“If you don’t intend to leverage our collective experience and skills, then disband the DEI (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion) Advisory Committee. It’s worse to pretend you’re doing something if you really don’t intend to.” 

Those were the words delivered by Ken Kawall, Vice Chair and citizen appointee of Niagara Region’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advisory Committee (DEIAC), at the recent meeting of the Region’s Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee. Mr. Kawall was there attempting to urge the Regional Council members on the committee to support changes to DEIAC’s terms of reference.

At the DEIAC’s April 30th meeting, Kawall introduced a motion recommending the changes. Currently, the DEIAC 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”, allowing the committee to bring issues forward without being limited to only what is requested by staff or Regional Council.  

Another purpose 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”. 

While the motion to propose the changes passed by a majority of the DEIAC committee members, it still faced obstacles to be ultimately approved. It would have to be endorsed by the Planning & Economic Development Standing Committee and recommended for ratification by Regional Council. In addition, Regional staff had  been against the changes when they went before the DEIAC and were maintaining the same position at the June 12th standing committee meeting, recommending denial of the request.

At the April 30th meeting, Cassie Ogunniyi, the staff Manager of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Indigenous Relations, reminded the DEIAC that the committee’s guiding document, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan, has 22 internal action items and 21 external ones, however, the committee’s current mandate “restricts us to looking at just the internal actions.” 

In recommending against the proposed changes, staff expressed the opinion that it would expand the scope of what could be discussed at the DEIAC, potentially leading to DEIAC agendas with items outside of the mandate and jurisdiction of the Region; that other Council advisory committees might seek similar changes to their mandate; and that the pursuit of “external facing” matters could “possibly infringe on the work of groups and organizations within the community.”  

The more practical rationale for staff’s reticence seemed to be a concern that the DEIAC would not remain focused on the internal action items, a position expressed by at least one DEIAC member when the matter was debated before the advisory committee. In addition, the staff complement for DEI is a modest 1.5 full-time equivalents, plus an intern, leading to the conclusion that “there is not the capacity for staff to take on additional external facing DEI work”.

The Region addressing DEI issues has been a number of years in the making. In September 2020, Niagara Region and the 12 Local Area Municipalities (LAMs) joined the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities. As a signatory, Niagara Region agreed to adhere to the objectives of the Coalition, improve municipal practices to promote social inclusion, establish policies to eradicate all forms of racism and discrimination and promote human rights and diversity.

On February 25, 2021 the Regional Council ratified the terms of reference for the DEI committee, which had its first meeting in June of that year.  

At the beginning of 2022, the Region released the Community DEI Experiences Report; 1681 area residents responded through focus groups and an on-line survey; 55 percent of respondents believed there was “a lot of” discrimination in Niagara, 40 percent believed there was some discrimination. Two-thirds of the participants had experienced discrimination and 77 percent had witnessed discrimination in Niagara. 

The information from the DEI Experiences Report information was expressly used in developing a comprehensive action plan “that conveys Niagara Region’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.” That plan was presented and approved by Regional Council in September 2022. The DEI Action Plan has six focus areas each with internal and external goals, actions, key performance indicators, and an anticipated 5-year timeline. 

A month after the approval of the DEI Action Plan, the municipal election occurred.With a new Council term also comes the repopulating of advisory committees. The DEIAC did not get reconstituted until September 2023, almost a full year after the election. 

Earlier in 2023, Regional DEI staff presented a report to the Corporate Services Committee, which recommended some minor “housekeeping” amendments to the DEIAC terms of reference in alignment with the Action Plan. The report also concluded that “best practice” was having anti-racism and 2SLGBTQQIA+ issues under the umbrella of the DEIAC, as opposed to having two separate advisory committees to address those matters. 

A few months later the Regional Council adopted their Strategic Priorities. One of the priorities was “An Equitable Region”, which would be accomplished by “providing opportunities for a safe and inclusive Niagara by listening and responding to our current community needs.” 

One subsection of the local community that have questioned the Region’s commitment to the priority of “listening and responding” would be the Niagara Palestinian community. Claims of racism were raised when the Council refused to consider a motion introduced by Councillor Haley Bateman (St. Catharines) to support calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and the administration’s denial of requests to raise the Palestinian flag or light the Regional headquarters in Palestinian colours — things that were done in a show of support for Ukraine, after the Russian attack began. 

As for the DEIAC, after finally being reconstituted in the Fall of 2023, the committee has only met three times. The November 2023 meeting was for orienting the new committee members and choosing the citizen Vice Chair position. A February meeting was canceled at the urging of staff. Finally, in April the DEAIC met to deal with substantive business, including the committee’s work plan. Also, on the agenda of the April 16th was a delegation from St. Catharines resident Gabriel Gebril on anti-Palestinian racism, which was in keeping with one of the stated goals of the committee of “addressing bias and discrimination and its negative impacts on quality of life, safety, health and inclusion for the diverse communities in Niagara.” 

