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‘Go back to the tropics’: Vaughan woman feels ‘ashamed, hurt’ after racist incident

'We're a part of this city'
Aug. 23, 2021
Dina Al-Shibeeb

“Why are you living here in Vaughan? Get out”; “Go back to Jane and Finch”; ''Go back to the tropics where you belong”; and “Go find a job” are some of the jarring derogatory and racist diatribes Dawn Peterkin had to hear July 31 at a No Frills store in Vaughan.

Peterkin, who was in line, was shocked when a woman standing in front of her began spewing racism and turned a mundane grocery store experience into an upsetting and alienating one.

“It hurts,” Peterkin told the Vaughan Citizen. “I feel ashamed to tell you the truth, I felt so ashamed.”

Worst, this isn’t even the first experience of racism for the mother of three. Peterkin and her daughter were called the N-word one time by a driver in Vaughan.

But this time, Peterkin decided not to let this go unchecked, so she called on the store’s manager, the York Regional Police (YRP) and contacted the media. Her reasoning was that this woman could possibly be a teacher for Black students or occupying a position at an institution, contributing to systemic racism.

The manager couldn’t offer much more support, because the bigoted customer had already left, and YRP couldn’t go forward with any charges since there was no audio proof of the incident but only video recording.

Peterkin, however, described the store at the time as “packed” and that “even the cashiers came around.” One woman also spoke up firmly to Peterkin's defence but was met with the customer in question “cussing her out” too.

When the Vaughan Citizen asked Peterkin if all these people could have been used as witnesses by YRP, she replied, “I do feel so.”

“Investigation was too quickly done.”

YRP, meanwhile, told Peterkin that the woman was seen in a video driving out, but they couldn’t see the licence plate.

Following Black Lives Matter protests last year, the City of Vaughan, which was already facing claims of anti-Black racism, hired its first-ever diversity and inclusion officer, Zincia Francis, who started her work in January.

The Vaughan Citizen contacted the city about what could possibly be done, especially vis à vis Francis’s appointment, to sound the alarm that these incidents aren’t tolerated.

The city replied back saying that Francis is currently building “upon the city’s existing diversity and inclusion foundation.”

“Please note, the Mayor’s office has connected with the resident,” the city also informed the Vaughan Citizen.

When following up with Peterkin on Aug. 18, she said that Italy-born Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua empathized with her, sharing his own experience with racism as an immigrant earlier on.

“He’s now 61, and that impression is still with him,” Peterkin said. However, Peterkin also made it clear that the Black community in Vaughan wants to be heard and be more included.

“When they have galas, we need to be invited; we need to show our presence, because we’re a part of the city,” Peterkin said she told the mayor.

Peterkin said she and her husband are hard-working taxpayers, and she is keen to quash racist stereotypes. “We aren’t bums,” she said, noting with pride that her daughter was valedictorian after graduating from middle school.

Bevilacqua told her that the city is going to connect her with Francis.

“All forms of racism and discrimination are repugnant, but anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism is pervasive, systemic and institutional in Canada,” Bevilacqua told the Vaughan Citizen after his call with Peterkin. "Dawn and I both agree that education is important to erase ignorance. We will continue to be vigilant and strongly denounce these acts of anti-Black racism.”

Coun. Sandra Racco, whose motion to denounce anti-Asian racism was approved in April by council due to an uptick in such incidents due to COVID-19, wrote:

“I’m sorry to hear of this and I feel ashamed that in this day and age, there are still people in this society that can be so ignorant.”

When inquiring if Racco could pass a similar motion following Peterkin’s experience, she wrote, “I can certainly look into this request and work with our Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Zincia Francis, whom I have copied on this email.”

Charline Grant, an activist parent who has long worked against anti-Black racism in schools, said in light of all the reforms that had happened after BLM protests, monitoring how federal politicians engage with Black community is on her “radar.”