I was still in diapers when my family moved from Port Hardy to the Comox Valley in 1982. The Valley has always been and will always be home and, as such, has also always been an immense source of pride. Today I feel shame.

It’s a community comprised primarily of three towns – Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland – and is a community born out of a vibrant history. Though, like any community with deep roots, the stories are often marred. When Cumberland was a booming mining town in the late 1800s, it was also home to North America’s second largest Chinatown as well as a substantial Japanese population. These immigrant workers were brought in simply to risk their lives doing the most hazardous of mining jobs that others would not do. Countless immigrants died in doing so.

Much of Cumberland’s Chinatown was destroyed in a fire in 1936 that originated in a chop suey house; the area was never rebuilt. And further, in 1942 amongst the shadows of World War II, the entire local Japanese population was ordered to be shipped to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia.

Neither population recovered from these decimating events. One could say that these were the first examples of blatant racism in the Valley’s history.

As I grew up, the Comox Valley’s population was predominantly comprised of Caucasian people of European descent. Being that the Island is still home to many First Nations reserves, there has also always been a sizable native population. In junior high I had one girlfriend who had immigrated with her family from South Korea, and went to high school with a brother and sister from Pakistan. The number of black families in the community could be counted on one hand.

While the diversity of the Comox Valley has certainly increased over the last decade, what has always been apparent to me, however, is that none of this ever seemed to matter. We all had our respective backgrounds, history and ancestry, but that was just a matter of fact – not a matter for tact. The idea of any form of racism in the Comox Valley seemed entirely outlandish to me.

There are still numerous men who drive their trucks around the Valley with Confederate flags emblazoned in the front license plate holders, but I always assumed they were paying tribute to The Dukes of Hazzard rather than knowing what it symbolizes. It would seem that I am incorrect. A recent event in the parking lot across from the Courtenay McDonald’s restaurant has changed what I thought I knew in an instant.

Last Friday a 38-year-old landscape artist by the name of Jay Phillips was accosted, cornered and both verbally and physically attacked by three young men between the ages of 19 and 25. In broad daylight, Phillips was bombarded with fists, kicks, racial slurs and threats of lynching. What his cowardly attackers did not expect, however, was that the man well-versed in mixed martial arts was prepared to fight back – and he did.

If nobody says anything or does anything, they’re going to do this again,” Phillips stated in a local news interview. The attack, which was caught entirely on video and subsequently posted on YouTube, was the silver lining. “Otherwise it would have been three or five guys’ word against mine,” he said. “I don’t want this shit to ever happen ever again.

The three men have been identified, arrested and charged with assault. The RCMP are currently investigating and further charges of a hate crime are pending.

I applaud Jay Phillips for standing up, for using his voice and for fighting back against such a disgusting display of ignorance and hate. The kind of behavior perpetrated against Mr. Phillips simply cannot – and will not – be tolerated. It is my hope that by his brave example, more people will be strong enough to resist backing down and instead fight for love and acceptance.

During my training to teach pre-school, we were told a story of a group of 15 pre-schoolers that were engaged in a sharing circle together. Each child was instructed to say something about the other children that makes each of them different or unique. One child was permanently bound to a wheelchair, and when it came to his turn, his classmates took turns praising his artistic skills, his fun laugh, his willingness to share and exclaiming that he always had the best snacks. Not one single child noted that his wheelchair made him different or unique.

Perhaps we can all take take our cues from the uncorrupted.

If you are in the Comox Valley area tomorrow, join local residents in taking a stand against this ugly incident. On Thursday, July 9 at noon, the Peaceful Community Assembly Against Hate Crime in the Comox Valley will be meeting at the Sid Williams Theatre Plaza to say “no” to hate crime and violence in the Comox Valley. For more information, please visit the Facebook page dedicated to this event.

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  1. I saw that on the news this morning, and obviously was upset (since it basically happened to me like that too). I think it’s bad enough when it’s a one on one attack, but three on one, come on. I think there should be special laws in that scenario that are far more strict. It’s almost like assault with a deadly weapon at that point, since it’s nearly impossible to stand up to that many guys.