While Mr. Gebril’s presentation 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. DEAIC Chair, Regional Councillor Laura Ip (St. Catharines) opined that while some of Mr. Gebril’s requests were outside of the committee’s mandate, there was “room for discussion around those action items about what we may be able to do as a committee.” A special meeting of the committee was called for two weeks later, when Mr. Kawall’s amendments to the DEIAC terms of reference were debated and voted on.

At the June 12th Planning & Economic Development Standing Committee, six members of the public, including Mr. Gebril, made delegations but it was Vice Chair Kawall who had the most insight into the DEIAC. With an allotted five minutes to speak, he quickly and systematically attempted to justify the proposed terms of reference changes and rebut some of the charges laid out in the staff report.

He reminded the Regional Council members, who populate the standing committee, that the Region’s focus on DEI issues began with the signing of the declaration to join the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities in September 2020 and encouraged the members to note the objectives laid out in the declaration.

What Councillors would find is that while the Region has fulfilled the promise to formulate a Plan of Action, there are other commitments that a municipality agrees to as a signatory to the declaration. While a number of the ten commitments are related to improving internal municipal processes, some would be best described as external facing, including monitoring discrimination in the municipality, taking actions to address it and supporting individuals who experience discrimination.

Kawall argued that the Region’s other two comparable advisory committees, the Accessibility and Women’s Advisory Committees, are not restricted to dealing solely with matters referred to them by Council or staff but are “free to advocate and advise on any items within their respective mandates.” He also indicated that six other municipal anti-racism DEI committees were not restricted to addressing “only issues requested by their councils”, including St. Catharines’ Anti-Racism Advisory Committee.

St. Catharines Mayor and Regional Councillor Mat Siscoe challenged Mr. Kawall’s interpretation:

“[I] wanted to be clear with respect to our equity seeking committees. We have several of them. We have very clear terms of reference that show and state, it’s an advisory committee. Outside of issues that are specifically mentioned in the terms of reference, and one of those would be the DEI action plan that we’re working on, that’s what they deal with. It’s very clear that the committees are there to perform an advisory function for council. When issues arise that aren’t being dealt with, those are usually brought to the attention of council members or myself and a request is made if it’s reasonable.”

Mayor Siscoe’s comments seemed to imply that the Region’s DEIAC was seeking some status that would allow them to make unilateral decisions without Council approval. Mr. Kawall’s amendments did not propose that “advisory” be taken out of the terms of reference but that the committee be allowed to raise and bring forward issues to Regional Council for the consideration of elected members, not too different from the process in St. Catharines as described by the Mayor.

As for the comparison of the DEIAC to the Accessibility and Women’s Advisory Committees, all three are certainly focused on municipal policies, programs, services and practices but the Women’s Advisory committee appears to have a laudable and yet potentially broader external scope of empowering women to fully participate in civic life (not just at the Region), including on corporate boards and other leadership positions  and to “research and provide information and resources about women’s gender-based issues to Niagara.”

Vice Chair Kawall lamented that the committee has been under-utilized despite the stated purpose to provide input and feedback as requested on Regional issues:

“[I]t has been seven months since our first committee meeting, and there have been no issues requested by council or staff for the committee to provide input or feedback on. So, what is the purpose of creating an advisory committee, if you are not asking it to provide any advice and restricting it to raising issues unless called upon?”   

Mayor Siscoe offered that Regional Council members were receptive to getting the DEIAC’s input, noting that “Councillor Bateman had talked about that this morning and the importance of using that lens when it is required.”     

What he was referring to was a discussion at the Region’s Corporate Services Standing Committee earlier in the day related to the issue of removing the provision to allow national flags to be flown at the Region, a change that arose from the controversy surrounding the refusal to raise the Palestinian flag, even though council members had previously, enthusiastically endorsed the raising of Ukraine’s flag, in what appeared to be a clear case of supporting one community, then discriminating against another. 

Councillor Bateman asked if the change had been vetted by the DEAIC so as not to be “cumbersome to any equity seeking group.” The Region’s Chief Administrative Officer Ron Tripp indicated that it had not been referred specifically to the committee for comment but that the Commissioner ultimately in charge of the DEI portfolio, Michelle Sergi, had been involved in the discussions related to the change and, therefore, “it has been vetted by DEI.” Councillor Ip added that all staff had been trained in DEI issues and to send all potential policy changes to the DEIAC would preclude them from their work on the Action Plan (this made little sense in light of the lack of work given to the DEIAC). 

