There are two stories being told about the small lakeside town of Georgina, where a high school was thrown into the spotlight this week after a video emerged of a racially charged schoolyard beating.
To some, Georgina — the northernmost municipality in York Region, made up of several small communities — is a friendly town where everyone is welcome. The kind of place where a local will stop to tow a stranger’s truck out of a ditch. A town of mostly good folks with a few bad eggs.
“Our school does not have racial overtones,” said Julie Grainger, mother of a student at Sutton District High School, where the incident took place.
“I have a feeling that if this happened in Toronto and it was a white kid, and black kids did this, it wouldn’t be news,” Grainger said. “But it’s news because it’s a black kid.”
Four teens are charged with assault in the April altercation at Sutton High, which was filmed by students while onlookers shouted “pound the n—–” and “get the n—–, get pounding.”
Others recall the town’s history of racially charged incidents and believe it does have a problem. Shernett Martin, executive director of the Vaughan African Canadian Association, said this week she believes there is “deep-seated racial tension” within the high school and the town — an accusation that has outraged many students and locals.
Martin said she is troubled by the community’s reaction. “The narrative has been ‘Poor old Georgina, in the news again … Poor old Georgina, bad media attention,’” said Martin, who met with school and board officials after speaking with the victim’s family. “It’s totally taken the focus off the fact that they have a problem.”
After news of the latest incident broke this week, students leapt to their school’s defence.
“Everyone who is now judging us because of this article should know that the fight was a very serious issue and was not in any way a normal act at Sutton High,” Catherine Omand, a Grade 11 student, wrote in an email to the Star. “There were only a handful of people involved in the incident and the rest of the student body was very upset.”
The school also made news a year ago when the principal had to ban the Confederate flag because some students were attending class with the controversial symbol of slavery and racism adorning belt buckles, backpacks and bandanas. Students said it was worn to express rural pride, and most kids didn’t understand its deeper meaning.
In the wider Georgina area, several other racially charged incidents have made the news in recent years. In 2008, a young man was left with permanent brain damage after a car crash that followed a night of “nipper tipping,” local slang used to describe attacks on Asian anglers in which victims are thrown off docks into the water.
In another incident in 2007, Keswick man Luke Granados, then 26, was charged after a life-sized skeleton that had been painted black was hung from a noose attached to a pole flying a Confederate flag in his yard. He later pleaded guilty to wilfully promoting hate and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
The four teens charged in the beating of 17-year-old PJ Makuto — whose family spoke out against the attack — are scheduled to appear in court next week.
Do these incidents highlight an underlying racial tension in the town, or are they simply a few isolated acts committed by a handful of people? And will the latest incident spark an important conversation about race and inclusiveness, as some hope, or cause further tension?
These are important questions in a town that has begun to see the impact of urban sprawl as Toronto’s diverse population spreads north, looking for a more quiet life or a cottage getaway.
“I would say there’s an issue with just some kids at the high school, and they’re probably from families where they were raised that way, and that’ll never change. There’s just certain people that are like that,” said Jeanette Matarazzo, who was having lunch with a friend this week at the Mansion House Restaurant and Bar in Sutton, a popular local hangout on the community’s small main street, just around the corner from Sutton High.
“It happens in Toronto, everywhere,” Matarazzo continued. “And I think it makes the news up here because it’s a small community and there’s not a lot of minority people that live up here in this area.” Many residents who “live up here and have for years and generations prefer it that way,” she said. “It’s hard to change people.”
The town of Georgina encompasses several small communities, including Keswick, Sutton and Jackson’s Point, within about a 20-minute drive of each other. It is home to roughly 42,900 residents. According to 2011 census data, about 2,240 locals identify as visible minorities, and 1,760 identify as “North American Aboriginal.”
Grainger, the Sutton High parent, argued there is more to the schoolyard assault story, suggesting the young victim was “trouble” and known for bothering kids and picking fights. She condemned the beating, but doesn’t believe it was racially motivated.
Charles Makuto, the victim’s father, acknowledged this week his son “isn’t a saint,” and has indeed been suspended several times since the family moved to the town late last year. He told the Star that PJ was just trying to fit in and later defend himself after being the target of bullying and racial slurs since their move. Makuto is upset because his son’s alleged assailants continue to attend classes with him.
The response from education officials has been that there is only one high school in the community, Makuto said, though there is another in nearby Keswick.
School board officials and Sutton High staff said they are taking the assault very seriously.The York Regional Police hate-crimes unit is monitoring the case and working with the board and within the school on education programs that promote diversity and human rights.
Many in the town disagree with the hate crime label. One local resident who spoke to the Star freely but would not provide her name said that while no child deserves a beating, she doesn’t see this as a hate crime. “Everybody screams racism, but we, as white people, as a community, I am the minority in my own country, so excuse me if I don’t agree with everything that they say. Because it’s OK for them to say things about us, and as soon as a white person says anything it’s like ‘wah wah wah, racism, meep meep!’”
Martin, with the Vaughan African Association, balked at the suggestion from some residents that if the young man had behaved better, this would not have happened.
“That sounds to me like that old backwards thinking in the Deep South circa 1930s, 1940s … if you just move into Georgina and live a quiet existence, you’ll be OK, but don’t stir the boat, because then you brought it upon yourself. And that’s ignorance at its best, to say you’re bringing this on yourself,” she said.
Mayor Robert Grossi addressed negative comments about Georgina in a notice posted on the town’s website: “Statements made by people who know very little about the community and in many cases have never been to this community are uncalled for and without merit,” he wrote. Georgina, the mayor said, “prides itself on being an open and inclusive community that encourages all residents to reach their full potential.”
But not the community that everyone who lives there knows.
Growing up in Keswick, Thabo Moyo said he would regularly hear the N-word directed at him in the hallways at school. The 19-year-old decided to pay little attention to such things. “I would just shrug them off, not give them the satisfaction of knowing I could hear it,” he said.
His parents, a teacher and a radiation therapist, moved to Canada from Zimbabwe before he was born. The family lived in London, Ont., for a few years, but then relocated to the GTA when Moyo was 5, settling in Georgina because house prices were reasonable.
At Keswick High School, Moyo said, he steered clear of one boy who drove a truck to school with a Confederate flag image on the back, and was never really sure why some students equated the symbol with “southern pride,” since Georgina is a northern GTA town.
Moyo recalls that last year, when he was a Grade 12 student, he was followed around the local Walmart by a group of young white men who called him a n—–. When he left the store and drove away, the group pursued him. He drove calmly in circles for a while and then steered toward home. The men eventually backed off.
“Growing up in Keswick, you sort of grow a thick skin,” Moyo said. “For me, the way I thought of it was: I’m trying to go places, so I’m not going to stoop to their level.”
Moyo is now a student at Ryerson University, but continues to live in Keswick with his family. He said he has a lot of good memories and friends from the community — black, white, Asian — and living in Keswick hasn’t been all bad, but he wouldn’t want to raise his own family there. “I don’t want my kids to go through what I went through,” he said.
“It’s just a select few, but that few can kind of ruin your time.”
<tagline_credit name=”tagline_credit” class=”character” displayname=”tagline_credit”>With files from Kris Rushowy and Star archives