“The problem is that we have the political bodies that have very carefully crafted mandates and then we have the people that embody those practices. How do we bring those two together in ways that let the politicians do what they need to do and let people feel supported in what we need to do in terms of living our daily lives?” — Liz Hay, Niagara Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee Member, April 30, 2024

Liz Hay’s comment came well into the April 30th meeting of the Region’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee (DEI): A meeting that had been scheduled because the previous one had run out of time to address the issue of Anti-Palestinian racism, following Regional Council’s questionable conduct when it refused to even allow community members the chance to bring forward requests for support; it devolved into an unfortunate “virtual” meeting disrupted by jarring noises and profane visual displays.

The fact that the DEI committee was ostensibly dealing with the issues of anti-Palestinian racism may seem like a natural topic of discussion based on the committee’s title and its stated goal of “addressing bias and discrimination and its negative impacts on quality of life, safety, health and inclusion for the diverse communities in Niagara.” However, since the beginning of the year, the voices of local Palestinians and their supporters have seemingly been thwarted by the political body of Niagara Regional Council and its staff.

At the January 25th Regional Council meeting, a motion to support a ceasefire in Gaza was removed from the agenda by a majority vote of 24-2, because it was not considered to be regional business and the end result would be “division within our community”, sending 18 delegates and their supporters home. Requests to have the Palestinian flag raised the the Regional headquarters bathed in the flag’s colours were rejected by staff because Palestine is not formally recognized as a country, even though the Federal government “recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and supports the creation of a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and territorially contiguous Palestinian state.” The actions have led to calls of racism.

Since these decisions though, there has arguably been some thawing in the Region’s rigid approach: Five delegations were entertained at the Corporate Services Committee and Regional Council regarding the flag raising refusal, some of which were openly vocal regarding the Region’s refusal to consider the ceasefire motion; a motion at the Region’s Procedural Bylaw Committee meeting could formalize rules allowing signage in Council Chambers, even signs of pro-Palestinian sentiment, which Regional Councillor Rob Foster (Lincoln) described as “perfectly fine”, as long as such signage did not “attack or call out individual staff or Council members”; and the DEI committee received a presentation from St. Catharines resident Gabriel Gebril on anti-Palestinian racism.

While Mr. Gebril’s presentation at the April 16th DEI committee meeting did not address the Gaza ceasefire resolution or the flag raising issues directly, he did provide an exhaustive list of recommendations on how to deal with anti-Palestinian racism. After his presentation, the DEI committee had a discussion on what to do next. While some committee members wondered whether it was within the committee’s mandate, others felt the issues raised by the presentation were too important to be dismissed. 

The Committee’s Chair, Laura Ip, who had seconded the motion at Regional Council removing the Gaza ceasefire resolution from the January 25th agenda, offered that while a number of Mr. Gebril’s points were beyond the Committee’s mandate, there was “room for discussion around those action items about what we may be able to do as a committee”. With the April 16th meeting running out of time, the committee, which normally meets quarterly, called a special meeting, two weeks hence.

As with some of the Region’s advisory committees that are composed primarily of members of the public, the DEI meetings are held virtually. Unlike the Region’s standing committees and other committees populated solely by Regional Council members, the DEI meetings are not streamed or archived on the Region’s website. For a member of the public to observe the proceedings, an email to the Regional Clerk will result in a Zoom link to the meeting.

Despite the need to request a link, the April 30th meeting had a dozen or more members of the public observing, which was positively noted by staff and Chair Ip, who also informed the members of the public that they were to observe and not participate. Approximately ten minutes into the meeting, it was interrupted by loud, piercing music and the display of pornographic images.  

The offenders were promptly removed from the virtual meeting by staff and Chair Ip warned that any further disruptions would lead to the meeting being terminated.  At the conclusion of the meeting, Ip offered apologies and opined as to the cause of the disruption, which she subsequently reiterated on her blog:

“[A] member of the public who had requested the link to the meeting from the Regional Clerk took it upon themself to share the link to several social media accounts and encouraged people to join the call without requesting the link from the Clerk’s office…It is highly unlikely that this would have happened had the meeting link not been shared publicly (given that it’s never happened before), so I, personally, attribute this disgusting and harmful behaviour to the fact that the link was shared publicly.”

