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Hate speech concerning and 'need to pay attention' to it

An outpouring of support and donations has been made to Canmore Pride in the wake of a hate email it received from a Canmore business.
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Valbella Gourmet Foods. GREG COLGAN RMO PHOTO

CANMORE, Alta. – An outpouring of support and donations has been made to Canmore Pride in the wake of a hate email it received from a Canmore business.

The organization expressed its gratitude, calling it overwhelming in what had been a whirlwind week-and-a-half for the volunteer group since the July 26 from Jeff von Rotz, former president of Valbella Gourmet Foods, was made public and gained national attention.

“For those reaching out with messages of support, know that we read every message,” the group said in an email. “Your support keeps us going and reminds us of all the good in the world.

“Love wins. Love always wins.”

The group further promoted its training program for businesses that’s called the Bow Valley Pride Network to help educate on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The transphobic reply we received from a local business further reinforces the importance of education in our community to keep members of our community safe,” said Canmore Pride in an email.

“We hope that those who wish to support and ally us educate themselves to help facilitate positive change in the community. When we ally, we stand up for 2SLGBTQ+ rights and call out harmful behaviour when we see it. Educate your loved ones, as not intervening can enable future harm to our community.”

The specific email had Von Rotz reply to an email from Canmore Pride co-chair K Kealey asking about the business's potential sponsoring or donating food for an inclusive and free climbing event hosted by Canmore Pride and Crush Collective.

The barbeque was planned as part of the Sept. 15-18 pride festival in Canmore.

Von Rotz replied, saying he wouldn’t help since “you could not pay me to sponsor anything to do with child grooming tranny’s.”

He further went on to say Canmore Pride should stay away from kids in the community and that the group should “be disgusted with yourself.”

“I’m sure there’s some woke organization mentally ill enough to help you with your event, but it isn’t Valbella’s.”

Attempts by the Outlook to reach von Rotz have been unsuccessful.

Chantal von Rotz, a member of the ownership of Valbella’s and Jeff’s sister, said in an email statement that was also posted to the company’s social media channels hours after Jeff’s email became public that they apologize to the Canmore LBGTQ+ community and Jeff von Rotz had been removed from the company.

“The individual responsible has been removed from the company and its operations.”

A separate email from Walter and Leonie von Rotz – the founders and owners of Vabella’s – and Chantal that was sent to businesses of the company and obtained by the Outlook said the incident doesn’t reflect the company’s values.

“We want to work hard to regain your trust as a valued business partner of Valbella,” the email said. “We are a small business, a local employer and we care deeply about our community.”

Attempts by the Outlook to reach Chantal von Rotz have been unsuccessful.

Valbella’s issued a statement Thursday (July 28) it has started reaching out to the LGBTQ+ community to apologize and is reaching out to experts in the LGBTQ+ community to help with training and education.

“We are deeply sorry for the hurt we caused our community,” the post read.

“Our priority is regaining the community’s trust. We are working on a more detailed plan focused on meaningful actions.”

The company said it’s undergoing a thorough review of its policies and will have an equity, diversity and inclusion policy in the coming weeks as well as offering support for its employees.

“We want to make sure our employees have a supportive environment,” the post states.

In an email from the marketing department for Valbella’s, they declined to elaborate on the supports being offered to employees and who they were reaching out to in the LGBTQIA2S+ community.

“Our focus right now is on doing what we promised in our earlier statement. When we have more to share, we will let you know,” it read.

ACTIONS NEED TO FOLLOW

Kristopher Wells, a professor at MacEwan University specializing in the LBGTQ community as well as diversity, equity and human rights and bullying and discrimination, said the apology from Valbella’s is a good start but it’s vital to follow it with action.

“Words are meaningless without the actions that follow them. … You have to make sure the training doesn’t just include staff, but also the management and ownership group. Apologizing to the public and the employees and the company’s partners and distributors is all part of accountability,” he said. “If they are serious about repairing the harm that has been done and rebuilding trust with the community, all of those are important steps.

“If they’re serious about this, you can’t not talk. Silence is never neutral here. You’ve got to be proactive and you have to accept the mistake and harm that was made and a big part of it is communicating and not going silent. You can’t just put out statements. That’s not how the work gets done.”

Wells, a Canada Research Chair in public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth, said it was key for the company to be transparent on the actions being undertaken and update the community, but also begin training with specialists and establish new policies.

