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Anti-immigration post by woman at the heart of class-action suit was hurtful but unfortunately not shocking, says St. John's man

Ritche Perez says racism expressed online must be opposed. TELEGRAM FILE PHOTO
Ritche Perez says racism expressed online must be opposed. TELEGRAM FILE PHOTO

'I hope she learns,' says Ritche Perez

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Mental exhaustion is how Ritche Perez describes what he experienced online this week — and what he’s had to deal with for most of his life, growing up in St. John’s.

A Facebook post by a woman at the front of a class-action lawsuit against the provincial government over its COVID-19 travel ban was nothing new for Perez, he says, but he felt compelled to address it.

“It’s the most stupid, hypocritical thing I’ve seen, and that’s what I grew up with here,” Perez tells The Telegram of the social media post shared by Ontario resident Sharon Koehler.

Koehler and her husband are the representative plaintiffs in a class-action suit launched this week by local lawyers Geoff Budden and Bob Buckingham, who are arguing the provincial government is breaching multiple sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms with the travel ban, most seriously when it comes to mobility.

The Koehlers have a home and seasonal business in Bay Roberts and normally spend summers in the Conception Bay North community. Despite indicating they are willing to self-isolate as required and follow other directives of the chief medical officer, they’ve been denied entry under the travel ban, which restricts anyone but residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, asymptomatic workers and others granted specific exemptions from entering the province. The ban was implemented last month as part of a special measures order in light of the public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perez, whose family moved to the province from the Philippines more than 40 years ago, clicked on Koehler’s Facebook profile Thursday after a friend shared a meme she had posted publicly last fall.

Originally posted by a Canadian “Yellow vests” group — an organization that often expresses anti-immigration views — the meme appears to address immigrants to Canada, saying it's “your job” to embrace “Canadian values” instead of the other way around. What those Canadian values are isn’t specified.

Perez says immigrants and people of colour in this province have long had to face racist views and it’s something he hasn’t always felt he could address, finding it scary, hurtful and exhausting.

“She doesn’t understand the other side of (people of colour),” Perez says of Koehler sharing the meme. “I hope she learns or at least gets educated more about what Canadian values really are."

Perez is a well-known local photographer, graphic designer and musician who is behind a viral series of “COVID-eo Collective” videos. Over the past three months, he has mixed footage of musicians performing ’80s pop songs individually in their own homes, fusing them to create music videos.

When he saw that Koehler had also publicly shared one of his recent videos, he asked her to remove it. He found it insulting and wondered if she was aware he is an immigrant, he says.

“I embrace Canadian values, I embrace my own culture, and I embrace every other culture out there with the most respect.”

Koehler's shared post attracted dozens of comments from local people opposing the message in the meme. Some devolved into personal attacks before she made her profile private.

In their statement of claim, which has yet to be certified as a class action, Budden and Buckingham allege the province was negligent in implementing the travel ban, that it should have known the ban was illegal and that it would cause damage and loss to people like the Koehlers, whose protected rights are being breached. They are calling on the province to rescind the special order.

On Thursday, Budden made it clear he wasn’t aware of Koehler’s post and doesn’t agree with the message in it.

It has nothing to do with the legal rights she’s arguing in the lawsuit, however.

“I know nothing about other views that these folks have,” he said. “I disagree with (the post) and it’s not my view of immigration. But mobility rights are there, and they’re not there just for people who hold views that the majority of others, including myself, find unsavory."

The Koehlers aren’t seeking to bend any rules with the lawsuit, Budden said; they’re seeking to enforce the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“In some ways, the ultimate answer to their unsavory views are the views that they’re advancing in this application,” he said.

Buckingham later told The Telegram “Our clients have confirmed that it’s not her tweet,” when asked about the post shared on Facebook. He confirmed it was his client’s picture on the account in question, but did not comment on whether or not it was her account.

Perez says he appreciates the support he has been getting on social media in response to his comments to Koehler, but racism continues to be a fact of life.

“I don’t have an answer and I don’t think there will ever be an answer to this, it’s just human nature to be like this,” he says. “That’s why I hope the awareness helps people reflect and be more compassionate to others.”

tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

@tara_bradbury

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