CBRM councillors get into heated exchange over Canada Day festivities name change

·5 min read
Cape Breton Regional Municipality deputy mayor Earlene MacMullin says she was upset council was not involved in a staff decision to change the name of Canada Day festivities. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Cape Breton Regional Municipality deputy mayor Earlene MacMullin says she was upset council was not involved in a staff decision to change the name of Canada Day festivities. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Things got heated at a Cape Breton regional council meeting during a discussion on Tuesday about how Canada Day was celebrated, exposing a rift between the deputy mayor and mayor.

Some councillors say they were unfairly called racists in an email exchange after questioning the decision to call July 1 events Night of Lights, amid calls from Indigenous groups across the country to reconsider Canada Day and the legacy of residential schools.

It was sparked by an interview last month with the recreation department's Joe Costello on CBC Radio.

"Based upon some of the hard truths that have been exposed during the pandemic regarding our Indigenous friends and neighbours, it's still a hard time to celebrate Canada as an institution," Costello told Mainstreet Cape Breton, when asked why Canada Day was not mentioned in CBRM communications about the upcoming holiday.

Some residents contacted councillors to complain that Canada Day was being cancelled, leading to an email exchange with councillors questioning why they were not involved in the decision.

At a council meeting Tuesday, several said a staff member became upset over the emails and complained to the human resources department.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

In one email, the mayor mentioned contacting the human rights commission over what she called "racial insensitivity" in the exchange, but she later declined to elaborate on that, saying it was a human resources issue.

At the meeting, recreation director Kirk Durning told council the intent was not to cancel Canada Day, but to add a theme and to be inclusive.

In an interview, deputy mayor Earlene MacMullin said she objected to the name change because council was not consulted and she took it as disrespectful to the country, especially since her son had just joined the navy.

"My bigger problem is that when I noted that I was offended, no one seems to care, but yet other people get offended and it's a priority," she said.

MacMullin said when she raised the issue, she was scolded by the mayor and her concerns were ignored.

That happens regularly, she said, and is only one example of council dysfunction.

MacMullin said some council discussions are allowed to go on too long and stray from the topic.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

In other instances, the deputy mayor said councillors are having trouble getting topics onto the agenda for debate, not just the Canada Day naming issue.

"Things are much different this term than the last and I don't find council is kept informed," she said. "I don't find that we are brought into conversations early enough. I don't think that our opinions are really being taken seriously.

"It's not that we can't accomplish things and it's not that things aren't moving, but it's just a lot more difficult than it needs to be."

During Tuesday's meeting, Coun. Darren Bruckschwaiger said after the Canada Day interview, he sent an email asking why council wasn't informed of the name change.

He also said he questioned the decision itself.

'Tail wagging the dog'

"Is every other group in our communities, our volunteers that are out there that call it Canada Day, were they being disrespectful or not inclusive?"

Bruckschwaiger said he did not get an answer.

He said the email exchange implied anyone questioning the decision was racist.

"There's not a racist bone in my body. There never has been, never will be. So to hear that there's people that went to HR, to me is pretty serious."

Bruckschwaiger, who was one of the first councillors elected to CBRM when it formed in 1995, also said he has sought legal advice and was generally upset with the way the municipality functions.

"I find this council, this term, to be very abusive to councillors. I really find it to be harassed in nature. I have been on a few occasions now."

Bruckschwaiger said he finds the "tail wagging the dog a lot."

He said staff often run things without council input, which was understandable during the pandemic, but should not be considered standard operating procedure.

"We're the ones that are elected, around this table, and anything of a big nature that could turn out to be controversial, I always think we should be part of. That's why we're here."

He refused to be interviewed after the meeting.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

During the council discussion, Coun. Gordon MacDonald also said he was not happy with the way the Canada Day name change was communicated and the resulting email exchange.

"There's not a racist bone in my body, as well," he said. "I spent 25 years with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers fighting for the rights and equality for every level of our minority peoples."

Coun. Eldon MacDonald said he stayed out of the fray and said communications generally could be better, but the email exchange was the source of the problem.

Mayor Amanda McDougall said most councillors recognize there is a problem with CBRM's communications, but she said the work of council is getting done.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

"I don't see it as a dysfunction," she said. "I think that's a heavy word to use. I think if one person has an issue, I think it doesn't necessarily represent the entirety of council.

"We're never going to agree 100 per cent on any one topic and sometimes that frustration and emotion comes through, just like today."

The mayor also said she did not intend to disrespect councillors or ignore their concerns, but the email exchange had become "volatile" and she wanted to have issues resolved in person.

"If there is a feeling of being reprimanded or scolded because I'm frank and honest with the repercussions of the conversation, unfortunately I can't control how people feel. I'm just going to be honest and professional."

Council voted to hold a meeting at some point in the future with the Department of Municipal Affairs to discuss communications between council, the mayor and the chief administrative officer.

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