It started like any other Regional Council meeting, with a roll call of the members followed by a Land Acknowledgement last Thursday.

After reading the land acknowledgment, Regional Councillor and St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe promptly responded to Chair Jim Bradley’s request for any additions to the agenda.

Siscoe: “[I] would like to move a motion at this time, seconded by Councillor (Laura) Ip to remove agenda item 13.2 and all other associated agenda items on the agenda, as this matter does not pertain to any area of Niagara or Niagara Region business or mandate.  Regardless of the outcome of item 13.2, the end result would be division within our community.”

Item 13.2 was a motion prepared by fellow St. Catharines Regional Councillor Haley Bateman, titled “Support for Israelis and Palestinians Living in Niagara”. 

Delving into the complex geopolitical topic, Bateman’s motion called on Regional Council to support a request for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza via the United Nations Security Council. By supporting such a motion the intended outcome was for humanitarian aid to reach the affected areas in the war torn Gaza strip.

In addition, the motion requested that the federal government remove the cap on the number of Palestinians “who can seek refuge with their Canadian extended family members from the violence in the Gaza Strip.”

Wanting to avoid any possible negative reaction to the motion, it explicitly noted that the intent was to avoid fostering “all forms of racism, antisemitism and targeting of Jewish people living in Niagara, their businesses, and religious institutions or anti-Palestinian racism, or Islamophobia.”

Another request, which was not included in the motion when the agenda was first published on the Region’s website, was to light Regional headquarters in the colours of the Palestinian flag, as a show of solidarity and to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis.  

In October, Regional Chair Bradley had ordered the headquarters lit in blue and white after the Hamas terrorist attack against Israel.  Meanwhile in Brantford, the Council had to reverse a resolution of support for Israel after protests from the local Muslim community.

Despite the potentially divisive nature of the motion, representatives from Niagara Movement for Justice in Palestine-Israel (NMJPI), Independent Jewish Voices and the Niagara Palestinian Coalition were slated to appear as delegations in support of Councillor Bateman’s resolution. By Regional Council time, the number of delegates registered to speak had swelled to 18, all in support of the motion, some identifying as Jewish.

After Siscoe’s motion, his seconder, fellow St. Catharines Concillor Laura Ip, “called the question”, a procedure that puts forward a matter immediately without debate or amendment.

As the related votes transpired, the Regional Council members showed no appetite in wading into the issue of foreign affairs, approving Siscoe’s motion to remove the related items from the agenda in a 26-2 vote, with only Bateman and Niagara-on-the-Lake Regional Councillor Andrea Kaiser showing support.

The packed chamber erupted, as members of the public chanted, “Ceasefire now”. 

The vote stood in contrast to one in 2022 when Regional Council unanimously approved a motion denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, supporting sanctions the federal Government had imposed and even allowing individual councillors to provide their names if they wanted to be “indefinitely” banned from entering Russia. Staff were directed to send the approved motion to all Ontario municipalities for them to do likewise. Councillors Siscoe and Ip were on Regional Council at the time and voted to support the motion calling for strict actions against Russia. Former Regional member Walter Sendzik, who was the St. Catharines mayor at the time, spoke passionately during the 2022 meeting when the pro-Ukraine resolution was unanimously passed, referring to his own family members. “While some may think that this doesn’t mean a lot, I can honestly tell you, from my friends and family of Ukrainian descent that this means a considerable amount. Slava Ukraini.”

There was no such remark last week by any member of regional council after Councillor Bateman’s effort to do the same for Palestinians was cut off by the current St. Catharines mayor and 25 other regional councillors, who denied the public a chance to voice how much the motion would have meant to them. 

After the votes in support of the decision to remove the item from the agenda, as Chair Bradley announced that no delegates would be permitted to speak “in accordance with the Procedural by-law”, he began to be drowned out by shouts of “shame” and the continued refrain of “ceasefire now” from residents in the crowded Council Chamber. Bradley called a recess seven minutes into the meeting. 

While most Council members retired to the anteroom during the recess, Councillor Bateman remained in her seat engaging with a number of Councillors, who were attending the meeting via Zoom, most notably Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor and Regional Councillor Gary Zalepa:

“[T]hey (the delegates) came to us and asked to be heard. We have a platform and we silenced them. Don’t tell me to be quiet. Don’t tell me to change my tone. Come look in their face Councillor Zalepa, come look in their face and tell them they don’t deserve to be heard…there was collusion here tonight, I didn’t get a chance to speak, but two people did and their assumption was that this (discussing the motion) would cause division within our community. This, the decision of council (to remove the item), will cause division in our community.”

Councillor Bateman’s impassioned argument elicited applause from the remaining delegates, who were being politely escorted out by security.   

After approximately 15 minutes Regional Council returned to regular business, while the thwarted delegates staged an impromptu protest outside of Regional headquarters.  

For the next two hours Regional Council went about its business dealing with a delegation related to a proposed street name change, various committee minutes and a report on the Region’s government relations efforts in 2023 with Queen’s Park and Ottawa.  

Chair Bradley then asked if there were any Notices of Motion from Council Members.  When his query was met with silence, a remaining member in the public gallery took it upon herself to rise and begin to take Council to task for its inaction on the Israeli/Palestinian motion, prompting a second recess.

When the elected officials returned, all that remained was the formality of passing the evening’s by-laws.  

Councillor Bateman called for a “Point of Order”, an inquiry when a member questions whether a meeting procedure has been appropriately followed. Chair Bradley ignored the query, prompting Bateman to say, “Am I on?”. With Bateman repeating “point of order” and Bradley repeating, “I am now going to adjourn the meeting” three times. The Chair then slammed his gavel down and the meeting ended.

