When St. Albert city council candidate Ufuoma Odebala-Fregene took out a sponsored Facebook ad for her campaign this week, she asked for people to “join the dialogue” on the municipal election.
Instead, racist and discriminatory comments began flooding her post, taking aim at the fact Odebala-Fregene is a visible minority. Several posters dove into anti-immigration rhetoric, while others personally attacked Odebala-Fregene for her name and website.
Comments included references migrants as “the enemy”, as well as referring to refugees and “boat people” in negative contexts.
Several commenters listed their current city as Edmonton, while others listed Devon and many listed no location at all.
Odebala-Fregene appeared to be taking the comments in stride on Wednesday, posting a lighthearted response with the phonetics of her name in reply to a poster calling it impossible to pronounce.
“I specifically asked for people to join the dialogue. I got one,” she told the Gazette.
“The question now is what to do with what I got. This is a democracy and people are entitled to express their views – my hope was that those views would further our collective desire for a more compassionate and collaborative community, and by extension, province.”
Odebala-Fregene said she didn’t expect the mean-spirited and personal comments she received, but chalks that up to the “social media beast.” Racism and discrimination, she says, are a part of her family’s reality.
The vitriol sparked a sharp response from St. Albertans across the political spectrum, who leapt to Odebala-Fregene’s defence, calling out the people posting racially charged comments and posting comments of their own in support of Odebala-Fregene.
Some residents who spoke with the Gazette said they were reaching out to her to affirm many St. Albertans do not feel the same as the commenters.
Resident Lisa Hoff, who has spent more than 40 years in St. Albert, said she found the comments “disgusting” and they made her embarrassed for the people who said them.
“I can only imagine it feels devastating to hear hatred in your own community,” she said.
Cheryl Stuart says the comments Odebala-Fregene received need to be exposed in light of wider anti-refugee rhetoric across the country.
“Just because maybe she’s from a different culture, it doesn’t make any difference. It doesn’t make her any less. I think it’s absolutely appalling that we would treat any candidate that way,” she said.
“Canada is a mosaic and we all represent our heritage, regardless of how long our families have been in the country.”
Odebala-Fregene said the outpouring of support she’s received – including messages of support from perfect strangers – has given her hope.
“I am grateful to those who stood up against the tide of filth. These were strangers who did not know me personally,” she said.
“This is the St. Albert I know.”