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Ale House signage draws community outrage in London, Ont.

The sign at the Ale House on Dundas Street as seen on Feb. 18, 2021. Sawyer Bogdan/Global News

A downtown pub no stranger to controversy in London, Ont., is again drawing ire for signage that Black Lives Matter London has described as racist and that the London Police Service calls “disappointing and offensive.”

Police, however, add that the signage “does not meet the threshold of a criminal offence” and the Ale House owner says his “rants” are strictly towards the Chinese government and has “nothing to do with the people.”

Read more: Canadians of Chinese ethnicity report widespread racism over coronavirus: survey

Black Lives Matter London posted a statement on Facebook that included two photographs of signs outside the Ale House, both referencing the “China virus.”

As of Thursday, a new message has been posted that says “we love Chinese people” but hate the “China virus.”

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“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda with the World Health Organization said back in 2015 when the WHO issued guidance on naming new human infectious diseases.

“We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

Read more: Asian communities across Canada report rising racist behaviour during COVID-19 crisis

Since the novel coronavirus first drew worldwide attention, there have been spikes of overt acts of racism against Asian communities in Canada.

As early as Jan. 2020, as the country dealt with its first case of COVID-19, Canada’s chief medical officer felt compelled to address the “growing number of reports of #racism and stigmatizing comments on social media directed to people of Chinese and Asian descent.

More recently, the Vancouver Police Department reported a 717 per cent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year.

Black Lives Matter London’s Alexandra Kane says that considering the heightened global — and local — focus on the impacts of racism over the past year, the Ale House cannot claim ignorance.

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“After all this in the news, after marches, after social media posts — after all of this, the London Ale House chooses this message. You can’t say, ‘oh, I didn’t know,'” she argued.

“Absolutely, he chose to be racist. And that is the horrible part. He’s choosing to attack a community with this violent message.”

Ale House owner Alex Petro admits he’s crafted controversial signs “probably since (former premier Kathleen) Wynne came out with the $15 minimum wage” so he’s not surprised by the current reaction, though he is “disappointed.”

“I think I clarified that today, that my rants, they’re always geared towards government. They’re not geared towards people,” he told Global News.

“We’ve employed over the last 11 years several Asian people. We have no issue against Asian people. And not that you care, but I have Asian friends. And not that the Black Lives Matter is going to care or anybody else. They’re going to read what they want into it and I’m not going to change their mind. But quite honestly, they’re not going to change mine either.”

Read more: ‘Despicable’: China slams Canada for declaration against arbitrary detention

Petro added that he believes not enough attention and action is being taken in response to the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as well as in response to China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

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Earlier this week, Canada and a coalition of 57 other countries offered vocal support for a new international declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes.

On Thursday, the Conservatives tabled a motion calling for the House of Commons to formally declare crimes against minority Muslims in China a genocide.

“I know I’m a nobody. And what I feel or do in the big scheme of things is going to go nowhere. I know that. But if we don’t start speaking out, then nothing will happen,” Petro said.

Read more: Where do things stand after a massive Black Lives Matter London rally called to defund the police?

When asked about the potential for language like “China virus” to result in anti-Asian sentiment, Petro says he can’t prevent what someone chooses to interpret.

“Do I know it’s going to invoke conversation? Absolutely. Will there be blow-back to Asian people? Possibly,” he said.

“But again, I try and be clear with the limited space that I have on that sign, you know, I only have so many characters I can put on there.”

Petro also vehemently denied unverified social media posts suggesting that some international students asking about the sign were kicked out of the bar. He said media outlets are welcome to review camera footage and he’s reached out to his lawyer.

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“It didn’t happen. Period.”

Click to play video: 'What is the B.C. government doing to prevent hate crimes toward Asian-Canadians?' What is the B.C. government doing to prevent hate crimes toward Asian-Canadians?
What is the B.C. government doing to prevent hate crimes toward Asian-Canadians? – Feb 18, 2021

In a written statement, the London Police Service said the signage is “disappointing and offensive” but “in and of itself does not meet the threshold of a criminal offence.”

“The Canadian Charter of Rights permits freedom of speech for all Canadians, and while some incidents may not meet the threshold of a criminal offence(s), there is, of course, a related impact, as a result of such divisive comments,” police said.

“The London Police Service takes great pride in our collective values of inclusivity and diversity, and does not condone or support acts of prejudice, intolerance and/or exclusion of members of our community.”

As for whether the sign meets municipal bylaw requirements, the city says its sign by-law purpose is “to address signage from a public safety and urban design perspective.”

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“If the content of any sign is perceived to be offensive, we would engage our partners at London Police Service for their review.”

— With files from Global News’ Robin Gill and Richard Zussman as well as The Canadian Press’ Mike Blanchfield

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