A review of various Regional Council and committee minutes confirm Mr. Kawall’s comment that there have been no direct referrals to the current DEAIC. Prior to the current iteration of the committee, two referrals were made by Council: some direction on future iterations of the community DEI survey was provided and a motion for comment on the Province of Quebec’s Bill 21, which made it illegal for Quebec workers in the public sector to wear religious symbols.

Earlier in his remarks, Kawall had been critical of the staff report for what he described as “ascribing some sort of nefarious intent to the proposed changes, saying they’re intended to move beyond regional business.” Ms. Ogunniyi, the DEI Manager, was asked directly what items would be considered “out of scope”. While she demurred from speculating, she offered that change in the terms of reference “could really open it up to just about anything”, a position echoed later by Mayor Siscoe, who expressed his concern of council being pulled into debates that exceed their mandate.

One of the public delegates, Erika Smith of St. Catharines, dismissed a notion that had been discussed at the DEIAC meeting that the change of terms of reference could lead to relief being sought if a racial epithet was used in an argument between neighbours. Ms. Smith characterized the suggestion as “ridiculous and insulting.” 

Nonetheless, Mayor Siscoe later cautioned that the proposed change to the terms of reference would “take an advisory committee and turn it into an activist group”, which lead to a rebuke from Councillor Bateman that it was sending a signal that committee members should “go be activists on their own time.”

One of the main arguments Vice Chair Kawall offered on why the DEAIC should be allowed to bring issues forward, as opposed to waiting until requested by Council, was his “perception that the majority of you(Council) are unaware of DEI community issues and we would like to help you understand and address them.” 

Later in the meeting, Councillor Joyce Morocco (Niagara Falls) pushed back on the contention:

“[I] am trying to bite my tongue here, but I take a little bit of offense to the fact that we at this table have no idea about what goes on out there. I’m elected to do the service for my constituents, which are a very diverse group of individuals. My family is very diverse, from LGBTQ to Black to Indigenous and I take offense that I sit here and would not know. I think a majority of the people that sit here too know what’s going on.”

Not surprisingly, Councillor Bateman was left shaking her head and would characterize the comments as absurd, “To suggest that you, as a white person, understand what indigenous people go through?”

Morocco’s claims of relating to and understanding what those with actual lived experience feel, was contradicted by her own actions when the local Palestinian community was denied the right to even speak in chambers, after the Ukranian community had previously been welcomed with open arms. 

A Diversity, Equity and Inclusion page on the Region’s website offers a number of guiding principles on DEI issues. Under Community Expertise it states that: “The Niagara Region recognizes that people with different lived experiences are the experts in understanding the barriers they experience, have creative solutions, and are essential partners for achieving the desired outcomes of this plan.” In addition, the page espouses “cultural humility” as a cornerstone of DEI work: ”We must all be willing to humbly accept that we do not have all the answers.”

While all the Councillors that spoke at the standing committee lauded the good work of the committee, Councillor Bateman was the lone voice supporting the DEIAC’s request for the terms of reference changes. Councillor Diana Huson (Pelham), a member of the DEIAC, had expressed at the April 30th meeting of the committee that she would not be supporting the changes which she described as making the committee “self determining”. As Chair of the Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee, however, she maintained neutrality throughout the proceedings. 

DEIAC Chair Councillor Ip did tee up a question to Vice Chair Kawall that allowed him to expand on areas that he envisioned that the DEIAC could provide advice on, such as anti-harassment and anti-hate by-laws, input on the Region’s Procedural By-law and an anti-racism town hall, however, by the time of the vote she had vacated the Council Chambers.

It should be noted that the items that Kawall identified are contained in the DEI Action but are listed as external items and, therefore, not part of the committee’s current work plan, which is restricted to internal items.

Staff’s recommendation to deny the terms of reference changes was carried. It will now go to the June 27th Regional Council meeting for ratification. Although four community members have requested to speak to the matter, it would appear highly unlikely that the standing committee’s recommendation would be reversed.

Delegate Gabriel Gebril minced no words when reacting to the standing committee’s decision, telling the Pointer, “What I saw in Council chambers was disgusting. I saw systemic tokenization to protect the white regional councilors’ comfort. Most of the Councillors made very colonial speeches. Having an Indigenous relative does not mean they know what is happening in our racialized communities.” 

How the rejection will impact the work or commitment of the DEIAC members is not known. A meeting of the advisory committee less than a week after the Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee meeting was canceled when quorum was not achieved. It appears that the DEIAC will not meet again until its next scheduled meeting on August 27th. 

One item listed on the canceled agenda that may have provided some hope to committee members, the development of a formal anti-discrimination acknowledgement statement and related commitment of action, will take longer to come to fruition. 

It is unclear if DEIAC committee members will still have the appetite to continue after the rejection of their recommendations to Council.

Email: dean.iorfida@thepointer.com

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By Dean Iorfida, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 27, 2024 at 13:08

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario
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