While Peterborough has so far been spared the mass protests against vaccine mandates that have caused great disruption in communities across Canada, the city hasn’t been spared the hateful talk and symbolism heard and seen at those protests.
That’s the word from Peterborough city councillor Kemi Akapo, who took to Twitter on Saturday (February 5) to acknowledge that she’s “on edge” whenever she leaves her home and, as a result, has been taking “extra precautions.”
“The last time I felt this way was when I was living in a country going through a coup d’etat,” tweeted the Town Ward representative, a native of Nigeria who moved to Peterborough in 2005 to attend Trent University and has been a case management coordinator with the New Canadians’ Centre since May 2020.
“Last night I went out to pick up take-out from a local restaurant and while I was walking there, someone in a truck waving a flag with a racist symbol yelled ‘Faggot n****r’ at me and sped off.”
In an exclusive interview with kawarthaNOW, Akapo says there’s something in the air — something much more ugly and sinister than the pleasant aroma emitted daily by Quaker.
“There’s a lot of anger and the pandemic has certainly exacerbated that,” says Akapo. “People are afraid for their families. People’s mental health has been severely affected. Accessing health care in Ontario is basically impossible with ridiculously long waiting lists.”
Even though the main action is in Ottawa and Toronto, there are signs, flags and insignias here in town. I’ve noticed I’ve become hyperaware of my surroundings in a way I’ve never felt in Ptbo. 1/
— Kemi Akapo (@kemi_akapo) February 5, 2022
“But when people are afraid, one the first displays of that is anger and sometimes that anger is misplaced. Being a leader in the community, I sometimes face the brunt of that anger. I can understand that to some extent, but not when that anger turns violent or racist.”
Akapo is quick to point such acts are “not just a Peterborough thing,” noting it’s high time Peterborough residents not only recognized that bigotry in all its forms is here and everyone has a part to play in addressing it.
“There’s a laundry list of really great things about Peterborough but Peterborough is not immune to racism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s just like any other community. All of that exists here. Do I face daily incidents of racism? Certainly not, but it does exist.”
In late 2021, Akapo pulled herself off Twitter as a result of hateful and disrespectful messages sent to her.
“It had gotten to the point where it was constant,” she recalls. “It was endless and it was distracting me from the work I really want to do: focus on policy, do good planning, and help the residents of Peterborough.”
She says her experiences, coupled with the anti-vaccine protests outside the East City home of Peterborough Medical Officer of Health Dr. Thomas Piggott that led to two arrests, have resulted in her being “more aware of my surroundings” when she’s outside her home.
“Who’s around me? If I enter a space, where can I exit in a hurry? Things I wouldn’t have normally thought of. I’ve put into place protective measures that I hadn’t felt I needed before.”
Akapo adds that the heightened American extremism of recent years is daily finding an ever-growing welcome mat in Canada, and that is disturbing on its own merit.
“As a result, some people feel more emboldened. Everybody has the right to speak and say what they feel, but it’s the manner in which you express frustrations that is the issue.”
Not lost on Akapo, as it shouldn’t be on anyone, is that February is Black History Month.
“It’s not just a heavy month where you’ve got to be reminded of all the hard things that happened,” she points out. “It’s also a time of celebration, but in that celebration we have to be reminded of the realities of what black people face.”
kawarthaNOW reached out to the Community Race Relations Committee of Peterborough for comment but hadn’t heard back by deadline. Visit racerelationspeterborough.org for its core objectives, available programs and resources, and a listing of local Black History Month events.
Looking ahead, Akapo says she has made a decision regarding her candidacy in the 2022 municipal election and will make an announcement soon. In the meantime, she’s concerned that her experience may keep potential candidates away.
“Part of me didn’t want to speak up about this because I don’t want to scare people away, but I felt a need to be honest about what is happening. I’d rather have an informed person running for council than someone who runs for council and then is surprised and shocked and not prepared to deal with it when it happens.”
“I know more now than I knew then,” she adds, referring to 2018 when she ran for a Town Ward seat. “That’s part of life — you live and you learn.”