Comox Valley resident Mackai Sharp has created a project addressing bigotry and intolerance in the community. Photo montage submitted.

Comox Valley student creates project addressing intolerance and bigotry in our community

Frustration due to a lack of acknowledgment that the problem exists was the catalyst for the project

Mackai Sharp knows first-hand about intolerance.

He has experienced it, and seen others suffer through acts of hatred, right here in the Comox Valley.

The lack of tangible action being taken by our community leaders to put an end to intolerance and bigotry has been frustrating for Sharp and others to endure. His latest project challenges people to take a deeper look within, and he is hopeful it is the catalyst to real change.

The project was launched on his website Dec. 14, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The project was launched a couple of days ago, and it’s made its way not only across the Valley, but across the Island,” he said. “I’m surprised by the amount of support it’s received.”

Mackai Sharp’s project addressing intolerance and bigotry will premier at the Comox Valley Art Gallery on Dec. 17. Photo supplied

Sharp’s project, entitled, “Kill Yourself” also launches at the Comox Valley Art Gallery on Dec. 17. It is a photo essay, as well as a written document.

The photo captions offer comments and slurs that have been directed at him personally in the Comox Valley, due to his sexual orientation. Sharp, who is bisexual, said the project is not about his sexuality, or the LGBTQ community in particular, but rather about the larger picture of intolerance and bigotry within the community.

“I am utilizing my experiences as a vehicle to highlight how this intolerance isn’t just for people like me; it’s for a variety of different people in the Comox Valley, and how it is affecting all of them in a very similar manner,” he said. “It’s not just about sexual orientation. It’s about gender identity, people of colour, and anyone whose [similar experiences] have affected their quality of life in this community. It’s a way of showcasing that this is happening to a lot of different people.”

Sharp said his personal motivation for taking on this project was frustration due to a lack of acknowledgment from community leaders that such a problem exists in the Comox Valley.

The catalyst was the racial attacks on Daruna Nikii and Chai Sullivan at Cornerstone Taphouse earlier this year.

RELATED: Racial attack at Courtenay restaurant

Immediately after the incident, on the street, someone approached the group and tried flipping the blame for the attack on the victims, saying they were the ones guilty of assault, and that they escalated the situation. It was discovered after the fact that the person who approached the group was an employee of School District 71.

Sharp, Nikii, Sullivan and a few other witnesses of the attack had meetings with the school board to address the situation.

“We had these meetings and when they were proved to be ineffective, we went to (Courtenay-Comox MLA) Ronna-Rae Leonard, and we went to the ministry, and there was still no resolution,” said Sharp. “It’s been five months now. There have been promises that have been made for acknowledgment, for changes in policy, and there has been nothing – not a single acknowledgment.

“It really instilled this frustration and disgust within myself. I was like, if these people, who experienced outright bigotry, couldn’t get any action… it made me feel hopeless. I was so disappointed in my community and its stance on this issue. It brought back a lot of emotions from when I was dealing with the same sort of intolerance. So to deal with that, I used this creative outlet.”

Sharp explains in his written document that the incessant bullying and bigotry he endured in high school eventually made him turn to home-schooling to complete his high school education. (He is in Grade 12 this year.)

Local politicians react

Sharp said the launch of his project on the website has already prompted some response from community leaders, including North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney, who reached out to him after seeing it.

“I think it is powerful and very brave,” Blaney said to The Record, when asked her impressions of the project. “The language Mackai has experienced is absolutely heartbreaking. Part of building strong communities is creating an environment of belonging. To be told you do not belong is an injustice that needs to be addressed and Mackai is doing that.”

“It’s devastating to hear, but also I am very proud of him for being able to voice what we know is happening in our community that we never give voice to,” added Leonard, when contacted by The Record. “It’s very impressive, and very brave of him.”

Comox Valley Regional District director Arzeena Hamir was also moved by Sharp’s project.

“As a parent, community member and politician, I was deeply impacted by Mackai’s words and his photos,” she told The Record. “I think so many of us in positions like mine work to build a more inclusive community so when we hear stories like this, it’s deeply troubling. Honestly, it broke my heart.”

She said that while his story was troubling, the more troubling aspect is that his is not an isolated incident. As a visible minority herself, Hamir has also experienced bigotry first-hand.

