UPDATE: One day after this story was published, the mayor of Vermilion told Global News the racist display has been removed.
An Alberta man’s decision to erect hateful signs on his property is raising concerns from people in the town he lives in that his freedom of speech seems to trump their right to feel safe.
The signs, that in some cases target specific groups with racial slurs, used to be posted on a tree on a residential property in Vermilion, Alta., until they were recently torn down. They now appear at the front of the home. Some of the messages target Black and Asian people while others spew vitriol against women and public officials.
“It just hurts the heart,” said Sophia Lindsay, a Black woman who told Global News that she lives about a block away from the home with her family. “It can get scary. Right now he could just be using pen and paper… next time he could be using words… he could be using violence.
“I avoid certain parts of this street.”
Lindsay said she moved to Vermilion from Toronto a few years ago and had never previously experienced such overt racism. She said she was hesitant to speak up about her concerns because she’s one of only a handful of Black people living in the east-central Alberta town of about 4,000 and fears being stereotyped as “that angry black girl.”
“I got to the point where… somebody needs to stand up and say something,” she said.
Lindsay told Global News she first noticed concerning signs on the man’s property in the summer. When she spoke to other people about it, she was told the man had been posting disturbing signs on his property for years. In 2017, a criminal complaint was made but charges were never laid because Crown prosecutors did not believe a conviction was likely.
“If one of my sons was walking down the street and saw this, how would he feel as an individual?” Lindsay said. “I must say, Vermilion has some beautiful people in it… just loving and beautiful — but then there’s these ones… he put up a post: ‘Black lives don’t matter, white lives matter’… he’s just on an extreme.
“I don’t feel like it should be acceptable or it should just be swept under the rug.
“What’s making it even worse is that there’s nothing being done… It’s not being treated seriously and that’s really concerning as well.”
Lindsay said she first called the RCMP and then voiced her concerns on social media before getting in touch with the Lloydminster and Vermilion for Equity Foundation, an organization in the region that advocates for diversity and inclusivity.
Tigra-Lee Campbell is the president of the organization. She said while the racist signs are shocking, she is not altogether surprised. In the summer, a friend of hers tried to organize an anti-racism rally in Vermilion in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck in Minneapolis.
“After seeing the comments and backlash we received for even wanting to… have a rally… it’s not surprising, which is really sad,” she said.
Campbell said she has also voiced her concerns to RCMP and the Town of Vermilion but received little in the way of a response.
She said she believes either the town or police should be able to find a way to respond in an impactful way.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Campbell said.
At a town council meeting on March 2, Mayor Caroline McAuley brought up the complaints the town has received about the property and what she described as its “decorative signage.”
“I am concerned about it,” she said in the meeting. “Our challenge always is personal freedoms and personal rights of individuals and how we address that in a greater community.”
Both Lindsay and Campbell expressed their disappointment with how the mayor referred to the signs.
“It’s not decorative signage — it’s racism and hate speech, and in 2021, we need to be calling this what it is,” Campbell said. “It makes me feel like you don’t care.”
“I don’t think it’s decorative at all,” Lindsay said. “I don’t think that should have been a statement used in the first place.
“You don’t respect the people that he’s hurting because you’re making light of it.”
Kevin Lucas, the Town of Vermilion’s community services director, told Global News that the mayor intended for her comment to be tongue-in-cheek and is fully aware of the gravity of the situation.
“The town has been quite proactive in their approach with this individual,” Lucas said. “We’ve been trying to work with him and it seems, just like the seasons, we have peaks and valleys, and I believe right now we’re in a bit of a peak.
“The messaging has got substantially more aggressive so the town’s approach, course of action I guess, will be more aggressive as well.”
Lucas said the town has recently filed a cease and desist order calling for the man to remove the signs. He noted that if the measure doesn’t prove to be effective, the town will take further action although he did not specify what those next steps may involve.
“Our legal department was able to obtain the information and we moved very quickly on it,” he said. “We have had conversations… with this gentleman… (but) at this point, (he has been) un-co-operative.”
Lucas added that the town is collaborating with the RCMP on the issue and acknowledged the municipality had received multiple complaints in recent weeks.