“It doesn’t take much to lose trust, but it takes a lot to build it. This is not going to be something that’s done overnight or with one statement,” he said. “It’s going to be done by rebuilding relationships in the community. That takes time, it takes commitment and it takes resources.

“We’re not just talking words in an email, but a pretty significant culture problem. Changing culture overnight is not something that can be done. Culture is based on thousands of small practices over time and it starts at the top with leadership.”

PUBLIC BACKLASH

Following the email being made public, the backlash was swift with many voicing they would no longer shop at the well-known shop.

Several businesses also announced they were cutting ties to the food store.

Fairmont Banff Springs, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge said they would no longer be buying food from Valbella’s, while the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Calgary-based retailers Sunterra Market, Blush Lane and Cultivatr were other major businesses that halted sales of Valbella products.

Many smaller retailers and restaurants in the region have said the same and the Canmore Folk Festival returned the donation Valbella’s had made to it for the weekend event.

Several people reached out to the Outlook saying they understood what Jeff von Rotz wrote was wrong, but they hope people note how the business has been a supporter of several local organizations and not-for-profits.

“They’ve been a long-time sponsor of many organizations. One person wrote something stupid and offensive and now the family and the employees are trying to clean up the mess and are facing the brunt of the anger,” one long-time local, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Aurora Borin, a Banff resident and organizer with Banff Pride, said Valbella’s hadn’t reached out to Banff Pride prior to the August long weekend.

The Crush Collective, who was included in the original email from Canmore Pride and was co-organizers of the event, said in an email they had not been contacted by Valbella’s before the long weekend.

Borin, who teaches diversity, equity and inclusion to individuals, groups and organizations in the valley, said it’s important to educate people.

“The antidote to homophobia and transphobia is education. … From there, we can make this place better and help people be better.

“It’s every one of those steps that counts and every one of those steps that makes our community a better place.”

Canmore Pride held its first festival last year. Though only taking place for its first time, the event gained significant support and involvement in the community.

Banff Pride will have its 10th anniversary this year and has large support from local organizations and the community.

Wells said it’s encouraging how many have supported Canmore Pride during this, but that it’s equally important to support the LGBTQIA2S+ community not just when incidents such as this arise.

“I think the real positive is how the community has responded and galvanized beyond Canmore Pride. I think that’s very heartening to see that level of support. That’s exactly what we need to have happen,” he said. “Hate becomes emboldened when it’s not denounced. … Everyone who was outraged by this email should be encouraged to get out and participate in Canmore Pride and make it the biggest Pride event ever and continue that message of support.”

LONG HISTORY OF HATE

The backlash against trans and non-binary individuals has a long history, Wells said, particularly in the United States where legislation has been passed in some states to remove rights and protection.

He said, however, it’s not uncommon to have similar views expressed in Canada.

In 2019, Calgary lawyer John Carpay – speaking at a Rebel Media event – compared the rainbow flag to that of a swastika. There have also been numerous protests across the country for drag queen storytimes being inappropriate for children and further stereotypes and myths have been used to dehumanize the LGBTQIA2S+ community.

In dehumanizing and demonizing a specific group of people, he said, it can be easier to see people as objects and easier to attack.

“Being trans and non-binary is a completely natural and normal part of our society. No one is recruited into that lifestyle,” he said.

“The reality is the LGBTQ community is one of the most targeted groups for hate crimes in this country and many of those crimes are violent in nature. … You’re something to be seen as afraid of and we attack what we don’t know and what we fear.”

Far right movements such as the recent trucker convoy protests and white nationalism also use the trans and non-binary community as scapegoats, Wells said. The belief is if you can’t reproduce, you have to recruit.

Wells said the RCMP should investigate the email as a hate incident.

“There were not some harmless jokes or even casual remarks. This was blatant transphobia and hate speech. … This is exactly the kind of language these incredibly damaging stereotypes and tropes that get used to referring to people as groomers or mentally ill,” he said.

“These ideologies have a complicated and intertwining histories. We see it in Russia happening where LGBTQ people are being targeted by that government as a scapegoat for larger issues that are ongoing. That’s why when we see language like in that email, we really need to pay attention.”

For those needing support, the Calgary Distress Centre is available at 403-266-4357 and the Canada Trans Life Line is 1-877-330-6366.

Alberta Health Services also have the Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642 or www.ahs.ca/helpintoughtimes.