The Eritrean family survived for years as refugees in Sudan without protection, rights or much hope for the future. When a Winnipeg church sponsored them, they thought they’d be coming to a place of peace and security to build new lives for themselves.

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This article was published 28/8/2017 (1722 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Eritrean family survived for years as refugees in Sudan without protection, rights or much hope for the future. When a Winnipeg church sponsored them, they thought they’d be coming to a place of peace and security to build new lives for themselves.

That was before they’d ever even heard of a white supremacist.

Nearly a year after moving to Canada and being menaced by a neighbour with a Confederate flag in his window, the family feels it may have to move from its quiet North Point Douglas street.

They said they’ve received racial insults like the n-word, verbal harassment and threatening gestures from the man who has driven his pickup truck toward them as if he’s going to hit them when they’re walking down the street, and mimed aiming a rifle and shooting them while saying "go back to where you came from."

"They have to walk past that house to get to the bus stop," said Ryan Wiebe, one of the family’s church sponsors. The family — made up of grown children and a single mother — hasn’t wanted any sort of confrontation with the unpredictable neighbour and has held off contacting police. They feared that if he knew they spoke up about him, they’d become even more of a target.

"The tipping point — when they agreed to involve law enforcement — was when one of them was walking down the sidewalk and the individual drove at them like he was going to hit them," said Wiebe. "They jumped up onto the median."

They weren’t sure if the driver was trying to hit or scare or harass them, he said of the incident that occurred five months ago. They agreed to call police.

"The police were very helpful that day; they responded quickly with care and concern, and they knew the individual in question," said Wiebe. "They encouraged the filing of a protection order." Such an order would be issued without notice to the neighbour and prevent him from contacting them. The applicant has to explain to a justice of the peace why the order is needed and give facts, times, dates and locations of incidents that show why protection is urgently needed.

A church member who is a lawyer took the family through the process that took the better part of two days and required the family to take time off work and classes. But in the end, the order was denied, Wiebe said.

"The justice didn’t feel there was sufficient evidence to issue a without-notice emergency protection order," said Wiebe. It hadn’t occurred to the family, that had no protection or rights while living as refugees in Sudan, to document the incidents as they happened.

"The justice did encourage and inform them they could proceed with a peace bond," Wiebe said. It requires the peace bond applicant and respondent to appear before a Provincial Court judge, and the respondent can question the applicant. It can take weeks to get a court date and months before a judge will hear a peace bond application, Manitoba Justice says.

The family — the mother, especially — thinks their time and efforts may be better spent moving away from their neighbour.

“Everything is good ‐ everyone is nice ‐ except this guy."

"My mom’s scared for my sisters," said her eldest son, who agreed to speak to the Free Press if their names and street weren’t identified. "We don’t know what he’s going to do."

Before school let out for the summer, their mom watched their youngest sister walk past the man’s house every day before and after school to make sure she was safe, he said. Now that school is starting up again, she’s anxious to get her family off the street, said the son who works full time.

"Their protection, safety and comfort is the most important thing," said Wiebe. "It’s not our call to say they should stay there on principle," he said.

"They like the house they’re in now that’s owned by a member of the sponsorship group," he said. The house is big enough to house relatives of the family who’ve also been sponsored by the church and are expected to arrive within the next year or two. It would be an ideal setup but not if they’re afraid to walk down their street, Wiebe said.

"It’s not fair to ask them to stay where they’re not safe," he said. "They’ve made a fairly seamless adjustment to Canada and are doing well." The mom is attending English as an Additional Language classes, two youngest children are in high school, the middle children work part time and attend classes, and the oldest works full time. They’re active in their church and have a deep faith.

"This place has so many opportunities," said the youngest son who starts Grade 12 next month. His oldest brother, who is working and recently bought a car, is grateful for their decent, affordable housing.

"Everything is good — everyone is nice — except this guy," said the eldest.

'Entire street is on their side'

The family shouldn’t have to move, said Sel Burrows, chairman of the North Point Douglas Residents Committee.

"The entire street is on their side," said Burrows, who’s received calls on the committee’s tip line more than once from neighbours concerned about the newcomer family being menaced by the resident notorious for his Confederate flag and "Hail Satan" sign on his truck. One caller said the man was making threatening hand gestures towards one of the young family members, pretending to load a shotgun, taking aim and firing at the teen.

"I called the community support cops and they visited Mr. Satan and read the riot act," Burrows said. So far this summer, things have been quiet on the street, he said.

"The entire street is watching." There is strength in numbers, Burrows said during a week fraught with headlines about Nazis and anti-immigrant rallies being organized by anti-Islam groups, including one set for Winnipeg on Sept. 9. On Wednesday, national media shared a video of a man calling himself a Nazi and launching a verbal anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim attack on a woman wearing a hijab in a parking lot in eastern Manitoba.

"There are always going to be racists and periods of time when they feel more empowered," said Burrows. "If the community, in total, shows that negative behaviour is not acceptable, they get beaten down and back off."

The Manitoba Human Rights Commission agrees.

“People can hold views that are offensive but not necessarily illegal." –Winnipeg Police Const. Rob Carver

"Given our role to promote human rights and educate the public our message is simple — call out this kind of behaviour when you see it; tell others; stand up against it," said Isha Khan, a lawyer and acting executive director of the commission. "This means sometimes joining with others around to directly indicate that this kind of behaviour cannot be tolerated in Manitoba or elsewhere in Canada."

The North Point Douglas refugee family isn’t alone in being targeted, said Khan.

"We are aware of these kinds of incidents happening, which are obviously extremely disturbing," she said. "There is no question that this behaviour demeans the individual and impacts a person’s dignity." In North Point Douglas, the residents committee bought the targeted family a cake to send a positive message, said Burrows: "You’re always welcome in our community."

Not everyone feels that way, and Winnipeg police are caught in the middle, trying to keep people safe while upholding the law.

It’s important for newcomers — and established Canadians — to understand the concepts of free speech and hate speech, said Winnipeg police Const. Rob Carver. It can be especially tough for people moving from countries where freedom of expression doesn’t exist to Canada where people can say almost anything.

"People can hold views that are offensive but not necessarily illegal," Carver said Friday.

For example, Confederate flags may be considered symbols of white supremacy and hatred toward non-whites but flying one isn’t a crime. Advocating genocide with a swastika or promoting hatred against an identifiable group is considered a hate crime. Someone miming the loading of a shotgun, pointing it at a person and pulling the trigger could be considered uttering a threat. "Unless they’re joking, I would act on it," said Carver.

If someone feels they’re being menaced or harassed, it’s important to document it, he said.

"Keep detailed notes — dates and times and the nature of what’s happening," said Carver.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.