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Continuing discussions of diversity, inclusion, racism in Perth County

PERTH COUNTY – “For many, the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism,” Perth-Wellington MPP Randy Pettapiece wrote in an email to the Listowel Banner regarding concerns first raised by Melissa Bender over a Confederate flag flying in Poole. Bender would see the flag while driving to work in Milverton. She decided to take the issue first to the Township of Perth East and then when she was not satisfied with the response, to the County of Perth.

Her request was not simply for the two levels of municipal government to forward her complaint about the Confederate flag on to the provincial and federal governments, but also to take some anti-racist action locally such as joining the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities. Both the Township of Perth East and the County of Perth ignored the suggestions for anti-racist action which Bender’s request incorporated and passed a resolution to send the request for further action on the Confederate flag issue to MPP Pettapiece and Perth-Wellington MP John Nater.

“I appreciate our local municipalities’ efforts on this matter,” wrote Pettapiece in his email. “It is an important conversation and I am sure it will continue, as it should.”

Soon after receiving the county’s resolution on Oct. 20, he brought it to the attention of the Attorney General of Ontario.

“My understanding, however, is that the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms would make banning the flag extremely difficult,” he wrote.

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When Nater received the resolutions from both the County of Perth and the Township of Perth East he forwarded them to Minister of Justice David Lametti, looking for further information from him on what steps the government might be in the position to take.

“I’ve also reached out to the parliamentary law clerk as well as the Library of Parliament to see what guidance they would offer on the matter,” he said.

With freedom of expression being an issue which could be protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Nater is waiting to hear back from the Minister of Justice for guidance.

He said there are other resources available which might be of use at the federal level, such as the Department of Heritage and a variety of programs to provide funding for anti-racism programs.

“I’ve been contacted by several local residents and organizations so I’ve been able to make contact with those organizations and programs,” said Nater. “Hopefully there will be some funding available to help out with some local endeavours.”

When the resolution to send the issue to Nater and Pettapiece was passed by Perth County council on Oct. 1, Coun. Todd Kasenberg was not in favour.

“It seemed inadequate, more of the Perth East treatment, for a matter much more complex,” he said. “I agree that the federal government could and should act in ways that reduce hate speech and symbolism, although it has a history of struggling with this one. But generally, it seemed a bromide to get (Bender) to go away, and even at that point, felt unsatisfactory. It did not seem what she asked for, or what was a meaningful action, so I did not join the group on that.”

In the same period, the City of Stratford was asked to address similar issues. Unlike Perth County, Stratford council took action with what Coun. Jo-Dee Burbach calls “a two-pronged approach.”

In Stratford there were concerns within the community itself and also concerns about policing. The concerns are being dealt with in separate ways.

“For the policing concerns we’ve created something called the Community Equity Action Team and that is particularly focused on policing,” said Burbach. “It’s a citizen advisory group working with the police board and they will be looking at issues like systemic racism and vulnerable populations.”

The other way Stratford moved forward with a community focus was to join the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities, part of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, in August.

“So the next step with that is they encourage us to create a plan of how we would promote inclusiveness and diversity,” she said. “They provide resources to help eliminate racism and discrimination.”

“We absolutely need to include the public in this discussion because there are people in the BIPOC community who have information and answers and insights that we need to hear. We don’t understand the local realities until we talk to local people who are living that reality.”

– Jo-Dee Burbach, Stratford councillor

At the same time, Stratford is also working on a Community Safety and Well-Being Plan.

“I’m hoping within that there is going to be some recommendations made on how we can move forward with inclusion and diversity,” said Burbach. “If for some reason that Community Safety and Well-Being Plan didn’t include something in particular then I would be making an effort to create a plan which could include an advisory group that would be community-focused.”

Burbach said public involvement is essential to the work Stratford has to do to become a more inclusive community.

“We can’t tackle the issue without public involvement because we aren’t representative of the populations we would like to hear from,” she said. “So we absolutely need to include the public in this discussion because there are people in the BIPOC community who have information and answers and insights that we need to hear. We don’t understand the local realities until we talk to local people who are living that reality.”

Coun. Kathy Vassilakos said that when the community concerns were brought before council there was quite a bit of discussion, and she amended the resolution so there would be a review of the city’s bylaws and relevant policies to see where the city can strengthen its policies to be a more inclusive community.

She said technically flying the Confederate flag is freedom of expression which is a Charter issue, but she said the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does have limits and there are laws around what could be deemed hate speech.

“I think some of the legislation has not been revisited for a long time,” said Vassilakos. “The Charter is always about balancing interests so I think this lies with the federal government having a look at that legislation which… is old and I think the federal government needs to relook at it and see where it can be changed… everyone agrees that the Charter is important and it protects our freedoms but at the same time the Charter does lay out a series of… limitations and those then are captured in legislation around what would be deemed hate speech.”

She said dealing with Charter issues is well above municipal jurisdiction to weigh in on, but there is legislation that the federal government could look at.

In her years on council, Vassilakos has found citizen advisory groups to be valuable.

