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Silent no longer Part 5: Serving up courage against outdated norms

Young and disenfranchised stand tall against opponents of change

INNISFAIL – Dale Dunham will never forget the bullying he endured as a kid.

He will also never forget the every day beatings he took from bullies at school.

In later years, Dunham was forced to experience hateful discrimination just for being who he really was and still is.

“It affected me on a very profound level to the point where I created a mask that I wore for many, many years,” said Dunham. “It took me a number of decades to come out from behind that mask and to live authentically, to live and share my voice.”

Today, all the masks are off. Dunham is proudly sharing his voice, and his story. He’s an Innisfail entrepreneur who is standing tall about who he is, who he’s chosen to share his life with, the values they both believe in, and the hopes and dreams he has for Innisfail moving forward as a socially progressive municipality in what is arguably the most conservative province in Canada.

Earlier this year Dunham became the proud new owner of The Coffee Cottage, the town’s longstanding restaurant near the corner of Main Street and 49th Avenue. He owns the restaurant with Shaun Steen. They are not just business partners. They are life partners, gay men proudly putting their lives and beliefs on the table as who they are, and not as what anyone says they should be.

“This community is as diverse as any other in Canada. It’s just that you have to look for it,” said Dunham.

Last June, Dunham and Steen stood with other Innisfailians at the local anti-racism rally that was held to raise community awareness. Dunham was so moved by the experience, absolutely believing the cause was just and worth adding his voice and life experience to, he joined the award-winning Innisfail’s Welcoming & Inclusive Community Committee.

As a Caucasian man he has not personally faced racism in his life but he has certainly encountered the ugly sting of discrimination.

“A couple of years ago I had to go back to Calgary and Shaun ended up texting me in the afternoon and he was driving to our home and somebody was yelling at him, ‘hey faggot I want you to f***ing die and get out of here,” he said. “Shaun was very shaken up about it and I actually wrote a pretty extensive Facebook post about it because I have found Innisfail very welcoming.”

So welcoming and understanding, The Coffee Cottage has become Innisfail’s unofficial “safe place”, a locale Dunham and Steen have declared being zero per cent tolerant for any bullying, misogynistic, chauvinistic, racist, or homophobic comments or behaviour.

“We’ve already asked somebody to leave at one point, and we’ve also spoken to a couple of people about the use of derogatory terms, and we are very comfortable with the fact that we do that,” said Dunham. “We feel that it is important for us to not only stand behind what we do in our private life but also in our business.”

Movement under attack

September was a difficult and anxious month for the anti-racism movement in Central Alberta and its followers.

On Sept. 10, a car reportedly struck a member of the Black and Indigenous Alliance during an anti-racism rally in Ponoka where counter-protesters also attended. The vehicle sped from the scene and the RCMP is still investigating.

Ten days later on Sept. 20 in Red Deer, there was an ugly disturbance when counter-protesters burst into a planned peaceful anti-racism rally at Rotary Recreation Park. A counter protestor allegedly assaulted one man, with the incident caught on video prior to Red Deer RCMP members arriving on scene. The RCMP is also continuing its probe into that incident.

Since the counter-protest ugliness from the Red Deer rally, there has been increased reluctance by many citizens to talk about the anti-racism movement. However, a young high school student made a decision he had to do something to push the message of peaceful change forward.

Jose Jordan, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student from Red Deer’s Notre Dame High School, created a 12 minute and 41 second video, with the support of more than two dozen other students. The video appealed to the young to press ahead with a united message that the time is right to ensure there is equality for all people, no matter what their colour and ethnicity.

“I did the video out of positivity. I just wanted to show that you can express a voice positively. I am doing this so I can inspire people to change. We can all be equal,” said Jordan, who came to Canada from Mexico with his family seven years and now identifies himself as a proud Canadian.

He said the anti-racism movement is now more important than ever, even in spite of the counter protestors.

“We have to be strong, more so for Canada. We can’t just crumble. If you ask someone what the definition of Canada is and what Canada stands for, it is equality, rights and freedom,” said Jordan. “This is about the years and years of individual and collective work that have come to build this beautiful nation we all live in and that I adore and I want to keep that and I don’t want it to change.”

Back in Innisfail on Sept. 29 Tyler Thomas was enjoying an afternoon of BMX riding at the Innisfail Skatepark when he was asked on whether Innisfailians should continue to speak out against racism, in light of the recent the push back by counter protestors, some the same ones who came to town at the end of Innisfail’s anti-racism rally last June.

“One hundred per cent. Racism is not good,” said Thomas, adding the anti-racism cause is “worth fighting for.

“I think anybody should be able to say what they feel because everybody is born with their right to think what they want. I also think that every colour should have an equal chance. Colour does not separate us. Racism has no place on this planet.”

Youth and the future

Former Innisfail town councillor Jason Heistad, who is co-chair of the Welcoming committee, believes the time is also right for all decent Central Albertans to become allies with those who want to speak out against racism but are being targeted and threatened by the right-wing “fringe” counter protestors.

“I think there is more good guys and gals out there than the bad fringe individuals, the individuals who want to cause trouble for people of colour or a different race,” said Heistad, who believes it’s up to today’s youth to seize the narrative and momentum on the racism issue.

“I think it is the older generation that may have grown up in a time when racism was acceptable but I do believe the younger generation are going to lead us through this and make Central Alberta more accepting.”

Back at The Coffee Cottage, Dale Dunham believes now is the “perfect time” to stand up and talk more about the way forward on the anti-racism discussion. He said everyone who has proclaimed they care about the issue must not bow to complacency or else they will be “buying” into what the counter protest movement wants them to do.

 “We can’t run away and be scared of a few bullies. You can’t let them stop you from stepping forward, sharing your voice, sharing your support and learning,” said Dunham, who is also looking to the future, which could be nearer than most think, when the youth will have to carry the torch for the world, and the Town of Innisfail, to make sure there is an established path towards peaceful and harmonious solutions for the issue of racism.

“We are just the custodians of all of this. We don’t own any of it. We are just here to try and caretake it for the next generation, for the younger people,” said Dunham. “Really, it is the next generation coming up that are the ones that are really going to make a difference in Innisfail.

“They will show they have pride in this community, and that they have pride with us.”