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Yukon is a hotbed of hate

OPINION - How news outlets embolden racists and bigots

A small minority of Yukoners feel emboldened to spread hateful comments online. (Image: Whitewash News)

In this remote corner of Canada, our news outlets allow bigoted and hate-filled commentaries to propagate on their websites and social media platforms. The commentaries are authored by a small group of Yukoners whose names and pseudonyms are by now familiar to us. The news outlets have for years enabled this group but that may be about to change.

The Whitehorse Star is one of two independently-owned newspapers in the Yukon along with the Yukon News. The former has steadfastly resisted the tide of change by remaining committed to providing an anonymous and seemingly unmoderated comments section on its website.

This comments section is notorious in the Yukon for nurturing repulsive views and preserving them for posterity. It is a cesspit of hatred that provides a safe haven for people with lives so small and meaningless, they feel a deep need to take their frustrations out on others.

The Whitehorse Star's comments section is to Yukon's bigots and racists what Donald Trump is to white supremacists. They both bring deep-rooted hate to the surface and shine a light on it for all to see. It could be argued that some good comes from exposing such hate because if we can see it, we can deal with it. But we, as Yukoners, have been staring it in the face for a long time and little has changed.

A remark typical of those found in the Whitehorse Star's anonymous comments section (Image: Whitehorse Star)

Wipe them off the map

Perhaps because it is moderated more closely, the comments section of the Yukon News website does not provide the same level of demeaning comments as the Whitehorse Star. Comments made on the Yukon News Facebook page, however, tell a different story.

On June 19 the Yukon News published a story to its Facebook page about the illegal sale of alcohol in Pelly Crossing, a predominantly Indigenous community located 280kms north of Whitehorse with a population of around 300 people.

Within hours of the story being published, someone posted a comment to it and implied that people from specific communities in the Yukon have not earned the same COVID-19 emergency supports being offered to everyone else in Canada.

The commenter added that people in "outlying communities" were drinking alcohol "24/7" and hoped alcoholism would "wipe them off the map entirely."

Racist comments posted to the Facebook page of the Yukon News on June 19 (Image: Yukon news)

No apology necessary

The Yukon News was quick to remove the racist comment but stopped short of issuing an apology for hosting it, instead explaining in a Facebook post on June 19 that the commenter "is not and never was a contributor to the Yukon News."

The editor of the Yukon News John Hopkins-Hill followed up on this explanation on June 26 with an editorial. He acknowledged that hateful comments sometimes make it onto the newspaper's platforms because they are missed by automated and human filters.

Hopkins-Hill then endeavoured to distance himself from any moral obligation to apologize by reminding us that he and his staff are human beings. "Sometimes, we’re at the grocery store; we spend time with our families; we have to sleep" he wrote.

With all due respect, Mr. Hopkins-Hill, reminding us that you are human does not release you from your obligation to apologize to your staff, freelancers and the public for hosting a racist comment on a platform you are not just responsible for, but also monetize. Whether we buy your paper or click on your Facebook link, either way we are exposed to the advertisements you profit from.

Ignorance is bliss

On June 24, the Whitehorse Star announced that it was ending its relationship with the author of the racist comment posted on the Yukon News Facebook page. The author had for years been a regular contributor of opinion pieces to the Whitehorse Star.

On the same day it announced the end of this relationship, the Whitehorse Star published what it called a "Special to the Star" opinion piece written by Whitehorse resident Danette Moulé. The piece included graceless and grotesquely offensive statements such as "overt racism is no longer part of mainstream society," the "dirt poor" don't care about political correctness, and Indigenous people need to leave reserves to "escape the endless downward spiral of their families."

Danette Moulé's opinion piece published by the Whitehorse Star on June 24 (Image: Whitehorse Star)

Many Yukoners were outraged by Moulé's piece and expressed as much in phone calls and letters to Whitehorse Star editor Jim Butler, in comments on the paper's Facebook page and across social media.