“I think it allows citizens to have a voice in their municipal governments between elections which is important and I think that’s just one of the ways we do community engagement,” she said. “Citizen advisory committees, they are the beginning of a conversation. I think anyone who tells you that you can strike a committee and that’s it is naive. There is work that goes into that after but it is a good first step.”

Katia Maxwell, an activist who said she was triggered into action when she heard about the Confederate flag issue in Stratford, has not been surprised by the reaction of Perth County council to these issues.

“I’m split with my reasons – one is I understand racism exists and in communities that haven’t looked at it they don’t believe it is there or they are not part of it or they don’t see colour or we’re inclusive or ‘I have a friend. I have a friend,’” she said. “Then the other half of me says – you must see it, you must change it, you have to participate in it.”

Maxwell feels that a charter is not enough of a commitment because it could be a hollow gesture.

“Usually someone comes up with a rather flowery statement that sounds like it’s assertive and directional in its tone and then quite often it just it just sits on a shelf somewhere,” she said. “There is no follow-through – some people would say at least we’re doing something and I would say to you, something is nothing. Silence is complicity, so if you are not going to take action you are part of the problem.”

Maxwell is concerned there won’t be fair consultation with members of the local BIPOC community.

“I mean we’re talking about problems that go back a couple of hundred years – not something that can be solved in a one- or two-hour town hall meeting,” she said. “In terms of committees, if you want to see change and if you want to be an anti-racist, that is what the community has to decide – you become an anti-racist because you want to educate yourself and change.”

Maxwell acknowledged the conservative leanings of Perth County, including Stratford. “Conservative individuals have a really difficult time with experiences that are outside of their understanding and so I suspect for councillors, mayors, wardens there is going to have to be some courage shown,” she said. “Someone is going to have to step up and perhaps (Kasenberg) who started all this will step up and be willing to put themselves out there and pull everybody else along with them. Conservatism is a very hard ideology to deal with and get around but if somebody in their community is going to have the courage to step up and be loud and bring everybody else along there can be change – small bits, but there can be change.”

Listowel resident, Hiruthika Ravi, said she has found the actions of Perth County council “really frustrating.”

“I think it’s unfair for people who are in positions of power to be making decisions for us without consulting us because there are some things you can empathize with but there are some things you are never going to understand unless it has happened to you especially when it comes to race,” she said. “Trying to ignore it, because initially people were trying to ignore it and a lot of the politicians were trying to ignore it, but that doesn’t dissuade from the fact that it’s happening, that it exists and it’s been a thing for a very long time.”

Ravi noted that Listowel is growing and society is becoming more open to talking about issues like racism.

“You’ve seen issues like this come up in cities for a very long time,” she said. “Major cities with major BIPOC populations and I think finally it is spreading to smaller towns. Having a Black Lives Matter protest and parade in Listowel was a very, very big thing. As someone who has grown up in Listowel for a very long time, as a Person of Colour, you never really saw those things. We were here but no one ever really asked us what it was like living in a small town because the experience is very different.”

She said a BIPOC living in a large city may have many people like them and a community as a support system of sorts versus living in a small town where they might not have that.

“I remember when I was a kid, coming to Listowel for the first time, there were very few People of Colour and therefore if you were to stand up or just talk about your experience you kind of felt like you were on an island,” said Ravi. “Now I think that’s changing and it’s wonderful but at the same – I don’t think our political offices are very diverse and hopefully that will change… it’s ignorant to pretend that you know the struggles of the people you are trying to serve because you are not going to know every struggle.”

“There are some things white people just won’t understand. It’s okay that they don’t understand it but that means you need to learn, you have to be open to learning from people who have experienced it.”

– Hiruthika Ravi

Ravi thinks it’s important that BIPOC citizens are engaged in the process the county government is proposing “because these are the people who are going to be affected by the charters you put in place.”

“Especially when it comes to this – there are some things white people just won’t understand,” she said. “It’s okay that they don’t understand it but that means you need to learn, you have to be open to learning from people who have experienced it and for them to have a meeting or just a survey it almost feels like – here’s this now shut up about it.”

Ravi suggested the engagement might need to be ongoing because the things that affect the BIPOC community now may not be the things that affect them tomorrow.

“If you don’t get constant input and you don’t have that committee in place not only are things going to get outdated fast because they already are outdated fast,” she said. “The fact that we don’t have a committee and we don’t have a charter is already outdated. If you look at the progress being made around us it should not have taken that long for Perth County to follow in its footsteps. And of course, it’s better late than never but now that you are taking the steps you should be going all the way, you shouldn’t be half-assing it and then calling it a day.”

Perth County council is currently waiting for a report from its Economic Development and Tourism division which will outline plans for developing an inclusivity and diversity charter.

“Obviously community engagement would be very important insight to the development of charter strategies which will come out of that,” said Justin Dias, manager of economic development and tourism. “So our report coming at the start of January will outline some of the potential strategies and options for how to go about obtaining this input.”

Sarah Franklin, economic development and communications officer, said council recently adopted a corporate strategic plan which has language in it mentioning diversity as a key value.

“I think the fact that that is included in our county strategic plan now is the lens through which we inform our programming and hopefully the report that comes back in January on this topic specifically will bring some direction into the actions we can take around this,” she said.

Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.