Essex, Ont., councillor won't step down as integrity head investigates 'racist anti-Asian' COVID-19 tweets

·6 min read
Chris Vander Doelen, Ward 3 councillor for Essex in southwestern Ontario, tweeted on Friday that he tested positive for 'the Chinese flu,' which has sparked outrage. (Amy Dodge/CBC - image credit)
Chris Vander Doelen, Ward 3 councillor for Essex in southwestern Ontario, tweeted on Friday that he tested positive for 'the Chinese flu,' which has sparked outrage. (Amy Dodge/CBC - image credit)

Chris Vander Doelen, an Essex, Ont., councillor who tested positive for COVID-19, is facing backlash and pressure to resign over "racist" tweets that show "a broad disregard for the Chinese and Asian communities."

Municipal and federal politicians in the southwestern Ontario area as well as community leaders are among the hundreds criticizing Vander Doelen's tweets — which include referring to COVID-19 as "the Chinese flu" — for his "harmful language," especially amid the rise in reports about anti-Asian racism over the past year.

The integrity commissioner for the Town of Essex, Robert Swayze, confirmed he has started an investigation regarding Vander Doelen, whose tweets had garnered dozens of complaints by early Monday.

A statement released Saturday by the Essex County Chinese Canadian Association (ECCCA) said the community is "disturbed that an elected official in the Town of Essex has made racist comments in his Twitter feed regarding COVID-19.

"Calling his diagnosis the 'China flu' is a racist slur that is demeaning not just as a xenophobic attack, but also an open and broad disregard for the Chinese and Asian communities in Essex and the surrounding region," the statement says.

Damaging impact

The ECCCA said Vander Doelen's comments as both a councillor and former columnist with the Windsor Star have "a very real and damaging impact on Asian Canadian communities," and it wants him to apologize for his remarks and remove his tweets.

NDP MP Brian Masse found Vander Doelen's tweets unsurprising, saying Vander Doelen has 'a long history of using words as weapons against people.'
NDP MP Brian Masse found Vander Doelen's tweets unsurprising, saying Vander Doelen has 'a long history of using words as weapons against people.'(Sanjay Maru/CBC)

In a separate statement Saturday, Essex Mayor Larry Snively said the town denounces "the language used by Councillor Vander Doelen.

"The impact of these kinds of statements is undeniable. As Head of Council, I have asked Councillor Vander Doelen to retract his statements and issue a public apology."

Here's an example of one of Vander Doelen's controversial tweets:

According to a report published in March by the Chinese Canadian National Council, more than 1,150 instances of anti-Asian racism were reported through two websites — COVIDRacism.ca and elimin8hate.org — between March 10, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021. Misinformation and racist beliefs related to the fact that the novel coronavirus first emerged in China are behind the surge in attacks, the authors wrote.

In another tweet, the Ward 3 councillor falsely claimed COVID-19 stood for "Chinese origin virus etc." The name of the illness was announced by the World Health Organization, which said the "CO" stands for corona, "VI" for virus, "D" for disease, and 19 because the virus was previously called 2019 novel coronavirus.

'Maybe I could have worded it better'

In an interview with CBC News, Vander Doelen offered a qualified apology to anyone he "inadvertently offended," but also said he should be able to speak freely about the origins of the virus.

In referring to China, he said he wanted to reference the original strain of the virus, which he contracted, versus variants of concern that first appeared in places such as the U.K. and South Africa.

"I apologize, again, to Asian-Canadians I have inadvertently offended. I meant no racist intent. I'm very sorry if they took that wrong, and maybe I could have worded it better," he said.

He said he has no regrets about talking about his illness "and where it came from," saying that a "mob" has arisen that is trying to prevent people like him from talking about it.

"I think it's very scary in terms of our loss of liberty, loss of free speech and our ability to talk to each other about what we want to talk about and how we want to talk about it. Why should we be taking orders from overseas about, 'Oh no you can't say that. You can't say it came from here.'"

Vander Dolen said he won't be stepping down and has received many messages of support regarding his remarks.

Asked if he will delete the tweet or formally apologize, Vander Dolen said he'll wait to see what the integrity commissioner says.

More than 50 complaints

The integrity commissioner has already received more than 50 complaints, according to a statement Monday afternoon from the Town of Essex.

The statement says some of the emails received requested "immediate court action" or Vander Doelen's removal as councillor for the town, which the commissioner does not have the power to enact.

The commissioner does have the ability to recommend a pay suspension of up to 90 days or a formal reprimand from council.

Swayze intends to report his findings to council as soon as possible and is tentatively set to appear during the meeting on May 17.

Community response

A petition calling for Vander Doelen's resignation has garnered just under 500 signatures as of early Monday afternoon.

NDP MP Brian Masse said he wasn't surprised by Vander Doelen's tweets, and he has "a long history of using words as weapons against people.

"It's terrible," he said. "I think that the person is quite comfortable having made those remarks and expressing those views ... this is an attention-getting behaviour," said Masse.

He said he's impressed and grateful by the community's response to hold Vander Doelen accountable.

"I'm grateful to have a community that's not afraid to call out racism, bigotry, sexism and all those things that are still in our culture, still in our society, still in our neighbourhoods into and to be part of that solution, which is speaking up first, and then doing the right things policy-wise and also as a society, which is to change things," he said.

Among Essex-area politicians responding to the controversy was Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald and Tecumseh Mayor Gary McNamara.

"Anti-Asian racism, and racism of any form is not acceptable. We are better than that," MacDonald tweeted Saturday.

"Tecumseh Town Council stand's behind our Asian Community. There is no place for all forms of racism!"

Also in a tweet, Windsor-Tecumseh Liberal MP Irek Kusmierczyk called Vander Doelen's comments "unacceptable.

"All of us have a role in combating rising anti-Asian racism & I call on our local leaders to stand up to all forms of racism & discrimination," he said, adding that he wishes the councillor a return to health.

Windsor-Tecumseh NDP MPP Percy Hatfield said on Twitter he's appalled at the words used by Vander Doelan and "the anti-Asian racism he displayed," and he condemns "this hateful rhetoric which has no place in Windsor-Essex."

In previous tweets, some dating from a year ago, Vander Doelen said he was calling the virus "the Chinese flu" because it originated in Wuhan, China.