CCAR AND THE NON-EBOLA SCARE

 

          On Saturday, February 3, 2001, a 32-year-old Congolese woman named Colette Matshimoseka arrived at Toronto’s Pearson Airport on a tourist visa in order to attend a conference in Montreal. With the help of Reverend James McKeown Quainoo of the Church of Pentecost (Canada) on Barton Street East in Hamilton, a church whose congregants are mainly black, she was placed the first night of her stay in Canada with another young woman, a black female Mohawk College student, residing in a small downtown apartment.

 

          According to an article by Bill Dunphy in the Hamilton Spectator on February 26, 2001, the Mohawk College student travelled by bus and train to Toronto to pick Colette up and bring her home to Hamilton. Colette told the student she hadn’t eaten during the three-day trip from the Congo because she didn’t like the food, prompting the student to go out shopping for some fruit. When the student returned, she noted that Colette looked “sick and tired” and wanted only to sleep. The two shared a bed.

 

          The next morning, Colette vomited. The student cleaned up and went to the Church of Pentecost. That afternoon, Reverend Quainoo dropped by for a visit and noting Colette’s worsening condition, took her to hospital. Twelve hours later, doctors invoked the never-before-used Tropical Disease Protocol, thinking that Colette had been infected by the Ebola or another deadly virus.

 

          That mis-diagnosis was the beginning of a a trauma for many people in Hamilton including Colette, the young black student, Reverend Quainoo, the small Congolese community of Hamilton, and Hamilton’s black community in general.

 

          Colette was treated at the Henderson Hospital on Concession Street on Hamilton Mountain, whose parking lot soon filled up with TV remote trucks with telescoping antennas from as far away as Texas. Reporters roamed the hallways, some disguised as hospital personnel in medical gowns, trying to gather personal information on Colette.

 

       As the story gained sensational status, members of Hamilton’s Congolese community, including some with medical degrees, tried to intervene to help Colette by offering advice and by putting the hospital in touch with Colette’s doctor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It appears that Colette was being treated for malaria at home. Contact with the Congolese community indicated (to those members of the community who would shortly bring CCAR out of its dormancy) that the advice and help being offered was not being taken seriously by the medical authorities. They continued to treat Colette as if infected by the Ebola virus or other hemorrhagic fevers.

 

       There were almost daily updates on Colette’s condition in the media, some of which were the result of medical briefings by hospital spokespersons. Some of the news updates included the information that some seventy persons in the hospital had come into contact with Colette and five were splashed with bodily fluids. One whole floor of the hospital was said to be quarantined.

 

       On Saturday, February 10, a group of four members of the notorious, white supremacist, Heritage Front gathered in front of the Henderson Hospital to hand out leaflets. Police were on the scene because the Front’s original plan was to hold a demonstration against Canada’s immigration policies, which they oppose because these racists want only whites admitted as immigrants. The Heritage Front boasted on their website that the hospital staff eagerly helped them distribute 6000 leaflets. Actually, some leaflets were distributed in front of the hospital, the rest door-to-door in the neighbouring community.

 

       The Heritage Front leaflet, appropriately printed in yellow, was entitled “Immigration Can Kill You”. It ignored the fact that Colette was not an immigrant but rather a visitor to Canada. The police on the scene did not charge the Front leafleters with hate crimes because the leaflet was carefully crafted using quotes from the National Post, the Toronto Sun, and the Toronto Star. Its theme was from the National Post, a right wing paper: “Immigration and refugee policies in Canada are no longer just a joke. They are life-threatening to Canadians and to the rest of the world.” It did not explicitly say that non-white immigrants should be banned from Canada. Rather, it played on the time-worn slander used against immigrants to this country, since the days of the Irish famine, that immigrants are dirty and disease-ridden and should be kept out. (See image of the leaflet on this page)

 

       Even more alarming to anti-racists in the community was the word that the Heritage Front was using the sickness of Colette (which turned out not to be life-threatening to her or any one else), to try to start a chapter in Hamilton. The very next weekend, during a concert by a neo-fascist punk group at the Corktown Tavern downtown, a non-white young man was savagely beaten by a group of neo-fascist punks and another group of three people robbed.

 

       Rumours began to be circulated about black school children being ostracized in school playgrounds by other children in fear of contracting deadly diseases. Rev. Quainoo reported that he had helped Colette’s young hostess go underground. She was being hounded by the media and feared that she could not get accommodation anywhere if prospective landlords found out that she had shared a bed with Colette. She was also terrified of losing her part-time job and being known at Mohawk College as “the woman who brought Ebola to Canada.” The small Congolese community tried to organize a public meeting at a church on Main Street East to help Colette out of her distress but was scared enough by the media glare to cancel this meeting before it began. Black members of the community began expressing concerns about using the medical facilities of the Hamilton Health Sciences Corporation (HHSC) for themselves or their families because of the lack of patient confidentiality in the case of Colette. (The HHSC is the body that runs all the Hamilton hospitals and just previously had run a quarter million dollar, street poster advertising campaign of faces from the Hamilton community, not one of which was black.)