Although Ip did not name the sharer of the link, Saleh Wazziruddin, Executive Committee Member of the Niagara Region Anti-Racism Association (NRARA) took to his social media accounts, indicating that he was the one being blamed by the Councillor. He condemned the disruption and argued that there was no way to know how the disruptor(s) got the Zoom link and anyone could have gone through the Clerk’s office and given a fake email to get the link. More pertinently, Wazziruddin shared his email exchange with the Clerk’s office where he asked if he could “share the link privately with others”, to be told he was permitted to share the link, as long as those attending provided their names when logging on.

(At the conclusion of the DEI meeting, Vice Chair and Public Member, Ken Kawall suggested there should be better access to the committee’s meetings and asked if staff could report back on the feasibility of broadcasting the meetings in real time and having them archived similar to the Region’s standing committees.)

As for the substantive matters on the meeting agenda, Vice Chair Kawall introduced a motion that would see amendments to the committee’s terms of reference. On the surface, the amendments being suggested seemed minor, with the removal of three words from the purpose statements of the committee, however, he admitted the impacts would be “fairly significant”.

Currently, the committee is to provide “input and feedback as requested on Regional issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.” Vice Chair Kawall wanted to see the removal of the words “as requested”, offering that it would allow the committee to bring issues forward without being limited to what is requested of the committee by staff or Council.  

Another purpose statement of the committee is to “provide advice to advance the internal action items of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan.” Vice Chair Kawall called for the elimination of the word “internal”. In defending his proposed changes he argued that DEI committees in other municipalities have a dual focus of internal and external issues. Committee member Ather Shabbar, in support of the motion, made the point that committee members are the ones who are going to hear about “what’s really going on at the ground level” and should be able to alert and inform Regional Council on such DEI issues. 

It was noted by Cassie Ogunniyi, the staff Manager of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Indigenous Relations, that the committee’s guiding document, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan (DAC), has 22 internal action items and 21 external ones, however, the committee’s current mandate “restricts us to looking at just the internal actions”. It was staff’s recommendation that the committee should stick with the current terms of reference to “keep us focused”.      

The other Regional Councillor on the committee, Diana Huson of Pelham, made clear her concerns regarding broadening the scope of the committee, saying that the terms of the committee were clear: to provide an actionable plan to improve the Region, as an employer, and its’ programs and policies and not for the committee to be “self determining”.

Ultimately, a majority of the committee passed Vice Chair Kawall’s amendments to the terms of reference, which will go to the Region’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, first, and if recommended, will have to then be approved by Regional Council.

The second item of business was discussion on Mr. Gebril’s recommendations on anti-Palestinian racism.  Ms. Ogunniyi prefaced her comments by stating that what is happening in Gaza is “devastating”.  She encouraged the committee “to think of options that are more broadly focused…that would impact all groups affected by racism or discrimination and would also impact Palestinians”, suggesting an anti-racism, anti-discrimination statement could be developed by the committee.  

The well-intentioned discussion that followed included disappointment that the committee was not brainstorming ideas on how anti-Palestinian racism could be mitigated, questioning whether any efforts are appropriate without Niagara Palestinians at the table, contemplating whether the task should be handled by a smaller working group of the committee and if the issue of racism was better handled by external “community champions”. All seemed to agree that racism is a problem now, while noting that the committee’s quarterly meeting schedule does not lend itself to quick action.

Eventually Member Shabbar asked the obvious question: “What are we going to do?  What’s the plan of action?”

Chair Ip offered that they would receive the correspondence from Mr. Gebril and staff would come back with information based on the discussion, including the possible anti-discrimination statement.  She also inferred that what comes back may be contingent on whether the Planning and Economic Committee accepts the changes to the terms of reference recommended by the DEI committee. Councillor Huson had opined earlier in the meeting that she did not believe the standing committee would approve the terms of reference changes, which she also did not support.

The referral to staff did pass but not before Vice Chair Kawall voiced his frustration:

“[T]his feels like a slow down again.  “We’ve got process, we’ll get to it in a couple of years.” We cannot wait.

We are really looking to the Region to take up this mantle and provide the leadership we need right now.”

Earlier in the meeting, Councillor Huson, once again, steered the conversation toward internal matters, asking whether local Palestinians had experienced racism in regard to Regional programs and services.  

Ms. Ogunniyi noted that Mr. Gebril’s delegation and correspondence did not call out any specific incidents or issues with programs or services under the Region’s control.

However, the one question that was not broached during the DEI meeting was whether the Council had engaged in anti-Palestinian racism by refusing to consider the ceasefire motion and not allowing the lighting of Regional headquarters.

As for Regional Council, any regret or self-reflection on their actions regarding the behaviour of members regarding the lack of support for Palestinian issues is mostly unknown, as recent discussions have taken place behind closed doors. On April 25th, a special meeting was called of the Council where an Education and Training session was held with the Region’s Integrity Commissioner. The Municipal Act allows for such sessions to happen away from the public, however, the authority is discretionary. The Council “may” close the meetings to the public but it is not mandatory. If the Council holds an education and training session it cannot “materially advance the business of decision-making” of the Council.

The purpose of the April 25th meeting was as a result of a motion raised by Councillor Huson at the February 22nd Regional Council meeting. When the minutes from the controversial January 25th meeting were brought forward for consideration and before any questioning of the minutes could occur, Councillor Huson moved a motion:

“[T]hat Council refer the minutes, as well as the video of the meeting to the Integrity Commissioner for review, to develop and deliver a training session in Q2 (second quarter of the year).”

Councillor Huson offered that such a session would provide an opportunity to “clarify, as well as learn from the (January 25th) proceedings.”

The Integrity Commissioner is a mandatory accountability officer appointed by the municipality, who is responsible for applying the rules governing the ethical conduct of members of municipal councils. 

While the Integrity Commissioner can provide educational sessions to Council members, the Municipal Act indicates that such educational information would pertain to Code of Conduct and Conflict of Interest matters, not necessarily meeting procedures.

After a nearly two and a half hour meeting behind closed doors, the Council did provide a public airing on next steps. Councillor Joyce Morocco (Niagara Falls) moved an approved motion that staff be directed to provide a report summarizing Integrity Commissioner Michael Maynard’s recommendations from the closed session; “options for implementation”, including any recommended amendments to the Procedural By-law, Code of Conduct or other relevant policies; and an environmental scan of best practices that may assist Council in the management of agendas and proper decorum.   

The report is expected by the July 25th meeting, six months to the date of the infamous January meeting.

Councillor Morocco in speaking to her motion indicated that she hoped that the future report and recommendations would bring Regional Council members “back together”. She also, however, expressed her opinion that the Region Council should “stay in our lane” and that perhaps the raising of flags and lighting of Regional headquarters should be limited to the Canadian and Indigenous flags and “some community flags”.

Of course, staying in one’s lane may differ depending on the councillor, which has been the crux of the issue since January 25th. Councillor Haley Bateman, who had introduced the Gaza ceasefire motion, gave her perspective at the March 6th Corporate Services Committee meeting:      

“[T]he beauty of being a local councillor is that we delve into the lives of people in our community, and sometimes it is with regard to international issues…We have a space and can amplify their voices. We have a duty to support people in their everyday lives.”

When reached by the Pointer more recently, while precluded from speaking on the closed education session, Councillor Bateman provided a statement: 

“[I] do believe that the changes we are seeing at the Federal and Provincial level are a direct result of the residents of Niagara and other municipalities who have been advocating for a ceasefire. And that is something we can be proud of. There is much more work to be done.”

Much more work to be done but whether that work will be done at a Regional government level still remains to be seen.

Email: dean.iorfida@thepointer.com

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By Dean Iorfida, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 03, 2024 at 13:55

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario
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