  2. I too was angry and disgusted by the attack. I hate to think of what is happening in our community which we do not see. I am glad he stood up to the assault and that by seeing the video we can’t keep our heads in the sand.

  3. This is sad and gives an entirely different image of what I had thought of Vancouver Island. I didn’t much about the history of the island itself but from what you say, it does seem like racism has quite a long history here
    I honestly think this incident will make me reconsider visiting Vancouver Island this summer which is a plan we had had in the works all year
    I’m as white as they come but my bf is not and frankly I’d rather spend my money and have a nice time elsewhere in the country where there are no hicks

  4. @Natalia – Thanks for your input! However, please keep in mind that this was an entirely isolated incident and definitely not the “norm” for the Comox Valley (or Vancouver Island, for that matter). Every single place around this globe has a history of racism – it’s inescapable and the Comox Valley’s history from over 100 years ago is no different. The residents of the Island are warm, friendly and caring – not to mention outraged over this.

    You should not let this deter you or your boyfriend from visiting Vancouver Island. The Comox Valley is a virtual melting pot with beautiful cultural diversity that is celebrated! I really encourage you to see for yourself.

  5. As some one who lived in Courtenay (actually 2 blocks from this McDonalds) and worked in a business that employed mostly young people this actually comes as no shock to me, some of the things they would say always surprised me that that attitude existed still in such large numbers… But that said I have also lived in Grande Prairie, Calgary, Kelowna and now Nanaimo and have seen the same kind of ignorance in all those places but with out a doubt the youth in Courtenay had the most cavalier attitude about it. When I would say some thing about it they almost seemed shocked that I would question them about it. Strangely enough most of the hate seemed to be towards Jewish people.

  6. It’s hard when proof that ignorance still exists comes full front and insults my senses in such a way. I am deeply disturbed that this kind of behaviour still occurs. I would like to pretend it doesn’t, but what happened to Mr. Phillips horrifies and worries me. I like to imagine that in my lifetime I will eventually live in a world where acceptance, tolerance, and appreciation are revered. I cringe at the thought that such an antiquated attitude still dwells in the crooks of society. Discrimination is a dark and hateful place. In many ways I pity these young men for their crudity. If only they could see that this is the very attitude that will end up expediting their dissemblance from the rest of evolved civilization. Now, how ironic would that be?

  7. I was quite shocked when I read about this a few days ago. I’m planning on moving to the Valley sometime next year and it just didn’t seem like the kind of place that this would happen in.
    It made me seriously question if I wanted to move there. I’m not a minority, however I don’t drive (which I suppose puts me in a different kind of minority), I ride a bike and these clowns seem like the type that would try and run people off the road.

    Of course Courtenay was unlucky in the fact that this was caught on video and posted on youtube. I’m sure things like this (perhaps not physical) happen daily throughout this country.

    I currently live in a fairly Caucasian dominated city and we have a small minority of people of other races, and it makes me wonder if this has ever happened here and just gone unreported.

    And kudos to Jay Phillips for not backing down. Those cowards didn’t know what to do after they realized he wasn’t going to run away.

  8. @Ryan – I too found this incident quite shocking. Though completely isolated, it’s both a blessing and a curse that it was caught on camera. On one hand, it’s a concrete example of how prevalent discriminatory attitudes still are in our society today and the truth is that no community is unaffected. Unfortunately, some have used this incident and decided to paint the entirety of the Comox Valley with a single brush. Despite what some may think, this is not typical of the residents of the Comox Valley.

    That said, it’s also perhaps a blessing that it was caught on tape because it thrusts the spotlight on an issue that most – even myself – would have liked to believe no longer exists in Canada. As a country we pride ourselves on being open-minded, accepting and culturally diverse. To say I was surprised that such an incident could happen in my hometown would be an understatement. However, in the wake of what happened to Mr. Phillips, residents of the Comox Valley are standing up in solidarity to say “No!” and that they will not accept this kind of ignorant attitude in their hometown. Perhaps, if anything, this can serve as a precedent for other communities to follow suit and take a stand also.

  9. Here’s hoping for the hate-crime charge. That kind of behaviour screams for mandatory jail time.

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