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Victoria mayor condemns racist comments made against councillor

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Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is condemning racism in the public backlash against Coun. Sharmarke Dubow after hearing that her statement on his international travel over the winter holidays has helped to fuel anti-Black racism.

Helps said a few speakers addressed council recently to discuss its response to Dubow’s travel and express support for the councillor in the wake of hateful and racist comments he received.

At a press conference in early January, Helps called Dubow’s decision to travel to East Africa “disappointing and irresponsible.” Dubow apologized for travelling to see his family in Somalia and Kenya, saying he had been saving for the trip for years and it was his first time returning to the countries since he fled civil war in Somalia in 1992. Many called for his resignation in response.

Dubow said he received “disturbing messages and threatening phone calls” related to his international travel, and shared some of the threats he received on Twitter.

In one message, someone sent an image of a white man spraying a Black child with a hose. The message to “go somewhere else” included a racial slur. In another message he was told to resign, “or we come to your office, drag you out and tar and feather you like the dog you are.”

Speaking to council, Victoria resident Gina Mowatt said Helps’s statement was shared widely among white supremacist groups. Mowatt said Dubow was targeted differently by the public because he is Black, and that Helps and city council should have recognized that racism would play a role in how the public responded. She said she would have liked to see Helps acknowledge that Dubow’s trip to see family members who he feared might not live through the pandemic is different from a politician travelling for a sunny holiday.

“You all are responsible for adding fuel to this fire, meaning you’ve facilitated the ignition of white supremacy and hate that so many of us in the BIPOC community of Victoria know is hiding behind a very thin curtain of progressive politics and diversity rhetoric,” Mowatt said.

She called on council to denounce the racism directed at Dubow and the calls for his resignation.

Mowatt, who is Indigenous, said in an interview that she was inspired to speak to council after seeing some of the threats Dubow received, and because she believed Helps’s public statement would embolden people with racist attitudes to voice them.

The surge in racist comments directed at Dubow is likely to make other Black people in Victoria feel unsafe, Mowatt said.

“Any Black person who reads those remarks in the comments section or sees what has been shared with Coun. Dubow — that’s going to affect them,” she said.

Helps responded to the comments in a blog post, saying she was called out for failing to consider how her words could be used by others to incite hatred.

“I’m in a position of power as mayor, I should have thought about the impact my statement could have in perpetuating racism and white supremacy. I got publicly called out for this. And for that, I am both grateful and humbled,” she said.

Helps said she wrote the post to condemn racism against Dubow and in general, but she would not prevent residents from voicing their opinions about whether he should resign.

“People have a right to say whatever they want, as long as it’s not racist,” she said.

Helps encouraged community members to learn more about Black history in Victoria and to consider what they can do to combat racism and privilege within themselves.

Dubow was not available for an interview Tuesday, but said in an email he is grateful for the mayor’s leadership in condemning racism.

“I know I am not alone, racism is real, and it takes a very real mental toll on Indigenous, Black and people of colour,” he said.

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