of racism and how the mayor and the town have made it worse, not better. If the town really wanted to show its support, and make her feel safe, the mayor should organize a rally, a parade even, that denounces racism in his town and any other.

That's what I mean by racism is not always as obvious as the large black and white floor tiles at Thea's Diner.

As for Morris, she had a good lunch Friday.

More than a dozen people showed up from as far away as Stonewall and Winnipeg. It made her feel like staying.

"If I get the support."

Support, I would hope, in all respects. And especially from the people she needs it from most -- the citizens of Morris.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 B1

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