After blocking delegations, Niagara councillors sparked months-long feud with local Palestinian community

Niagara Regional councillors continue to face accusations of racism and discrimination nearly three months after the majority of councillors blocked a group of residents from speaking to them about their concerns during a council meeting.

Over the last ten weeks, councillors have had many opportunities to extend a gesture of empathy to Niagara Region’s Palestinian Canadian community, as they have previously done for Ukraine and Israel, but so far they have refused to do so. Their actions have been called “shameful and sickening” by citizens of the Palestinian community and their broader supporters throughout the region.

“Niagara Regional council, time and time again, has shown their insistence of treating Palestinian constituents and those who are concerned about the human rights of Palestinians, differently than how they’ve treated other community members, which can only be attributed to simple racism,” Zeina Othman, a Palestinian Canadian living in Niagara who has family members in Jerusalem and the West Bank, told The Pointer.

The Niagara Region Anti-Racism Association (NRARA) and the Niagara Palestine Coalition released a joint statement in February condemning council’s actions, accusing elected officials of further perpetuating divisiveness in the community.

“You can't say you stand with Israel when Israelis are killed, but when many more Palestinians are killed it's divisive and outside the mandate. You can't say Ukrainian refugees use Regional services but not Palestinian refugees. This is a clear double standard that is racist and part of a broader crackdown on Palestine solidarity,” Saleh Waziruddin, a member of NRARA's executive committee stated in a press release.

As the matter once again goes before councillors today (April 16th) during the Region’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, it’s worth summarizing the events that have led us to this point.

At a regular council meeting on January 25th St. Catharines mayor Mat Siscoe and Councillor Laura Ip collaborated to remove a motion from the agenda that requested council express support for a ceasefire in Gaza; ask the federal government to relax restrictions on the number of Palestinians who can seek refuge in Canada; and lighting the regional headquarters in the colours of the Palestinian flag—as was done for Israel on October 12th. Council voted 26-2 to remove the motion from the agenda, blocking any further discussion on the matter. Over 100 residents had come that night, a large percentage of them were Palestinian Canadians and 18 had registered to speak. Council did not want to hear from them, the cries of racism, shame and disgust started that night.

Council had the chance to repair the damage at its next meeting on Feb 22nd, they chose not to.

At that February meeting, Councillor Haley Bateman attempted to speak to the events of the previous meeting by questioning the minutes of that January discussion. This was the only avenue for Councillor Bateman to speak about what happened in January as elected officials and delegates are only allowed to speak during meetings about items on the agenda.

She had notified a number of her council colleagues ahead of time that she intended to bring it up and was hoping for their support in her effort to right the past wrongs. The opposite occurred.

Councillors’ Diana Huson (Pelham) and Joyce Morocco (Niagara Falls), used the unorthodox tactic of referring the previous minutes to the integrity commissioner and effectively removed any discussion of the issue once again.

The councillors reasoned the Integrity Commissioner could use the minutes to develop a training session for elected officials to learn from the Janaury 25th events. While the Integrity Commissioner can provide educational sessions to Council members, the Municipal Act indicates that such educational information must pertain to Code of Conduct and Conflict of Interest matters, not necessarily meeting procedures. Regardless, Council approved Huson’s motion potentially deferring consideration of the January 25 minutes for months.

Councillor Bateman also attempted to speak to a letter sent by the Niagara Palestine Committee. The letter did not appear on the agenda.

Councillor Wayne Redekop raised a point of order arguing that no motion had been made at the appropriate time earlier in the meeting to add the correspondence to the agenda. Councillor Bateman detailed that she had made contact with the Clerk’s Office on February 12 and though the Clerk was away, she indicated to staff that she would like to speak to the NPC’s correspondence and was, therefore, expecting it to be listed on the evening’s agenda.

Chair Bradley upheld Councillor Redekop’s point of order, and with that, Councillor Bateman was thwarted again from bringing forward the concerns of the crowd of residents, who by that time had gathered outside of Regional Headquarters.

At a Corporate Services Committee meeting on March 6th councillors again sat silent as Bateman sought to have the regional headquarters illuminated in the colours of the Palestinian flag.

Councillor Bateman correctly pointed out that regional policy allowed for the lighting of the building in the Palestinian colours. Her argument did not persuade the committee members to discuss the issue, leaving Bateman’s attempt completely unsupported.

“This event shined a double standard that exists within this council,” said resident Ahmed Bataineh, who delegated during the meeting. “If we truly believe in something we have to uphold it regardless of the doer of the action. It seems like this council often focuses on who is doing the action rather than what the action is. If we don’t want to talk about international conflicts, whenever there is a motion or a writing or any type of support for international conflicts you have to hold that standard.”

He accused councillors of picking and choosing which causes they would like their municipal policies to apply to instead of applying them objectively.

“What type of freedom of speech and democracy is this? Everyone should have the equal right to speak,” he said.

At a meeting on March 21st, council again had an opportunity to address the issue. Revisions to pertinent policies within the Region were on the agenda and therefore the public was allowed to speak. Three members of the Palestinian Niagara community spoke to them clearly defining the damage councillors had caused and attempting to help elected officials understand the racism at play. None of the councillors asked a question of any of the three presenters. The citizens were met with silence.

Since late January, the Niagara Region, through its council and committees, has had no less than four opportunities to display some degree of empathy for the pain and suffering of its own Palestinian community; they have yet to do it.

Othman, who has family in Jerusalem and the West Bank, questions the legitimacy of Council’s stand when they say they have no desire to be involved in international affairs and wonders where were the voices of these same councillors when the issue was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Chair Jim Bradley and councillors Siscoe, Ip and Huson were all fully involved in the Regions’ actions to condemn Russia in 2022. They were among the 18 elected officials who signed a letter sent to the Russian ambassador denouncing Russia’s actions in Ukraine. At the time there were no questions from any of them about whether this was proper business of the Region.

There was however one voice at that meeting in 2022 who questioned the council's enthusiasm for engaging in international affairs. Dave Bylsma, then mayor of West Lincoln, asked his fellow councillors:

“I find myself struggling, why are we picking this particular conflict in the world? Ongoing in the rest of the world there are other bloody conflicts, why was this one singled out and brought to our attention? There are wars in Yemen and Bahrain and we didn’t pass legislation?”

Bylsma was the only voice expressing caution against bias or prejudice. It was a prescient warning. Bylsma was not among the 18 councillors who signed the letter sent to the Russian Ambassador.

“By blocking out the community members' concern about the ongoing crisis they re-victimize and re-traumatize,” Othman said. “Regional Council is so blinded by their racism that they can only see things in the narrative that they built in their heads, and not on facts…To top off the egregious irony, the chair of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee is the one who keeps gagging this minority from expressing their pain….you can’t pick and choose which people get human rights”.

The DEI committee meets today (April 16th). It will be the committee’s first meeting since this issue erupted in late January. The Region’s website states the committee’s mandate is to “provide recommendations and advice to the regional council on matters pertaining to inclusion and anti-racism”. The Pointer has learned efforts by citizens to communicate with the committee prior to this meeting have been blocked by the regional staff and some councillors.

The meeting begins at 4 p.m..


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Ed Smith, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer