Integrity commissioner says councillor's tweets 'racist' and calls for apology

·2 min read
Chris Vander Doelen, Ward 3 councillor for Essex. (Amy Dodge/CBC - image credit)
Chris Vander Doelen, Ward 3 councillor for Essex. (Amy Dodge/CBC - image credit)

The integrity commissioner for the Town of Essex is recommending to council that a councillor who referred to COVID-19 as the "Chinese flu" offer an apology.

Commissioner Robert Swayze recommends that Coun. Chris Vander Dolen make the apology before a council meeting, in addition to attending a diversity and inclusion session and deleting the tweet in question as well as several others from his account.

If Vander Doelen doesn't complete the three actions set out within the recommendations with three months, his pay should be suspended for two months, the commissioner wrote.

The integrity commissioner's report is contained within the agenda for the upcoming May 17 meeting of Essex Town Council. Members are expected to vote on whether they will adopt the integrity commissioner's recommendations.

Swayze said he reviewed more than 80 complaints from local residents and beyond in wake of Vander Doelen's tweets last month, including from many people with Asian backgrounds.

"I have served as integrity commissioner for multiple municipalities over the past 13 years and have never experienced an outpouring of such emotion over the behaviour of a member of Council. In that time my voice mailbox has never been filled until now," Swayze wrote.

Vander Doelen tweeted about his COVID-19 diagnosis on April 9, referring to the illness as the "Chinese flu."

He has not deleted the tweet despite the integrity investigation and public backlash, some of which referenced the rise in racism toward Asian Canadians amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Swayze wrote that in the past, he has defended municipal councillors' right to freedom of expression and latitude to speak out strongly on controversial topics.

"I cannot do so in this case," he wrote. "There is a need for sensitivity by all public figures, particularly when they use terms which are considered racist and have resulted in hate crimes across North America. There can be no doubt that his tweets would be considered racist given the public reaction in Canada to the same statements made by the former president of the United States," he wrote.

In an interview with CBC News last month, 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.

"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.

More to come...