“I fully understand that Mackai’s story isn’t just a single story,” she said. “I’ve heard it repeated so many times, be it a young woman dealing with sexual assault, a person of colour dealing with a racial slur. I myself have been a target so I know racism is present in the Valley. Our community does not do a great job dealing with difficult situations like this. I would love to see the day come for us to say, as a community, if you are a bigot, you are not welcome in the Comox Valley.”

It is reactions like these Sharp was hoping for when he set out to do the project.

“I hope it just, if anything, starts a conversation,” he said. “The concern to me is that we are allowing complacency to become the new normal. We are normalizing silence. I really just want the community to reassess its values.”

What can politicians do?

Blaney recognizes the need to be more proactive when it comes to intolerance.

“I know that we are not doing enough,” she said. “I have heard from folks from the LGBTQ2+, racialized, and Indigenous communities, people living with disabilities, or facing poverty or homelessness, among other marginalized groups. What I re-learn all the time is that it’s easy to ignore or overlook that which we do not personally experience. We all must take responsibility and make an effort to notice other experiences. Until we do – we cannot say we are all in it together.

“In my role as MP, I speak whenever I can on the realities of discrimination, both in the riding and in the House of Commons. I have supported or called on legislation that addresses aspects of discrimination. I also work with groups in the riding to support them in advocacy at a federal level. I believe all Canadians can be helpful by seeing what is happening. All too often we avoid what scares us. It is important to practise being an ally, because it’s not easy and it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. We all need to be prepared to speak out against discrimination when we see it. There is no perfect reaction and every scenario is different, but inaction can be a matter of life and death, so we need to practise in order to be prepared.”

Hamir said much more can be done at the district level as well.

“I’ve been speaking to other directors at the regional district and one thing that is missing from our corporate vision is a diversity and inclusion lens,” she said. “For 2021, I would love to see that imbedded as a core value…. Obviously, this is something we have to discuss as a board and agree to and I hope my fellow board members will see the benefit of this.”

Leonard pointed to the re-implementation of a BC human rights commissioner as one important step towards making communities safer from acts of intolerance and hatred. BC’s Human Rights Commissioner, Kasari Govender, started her five-year term in September of 2019. (It had been dismantled in 2002.)

She also referred to the government’s work on reforming the Police Act. A special committee was formed in July to examine the current Police Act and bring its recommendations forward.

A statement from the committee was presented in August. (See document at the end of the article.)

“People need to have trust in our policing institution, in order for them to do a better job of protecting people,” said Leonard. “There’s a definite need for change there.”

Sharp is particularly interested in seeing change at the school level, which, according to his project essay is where much of the intolerance is experienced. Sharp says it’s not just students being intolerant towards others, but the authority figures turning a blind eye to acts of hatred.

“I want them to present new options, new change in the district,” he said. “I don’t expect them to do that alone. I am more than happy to meet with them. I know a lot of other students that would be very happy to meet with them. We want the conversation to be positive.”

School board creates committee

The school board made a decision to create an ad hoc committee with community participation to advise on a policy on rights and anti-discrimination at its Dec. 15 meeting.

On Dec. 17, School District 71 sent out a statement regarding Sharp’s project.

“We are always concerned to learn that a student felt mistreated or not supported in our schools,” the statement read. “The district believes in equitable treatment for all individuals regardless of race, colour, ancestry, ethnic origin, religion, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or political beliefs. We are an inclusive school district that provides an education that treats everyone with respect and ensures that everyone in our school communities feel valued, safe and represented. We must continue to make changes necessary until all our students feel welcomed and cared for.

“Every child deserves an education free from discrimination, bullying, harassment, intimidation and violence. ”

The statement also referred to the provincial government’s ERASE (expect respect and a safe education) program, which SD 71 has adopted. The ERASE program includes a reporting system that allows for anonymous reporting of any instance of bullying, intolerance or discrimination.

Sharp said while the project was his, he could not have done it without the help of his friend, Nula Power.

“My wonderful friend, Nula, was the photographer. She was the one holding the camera, taking the best shots. It was my creative direction, but she was the one helping with the visual side of the product.”

Mackai Sharp’s project can be seen at his website, Mackaisharp.com (The Record warns readers that the project is graphic in nature, with bigoted language in the captions.)

Comox Valley