A little more than an hour after it had concluded, a media release went out from the Niagara Movement for Justice in Palestine Israel (NMJPI).  

Delegates who thought they would be allowed to address Council expressed their displeasure over the turn of events.

NMJPI co-founder Desmond Sequeira: “[S]hocking beyond words. A very sad day for Niagara. Racism masquerading as all sorts of things is obviously alive and well here – not among the people but certainly among those we elected. I will be much more careful next time.”

Rabbi David Mivasair of Independent Jewish Voices (Canada): “[T]his is really infuriating. It’s absolutely shameful that this Regional Council wouldn’t even consider supporting people whose lives may depend on being able to access a visa to find refuge in Canada.”

St. Catharines Regional Councillor, and seconder of the motion to deny Councillor Bateman’s motion and related delegations, Laura Ip outlined her rationale on her website:

“[T]here is no connection to be made between this motion and anything we do at the Region.

Of course, in the past, I have taken some criticism for bringing motions that people think have nothing to do with the Region’s mandate, but they have. Motions about decriminalization of personal use of opioids; motions seeking more funding to assist those who are unhoused; motions about declaring intimate partner violence as epidemic, and so on are all connected to Regional business, because they are all matters we deal with directly in policing, community services, and/or public health.”

Her support, through a Council vote, for the 2022 motion calling for actions against Russia, the most obvious comparison to the Gaza ceasefire motion she shot down, was not mentioned, with no explanation for the apparent contradiction. 

Ip expressed her support for peace in the Middle East and her upset over the loss of life and devastation. She also linked a CTV News report where federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller stated that the 1,000-person limit on temporary resident visas for Palestinians was not a “hard cap” and that the government would be flexible when it came to those fleeing the Gaza strip.

Councillor Siscoe, during his Mayor’s remarks at Monday’s St. Catharines City Council meeting, reiterated his Thursday stance that the Regional government’s influence did not extend to geopolitical issues. He also addressed Regional Council’s inconsistency when it came to Ukraine:

“[T]he difference in my mind is the amount of division in our community. Over the last two years, our community and communities across the country have come together in support of the Ukrainian cause. The war in Gaza is very different in that respect.”

Although Siscoe did not explicitly explain the difference between the two international events, he conceded that the Region and the City should not have weighed in on them and that politicians needed to “represent the entire community and not pick sides”, effectively admitting the hypocrisy of his two contrasting votes regarding Gaza and Ukraine. 

He encouraged councillors to continue to lend their names and support for causes they believed in but to “keep it out of Council meetings”.  

Siscoe then announced recent community events he attended, including ones with local Jewish and Muslim communities, respectively, while Merriton Councillor Greg Miller noted his attendance at a rally hosted by the Niagara Palestinian Coalition at the Pen Centre.

Similar to Councillor Siscoe, Chair Bradley felt there was a distinction between Council’s actions related to Ukraine and what transpired at the recent Council meeting. 

“[T]his is the first time that a contentious and divisive international geopolitical issue has come before this term of council. It was the democratic will of the overwhelming majority of members that the item was not appropriate for our agenda,” he told The Pointer.

“I would caution anyone from reading additional or alternative meaning into the decision that was made last week; Council simply viewed the matter as outside our jurisdiction. I believe that Council has decisively spoken on this issue and I now consider the matter closed. I see this decision as setting a precedent for the rest of this term, and I fully agree and support Council’s position.”

Asked if there was anything, In hindsight, that could have been done differently, Bradley replied:

”I will not comment on a hypothetical scenario about what could or should have happened last week.  What I will say is that the events of last Thursday are evidence as to why members should be cautious about moving a motion, without a seconder, that is not within our core mandate. While I appreciate that some members of the public are disappointed and frustrated by the decision of council, the reality is that there was always a very low likelihood that the motion was going to be debated by council given it had no relation to the business of municipal government.” 

The Niagara Palestine Coalition has asked for formal apologies from Councillors Siscoe and Ip and that the latter step down from her role as Chair of the Region’s  Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. The Coalition is also requesting that the Regional headquarters be lit in the colours of the Palestinian flag “to acknowledge the grief and suffering of Palestinian-Canadians in Niagara Region who have collectively lost more than 100 family members since the war on Gaza began”.  

Councillor Bateman, who brought the Gaza ceasefire motion forward, provided some background to The Pointer on how her resolution came about and her current feelings on the matter. 

“[W]e (Regional Council) have received dozens of emails about the bombardment of Gaza following the Hamas attack. I spoke with Palestinians living in Niagara and their stories were difficult to hear, but I’m sure more difficult to tell. Many explained that they were not getting a response from their MP (Member of Parliament). As a municipal councillor, we can elevate the voices of people and organizations in the community and that played a major role in putting this motion forward.”

She spoke about what happened at Regional Council last week. 

“[I] feel very disappointed by their decision and their unwillingness to engage with these residents. 

“The guiding principles of the DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) work are to seek community expertise and to approach issues with humility, while challenging power imbalances. I am disappointed by the leadership at the Region, who are now, not willing to meet with me about a path forward.”

She does not regret her effort to address a difficult issue. 

“[T]he feedback from residents has been overwhelmingly positive. I have had only one conversation with someone who was opposed to the motion. We spoke and I understood her perspective and she understands mine.

I have learned that a great deal of good can come from empathy and creating a safe and inclusive environment for open dialogue. So I will keep doing that.”

Email: dean.iorfida@thepointer.com

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By Dean Iorfida, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Feb 02, 2024 at 14:40

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario
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