Preserving Our Neighbours

Written by: Jennifer Litke

We are all guilty of wanting to believe something that confirms our own biases. It’s human nature to want to believe what our own preconceived worldview confirms for us. When presented with information that plays into our biases and incites an emotional reaction, it’s common to want to do something in response. The danger inherent in trusting our own biases lies in the damage that can be caused when we allow a lie to remain unchecked. 

 In small-town communities, there seems to be a sordid undercurrent of united expectations that the activities of others are open for consumption and commentary. As evidenced by recent viral social media rumours, people feel justified to spread falsehoods without a modicum of evidence or proof and rally the torches and pitchforks for a mob-style delivered justice for an imaginary crime. Even when presented with evidence that counters the original accusation, the mob still demands more because it isn’t enough or the source isn’t credible enough to them. They must be lying because it contradicts the originally held bias. 

Credibility is in the eye of the beholder, presumably. An unfounded claim can be made and shared over 450 times, yet a lone woman in our community can present first-hand knowledge and credible sources of refutation and be branded an aggressor. As she stands alone against a horde of angry villagers, she is branded like a modern witch and regarded with prejudice. Doesn’t matter to the mob that she was right.

My mention of torches and pitchforks wasn’t a veiled reference, as the most recent memory of torchbearers conjures imagery of White Supremacist protestors in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us!”. This kind of ‘otherism’, xenophobia, or racism isn’t nearly as overt as it is in Virginia, but without a doubt, it exists in this Canadian County. In recent years our local school-aged youth have written first-hand accounts of the discrimination they have faced in this community based on ethnicity and race. Our villagers don’t wield actual torches and pitchforks, but the willingness to take to the keyboards and attack without forethought or consideration is rampant. Underneath the viral post (since deleted) that was supposedly exposing an alleged “opportunistic” plot by a young family to purchase three plots of land along the escarpment of Main street overlooking Picton Bay so they can tear down the century houses and build a monstrous condominium, there were some disturbing and inflammatory comments. “Your Mayor is from Toronto! Kickbacks in his pocket is the only explanation for the destruction of the once beautiful Prince Edward County. This is what happens when corrupt elitists go unchecked!” “They already flipped a historical house in Hiller [sic]. I think you know what house? His wife is from Trinidad. Not nice people!”  There were over 250 comments that were reminiscent of a rallying cry to action. ‘These people are destroying our heritage’ was the theme. The comments were stoking the flames of prejudice without shame and without remorse. The conclusion, people who aren’t “from here” are bad and evil and “not nice people”. It never occurred to most that the rumour was false. 

Despite the fact that we live in a free society, where we have the freedom to live and work in any community we like within Canada, somehow the freedom to do so stops at our imaginary border around our 527 kilometres of shoreline. The tired belief that permeates this island region is that unless you were born here and have “several generations in the local cemetery” (thank you Jason Parks for the quotable line), you don’t get a say and you don’t belong. If someone has moved here from Toronto or some other vilified place outside these sacred lands and dares to purchase a plot of land or a home– that belonged to the Smith family sixty years ago– and restore it to a modern glory, they are intrinsically viewed with suspicion before even taking the time to introduce themselves. It appears even more so when the new County residents also happen to be People of Colour. 

A quote from the email to the property owners by the originator of the rumour that went viral this week, “It does still concern me, and others, that you are creating a land assembly of sorts. If your interest is in restoring these classic houses, I’m all in favour. But there exists the possibility, obviously, of you selling this land to someone else who, at the moment, would have every opportunity to build on it. That is a troubling issue for all of us.”  The audacious statement of concern regarding one family owning multiple plots of County land at a short distance from one another is quite alarming and hypocritical considering how many families there are who have lived in this community for generations and have done the same. I personally can name about half a dozen prominent families in this community who own entire road lengths worth of properties so their families can build their homes close together. No one accuses them of wanting to develop the land or destroy local heritage. Despite this, we are somehow to believe a lovely couple, who happen to be from Toronto and Trinidad, are somehow conspiring to strip this region of its heritage? And in what ways is it obvious that their intention would be to tear down these structures other than the act of purchasing the properties alone? This accusation presented in the form of a question still presumes to shoulder the burden of proof on the owners despite it being the neighbour who imagined the perceived threat to Main Street Heritage, to begin with. 

The willingness to brandish our social media weapons in the face of perceived injustice seems to diminish in contrast to realizing the mob was wrong. When presented with irrefutable facts to contradict such malicious and inflammatory accusations, the same people who are first to take up arms in defence of their town are rarely the ones willing to take off their hats and offer a humble apology to the neighbours they assailed. But in reference to this family, who were publicly blindsided with this accusation this week, our community owes them a huge public apology. By extension, our Mayor and municipal council and staff are owed an apology as well. 

It is my hope that in the future, accusations such as these will be levied with much more caution, and shared with supporting evidence rather than simply the staked reputation of the accuser. It is also my hope that this community will reconcile with the discrimination that rears its ugly head far too often in this county. The heritage this region clings to seems to have romantic notions of friendly neighbours and cordial interactions. If that is the heritage we want to preserve, then we need to work equally as hard to preserve the relationships with our present neighbours as we do the homes they reside in.

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