“I don’t believe this is reflective of the town of Vermilion,” he said. “The town of Vermilion is a very progressive and welcoming community… this is a one-off.. we’re dealing with it the best we can.”
“It’s hurtful to the community, but it also brings to the forefront how we’re not immune to anything. Even though we’re a small community, we’re not immune to this type of behaviour.”
A Global News crew knocked on the door of the home where the signs are posted but nobody came to the door.
When Lindsay was asked if she ever confronted the man who posts the signs about his messages, she said: “If this is what you’re writing on your tree, my words are not going to penetrate you.”
When reached for comment on the matter, the press secretary for Justice Minister Kaycee Madu told Global News that it is not for elected officials to determine whether the signs amount to criminal-level hate speech or to make “operational decisions” for police or Crown prosecutors. However, there is an expectation police and prosecutors will “uphold the law and prosecute it accordingly.”
Irfan Chaudhry is a hate crimes researcher and the director of the office of human rights and equity at MacEwan University. He told Global News that while at first glance he believes this case meets the threshold for criminality when it comes to hate speech, these investigations can be quite complicated.
“Given some of the racist language that’s definitely clearly present on the signs, I think that to me is as high of a threshold as you can have around hateful and derogatory slurs that are being put out to the public, even though they’re on technically private property,” he said.
“That’s where I think, for me, it’s a little bit of a head-scratcher in terms of where some of the hesitation might be.”
However, Chaudhry noted that it’s quite possible police are taking their time to ensure there is a robust case against the man, or that the fact the signs appear on private property could be problematic for law enforcement in terms of being able to respond.
“That’s where we hope that our laws can have that flexibility to address these types of situations,” he said.
“I think this is where collectively we need to be stronger and act on these reports because… it sends a broader message that it seems to be OK to have this type of hate placed on… (a) yard because nothing is being done about it.”
Chaudhry said if there is a sticking point in terms of pursuing criminal charges, it may be the fact that the signs sit on private property.
“The threshold (for criminal hate speech) is really high in Canada,” he said. “There’s a number of conditions that have to be met.”
He noted that in this case, the racism seems very overt and deliberate to him. It is also public and targets identifiable groups.
Chaudhry said that if criminal charges can’t be laid there are a number of different avenues that could be pursued, including a possible civil suit if any of the signs are libellous or defamatory.
He added that this case may serve as a warning for the town that it might want to consider being proactive, “so that when this happens, we can address it appropriately and also not always be guided by the fear of being potentially sued around a freedom of speech or freedom of expression claim (under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms).”
Chaudhry noted that perhaps a bylaw could be drafted for such instances that would offer some sort of resolution.
“Maybe Vermilion might be a starting place for other municipalities across the province to consider similar actions,” he said.
“I would be very surprised if after all of this it comes out that nothing can be done. Because that to me now is wilful ignorance of a key issue and not wanting to act on it.”
Lucas said the town is looking at how this case relates to its nuisance and unsightly properties bylaw and that the town will review whether it needs to be updated in the future.
Lindsay said she hopes the situation will be resolved and that she would like to see the man be required to attend a workshop on racism, diversity and inclusion so he understands people of different ethnicities or with different skin colour are still people.
She said she hopes that by speaking out she will have helped other Black people in the community who may have been too afraid to do so.
“I know they must feel the same,” Lindsay said. “I don’t want to feel like that’s the type of town I live in.
“This is affecting all racialized people, regardless of whether we’re living in Vermilion or not… people outside of Vermilion are also witnessing this. That’s a huge issue.
“I’m hoping at least this will shed light to let everyone know we have feelings. I want people to respect my feelings the same way I respect your feelings.”
Campbell said she is saddened by the impact the racist signs may have on children in Vermilion. She said children old enough to read will be impacted by the message, and some children don’t yet understand that racism and hatred exists in the world.
“Having to explain racism and discrimination to a child is not easy — it’s heartbreaking actually,” she said.
“When you have racialized children, you need to prepare them for the world.”
“My boys have never experienced this in their whole life,” Lindsay said.
The RCMP told Global News on Friday that it has no updates to share about the case but that police continue to investigate.
–With files from Global News’ Sarah Komadina