In response, rather than apologizing for disseminating racist sentiments, Butler opted to publish a related opinion piece on June 26, entitled "The self-righteous indignation is out of control." In this contemptuous piece the author Julius Debuschewitz wrote that the the death of George Floyd was "not a racist issue," the killing of Rayshard Brooks was "foreseeable," and Prime Minister Trudeau is a "clown" for kneeling with protestors at an anti-racist march in Ottawa on June 5.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Butler's response was the editor's note he tagged to Debuschewitz's piece wherein he defended his decision to publish the derisive opinions of both Debuschewitz and Moulé. Butler acknowledged that the opinions "will be viewed by some readers as provocative, contentious and simply wrong" and added that "casually practicing outright censorship" is not something the paper subscribes to.

Butler also encouraged readers to submit their "counter-arguments," thereby mistaking racism for a difference of opinion. This particular strain of blind complicity reflects the luxuries afforded to those who can draw from a lifetime of white privilege.

In a June 26 editor's note, Whitehorse Star editor Jim Butler makes no apology for publishing offensive viewpoints (Image: Whitehorse Star)

Missing the point

Butler is missing the point that Yukoners are trying to make in response to his editorial judgement. Misconstruing the overwhelming desire to build an equal society as a desire for "outright censorship" represents precisely the kind of dangerous thinking that invigorates racist ideologies. It is the same type of thinking that flips "Black lives matter" into "All lives matter."

Nobody is calling for outright censorship in the same way that nobody is saying that all lives don't matter. The simple truth is that white lives have always mattered and black lives have not. The same is true for Indigenous and racialized people.

(Image: Adam Zyglis/Buffalo News)

Butler is also misconstruing the notion of "freedom to speak out" as it applies to the Canadian context. Freedom of expression in this country is protected as a fundamental constitutional guarantee in section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That freedom, however, is not absolute.

The Supreme Court of Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal have consistently supported the belief that imposing some limits on freedom of expression can, in certain situations, be justified in the interest of upholding the greater social importance. The Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on forms of expression that are deemed to run contrary to the spirit of the Charter, such as hate speech, when the purpose of such expression is to prevent the free exercise of another group’s rights.

Behind the times

In the 1990 Supreme Court of Canada case Canada (Human Rights Commission) v. Taylor, former Chief Justice Dickson wrote that hate propaganda serves to undermine "the dignity and self-worth of target group members and, more generally, contributes to disharmonious relations among various racial, cultural, and religious groups, as a result eroding the tolerance and open-mindedness that must flourish in a multi-cultural society which is committed to the idea of equality."

Unfortunately, 30 years later, weighing the greater social importance against the right to free expression is more difficult to do in the Yukon than any other jurisdiction in Canada. This is because Yukon's Human Rights Act is the only human rights law in the country that does not contain a provision that prohibits the public display, broadcast or publication of messages that announce an intention to discriminate, or that incite others to discriminate.

Reactions to a June 10 anti-hate story on the Yukon News Facebook page (Image: Yukon News)

Trustworthy and reliable

Moulé and Debuschewitz are painfully oblivious to the fact that their words frame the denial of systemic racism in a way that helps prove its existence. It would be unfair, however, to harshly judge these opinion writers for their misguided comments. We don't know anything of their personal circumstances or what their motivations are.

The Whitehorse Star, on the other hand, explicitly markets itself as a trustworthy and reliable news source and asks us to buy its product on that basis. It was the Whitehorse Star that published the racist remarks and then sold us the paper they were printed on. There is an important distinction to be made between people who believe their personal views should be amplified and the people with the means to amplify them.

A 2014 comment from the Whitehorse Star website demonstrating the paper's long history of propagating hateful statements (Image: Whitehorse Star)

Money talks

Newspaper editors and the investors behind them make decisions partly on the basis of what sells. We know that controversy and sensationalism help sell papers and more importantly the advertisements that occupy them.

The transaction works both ways, however, and we the consumers yield most if not all of the bargaining power. By refusing to purchase newspapers that embolden racist narratives and by contacting their advertising clients to express our concerns, we enable ourselves to elicit real change.

Editors' note

This opinion piece was researched and written collaboratively by a small group of volunteer-writers and readers. Amongst this group, there is first-hand experience of the profound and long-lasting damage caused by racism and discrimination.

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