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Perth County Warden expands on statement of commitment to inclusivity

Perth County Warden Jim Aitcheson.

Aitcheson gives rationale on county council’s rejection of committee establishment for potential anti-racism charter

PERTH COUNTY – In response to pressure from the public following regarding Perth County council’s silent dismissal of Coun. Todd Kasenberg’s motion to start a committee on inclusion and diversity, the county released a statement from Warden James Aitcheson affirming the county’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity on Nov. 28.

Kasenberg’s motion would have established a committee made up of members of the public, county staff and councillors who would have looked into potential actions the county could have considered such as the creation of an Inclusivity and Anti-Racism Charter or Statement, exploration of the option to join the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities and petitioning other levels of government for actions conducive to their intentions.

Although the motion was met with silent dismissal by the other members of council, Aitcheson’s statement said: “The conversation about diversity and inclusivity in our region is not over.”

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In a conversation with the Listowel Banner on Nov. 29 regarding his statement, he said he did not use social media so he wasn’t aware of the full extent of the online debate.

“You want to debate something give me a call,” he said. “I’ve got all kinds of people calling me all the time and always phone them back because they know if they phone me about something I’ll deal with it.”

Aitcheson had county staff compile a list of the actions the county has taken over the past five years to support diversity and inclusivity because he knew this was going to be an issue.

The actions on the list were anti-racism and inclusion training, a newcomer youth presentation, Advocacy at Queen’s Park for the Economic Developers Council of Ontario, welcoming communities training and seminars, Newcomer Huron Perth Settlement Committee, Fanshawe College online welcoming communities customer service training, job fairs hosted by the Newcomer Centre of Peel, sponsoring a regional forum on Rural Newcomer Integration in 2018, newcomer engagement in the GTA and ongoing community partnerships and support of groups such as Immploy and the Huron-Perth YMCA.

“Most of the work to this point has been done by staff and they have always been involved in leading these initiatives, trying to make Perth County a more welcoming community,” said Aitcheson.

“That is not saying we can’t explore other initiatives and projects. There is more than one way we can work on this and the work is far from done. I’m not going to say it is done. It is not done.”

– James Aitcheson, Perth County Warden

The statement released by the county on Saturday did not address some of the big issues raised by the community such as racism and anti-racist action. Kasenberg’s motion was brought forward after councillors received correspondence from residents who were upset by a Confederate flag flying in Perth East.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Aitcheson. “I didn’t intentionally avoid using those words in my statement. I’m opposed to racism. I want Perth County to be welcoming but it wasn’t intentional. Inclusiveness and diversity to me kind of encompass working against racism so that wasn’t intentional by any stretch of the imagination.”

The motion which was rejected mentioned public involvement in the committee, but Aitcheson’s statement said the work would be done by council to identify areas of improvement.

“In hindsight maybe that was a mistake,” he said. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to provide a knee-jerk reaction to this. I wanted to keep it fairly simple and plain to start with… the statement didn’t specifically name involvement of the public but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a future initiative that is going to include the public. It’s something we can discuss further in council. It’s not just council it is staff as well that deal with this.”

Aitcheson said the motion Kasenberg put forward was only one possible way this issue can be addressed by council. He then went on to say if the motion to start a committee would not have included starting a committee, the motion may have been seconded when it was brought forward to council.

“I’ll be honest, I think and I could be mistaken or misspeaking here but the part of forming another committee was probably the biggest downside to that motion,” he said. “With all this COVID and all the committees that have been formed, I think all the councillors… they are tied up a lot in committee meetings and they are kind of wanting to approach things different ways. That is not saying we can’t explore other initiatives and projects. There is more than one way we can work on this and the work is far from done. I’m not going to say it is done. It is not done.”

Aitcheson said he had thought someone might have amended the motion when it came forward but nobody brought any amendments forward.

“Todd could have done the same thing, amended it slightly to get some support,” he said. “I did ask for a seconder three times and I didn’t get it so that motion was dropped. That’s not saying we’re done dealing with it.”