 

       In short, there was a sense of alarm and urgency in the air.

 

       On February 16, 2001, some former members of CCAR and other leading anti-racist activists in Hamilton issued a press release (reprinted on this page) announcing a press conference at City Hall. In the absence of an official anti-racist committee at City Hall, it was felt that CCAR should be resurrected from its long dormancy. The purpose of the press conference was three-fold: 1) to pressure the mayor and city council to revive the city hall committee against racism which had been allowed to lapse during the amalgamation of the regional government into one large city; 2) to have the police act decisively against the formation of a chapter of the racist Heritage Front in Hamilton; and 3) to initiate an inquiry into the sensational character of the treatment Colette Matshimoseka received at the Henderson Hospital.

 

       The result of the press conference was the publicity necessary to arrange meetings at relatively short notice with both the police chief and the mayor. Thanks to Jane Mulkewich, the former Community Relations (civilian) Officer of the Hamilton Police Services, a number of productive meetings were held with Police Chief Ken Robertson and a group of CCAR members. The hate crimes statistics were for the first time ever released publicly, thanks to CCAR. The Corktown Tavern was persuaded no longer to feature racist punk bands. A person was arrested for the beating of the non-white patron at that pub (though it is not yet known if a conviction was achieved in that assault.) The Police Services Board undertook to make several changes to encourage the enumeration, recruitment, and promotion of visible minority and native officers. And the Police Chief volunteered not only to come to speak at the CCAR celebration of March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism, but donated a large part of the refreshments for that event. However, CCAR was unable to secure a promise at that point for a dedicated Hate Crimes Unit within the Police Services. One officer was given that position as a part-time duty. After September 11 of that year, a five-officer, full-time Hate Crimes Unit was established to deal with the six-fold increase in reported hate crimes.

 

       On March 6, CCAR Chair Ken Stone met with the mayor’s executive assistant, Raffaella Candiotto. Mayor Wade stopped in, very  briefly.  The case was put for the recreation of an anti-racist committee at City Hall as well as the creation of a full-time Access and Equity Officer (a position sought for at City Hall by anti-racists for twenty-five years). The Mayor was also asked to appear at CCAR’s March 21 celebration and to match or exceed the contribution of the police chief. He did neither. However, in the months that followed, City Council did finally re-establish a Committee Against Racism. After September 11, when racists torched the Hindu Samaj Temple and attacked the Hamilton mosque, City Council finally established the position of Access and Equity Officer as well as the position of Human Rights Consultant.

 

       On March 2, 2001, Colette Matshimoseka was finally discharged from the Henderson Hospital. After 27 days in hospital and probably millions of dollars spent, the doctors admitted that she had neither the dreaded Ebola virus nor any hemorrhagic fever. They concluded her ailment was malaria. However, her ordeal did not end there. On Monday, March 5, the Hamilton Spectator, under the byline of Bill Dunphy, published a front page story connecting Colette to diamond smuggling. In the article, Reverend Quainoo denies the allegation strongly on behalf of Colette, who immediately went into hiding. The story was repudiated by the newspaper several days later. Reverend Quainoo has since moved from Hamilton.

 

       At a general meeting of the Community Coalition Against Racism on May 26 of that year, it was decided that CCAR should follow up the non-Ebola scare with some research on its negative effects on the black community in general, and the small Congolese community of Hamilton in particular. To this end, CCAR Chair Ken Stone and CCAR Executive Member Marlene Thomas-Osborne held a series of meetings with Dr. Vic Satzewich, Chairperson of the Sociology Department at McMaster University. In time, Dr. Satzewich recruited a promising young PhD candidate, Mr. Charles Adeyanju, to undertake the research. Ms. Deirdre Pike of the Social Planning and Research Council has helped to look into sources of funding to publicize the research.

 

       In late June of 2001, 500 delegates gathered in Hamilton for the World Conference on Disaster Management. The delegates lauded the HHSC for its handling of the non-Ebola scare. CCAR Chair Ken Stone wrote a letter to the editor of the Hamilton Spectator criticizing this unearned praise. (See letter, “Nothing to be proud of”)

 

       Charles Adeyanju, a black student of Nigerian descent, will be at the CCAR Annual General Meeting to report on his research and to answer questions. The AGM takes place at 7 pm on Wednesday, January 29, 2003, in Room 110 of Hamilton City Hall. There will be free parking at City Hall that night. All are welcome.

 

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