Kasenberg emailed the Banner a response to this suggestion.

“Having had no feedback from council left me with no impressions about what might have been acceptable,” he wrote. “Parliamentary procedure holds that a motion must be duly moved and seconded before being open to amendments. Since that condition was not achieved, the premise is flawed.”

Kasenberg said this doesn’t preclude him from taking an alternative action.

“A next action might be much more direct with the presentation of the text of a draft charter or statement for an up and down vote,” he said. “It comes to this – who doesn’t agree to appoint a committee of interested parties to study and do the homework on an issue of relevance to our county? It seems to me, a modest thoughtful approach to addressing the elephant in the room. If the Warden felt a more direct approach was needed, he could have suggested that at the time.”

“As the chair, that’s not up to me to do that,” said Aitcheson. “I’m not supposed to influence council. I’m supposed to be there more as the caretaker putting us through the proper process. I’m not supposed to influence the decision of council. I’m there to direct the meeting.”

When Coun. Daryl Herlick was speaking to the Banner on Nov. 22, he said he was planning to bring forward a motion to allow the community to know annually that Perth County is already an inclusive community.

“I’m not going to agree we’re already at a good spot,” said Aitcheson. “Coun. Herlick is entitled to his comments. I can’t dictate what councillors are going to say. That’s not my job but I do know, it’s actually in our last council package, that Coun. Herlick did put through a notice of motion the Monday after our last meeting to do with multiculturalism and diversity and that’s actually on the agenda this coming meeting.”

The motion is to establish a Multicultural Celebration Month.

“That will be up for debate at our next council meeting,” he said. “It was actually Coun. Herlick who put the motion through, I’m not going to lie… I had some of the comments forwarded to me and I know he’s getting slammed pretty good. Everyone has a different take on what someone says. Honestly, I don’t believe he’s racist but he has come across that way in his statements.”

Aitcheson said that in one of the emails he received from the public he was quoted as saying, “We’re done with that.”

“I said that apparently at the meeting,” he said. “Well, what I meant was we’re done with that issue on the agenda. We’re moving on to the next one. That is what I meant. I’m not saying we’re done with the racism part. We were done with that item on the agenda.”

“I appreciate they are recognizing – maybe this was a mistake. That they were able to reach out to the community and let them know ‘we’re hearing you.’”

– Eilish Brennan

Eilish Brennan is one of the Perth County residents who has organized community response to council’s dismissal of Kasenberg’s motion.

“I helped out with the BIPOC equality march in the summer,” she said. “There was a lot of support and momentum with community members for that so it was kind of shocking for me to see that Mayor Todd’s charter did not even get seconded knowing there were North Perth representatives at that meeting.”

Working with Lyndsey Matheson White she started a petition and made an email template to help people send emails to the elected representatives on Perth County council in hope of getting them to rethink their decision.

Over 700 people signed the petition within 48 hours of putting it online.

In response to Aitcheson’s statement, she said it’s ironic he said the conversation isn’t over.

“I laughed at that when I read it because the conversation never started,” said Brennan. “They didn’t even talk about it. They dismissed it so I’m like – of course it’s not over, you had an opportunity to expand on it and keep talking about it and you didn’t so that was kind of laughable to me.”

She said she did appreciate the sentiment behind the statement.

“I appreciate they are recognizing – maybe this was a mistake,” said Brennan. “That they were able to reach out to the community and let them know ‘we’re hearing you.’ They didn’t blatantly admit they made a mistake. It was clear to me in that statement they are doing some reflecting right now.”

She said it is interesting how the statement danced around the issue of racism.

“I think the word ‘racism’ has become something so powerful that when it exists and when it’s happening people who are guilty of it, whether they realize it or not, whether it’s systemic or just blatant, shy away from referring to it as what it is because it holds such a power,” she said. “It’s just a strong, powerful word.”

“It’s been an interesting ride,” said Aitcheson. “You learn something new every day and sometimes you learn by your mistakes and hopefully you do learn by your mistakes. We’re not perfect on this by any stretch.”

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