PERTH COUNTY – When Coun. Todd Kasenberg brought forward a motion to Perth County council on Nov. 19 to establish an inclusivity and anti-racism charter and a committee of county staff and community members interested in starting a conversation on actions which could be taken to strengthen inclusivity in the county, he was met with silence from council.
“I’ll just say that certainly we’ve been watched through society,” he said. “Changes occurred over the last year which has heightened our attention to inclusivity and diversity and I believe that Perth County is a place where we welcome and value all people and all their contributions but I think there have been occasions where I have felt that has been substandard in our communities, in our county.”
Kasenberg was dismayed at the Canada Day parade in Atwood a few years back when a tractor included the Confederate flag and displayed U.S. political paraphernalia.
“It just wasn’t appropriate,” he said. “Letters to the Lion’s Club from the community called out the provocative behaviour of the parade participant.”
The Lion’s Club struggled with how to proceed because some people say it is a matter of freedom of speech versus community inclusivity standards.
“I could tell you that the Lion’s Club at the time, we weren’t prepared,” said Kasenberg. “We weren’t aware and certainly our stand wasn’t solid so I find myself at this time in response to those who have presented to this council and who have petitioned council for action thinking it is at least a small step we can take to begin a discussion. Can I say I know what racism is? Can I say I know what I believe inclusivity requires of us? Not fully.”
He knows he is privileged enough that he has not had to face racism but he said he is open to the conversation and to learn about the experiences of people who do face racism in Perth County.
“Which is why I think our path forward is to start a committee to evaluate a few things and those few things include the possibility of our county joining an associate which is committed to inclusivity and diversity in communities and also to establish, as other communities in Ontario have, a charter that speaks to inclusivity and diversity and anti-racism,” said Kasenberg. “We’ve heard from our constituents. We have an opportunity to take some action and that action probably is best served at this point by deliberate and thoughtful conversations amongst ourselves and some of those citizens who are interested in this matter. So that’s why I’ve put forward this motion and I so move it.”
Warden James Aitcheson asked for a seconder for the motion. Council was silent.
None of the other councillors wanted to support, discuss or vote on the motion.
“It’s failed,” said Aitcheson. “Todd, that never got a seconder so that will be the end of that discussion. OK, we’ve dealt with that.”
Kasenberg was disappointed his colleagues did not want to take what he considers to be small steps towards improving inclusivity and diversity platforms in Perth County.
“I believe that through the disinterest shown by the county council to this motion, we risk sending messages that are contrary to who we are – namely, good, hospitable people who are progressive and opportunity-creating for all those of goodwill,” he said. “I find myself wondering how those of minority communities are feeling at the neglect of this motion. This could send unintended signals.”
Even with the complete shutdown of his motion by the other councillors, Kasenberg said he will continue personal work and, to the extent possible, political work to ensure that Perth County is a welcoming place for people to work and live.
“It is fundamental to my belief in the worth and dignity of all,” he said. “I understand that my motion arose in the aftermath of some constituent criticism of the lack of ability by a lower-tier municipality to act to a private insult in plain sight to the general public. But I can assure – my motion was not intended to irritate a neighbouring municipality, or to call them out for their actions. It was a reaction to what I believe is a general harm that we can express ourselves about – and not a judgment on one of our peers.
“Sometimes, we in politics can take things as slights – in this case, that was never the intent. Through this motion, I urged council to study possibilities for actions that will address those who feel unsafe or unwelcome, who feel diminished from being whole.”
Melissa Bender raised the issue of a bylaw to deter hate speech and anti-racist action to both the Township of Perth East and Perth County councils. She was disgusted and disappointed as she watched the council ignore Kasenberg’s motion.
“It was hard to watch,” she said. “I think it speaks volumes really about the council and the people who are on it. When you have the Region of Waterloo hosting anti-racism town halls, the City of Stratford joining the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities, and Stratford and the Township of Wellesley petitioning the provincial and federal governments to strengthen laws regarding symbols deemed unacceptable and Perth County can’t even put out an inclusivity statement. It’s pathetic.”
Bender said she is deeply grateful to Kasenberg for bringing this issue to council.
“I hope the lack of support that he received brings awareness to the character of the other council members in Perth County,” she said. “I hope their blatant disinterest in promoting diversity and inclusivity motivates people to speak up, get involved and run for council when the opportunity arises.”
The lack of action from council on what she thought was a simple step has left her shocked and not sure of any future action she might take.
“I guess I was hoping that charter Todd was proposing was going to be the solution to what I wanted and I thought that I was going to accept that as a step in the right direction,” she said. “I didn’t think there was going to be a need for anything else. I brought it twice to the Township of Perth East – the Confederate flag specifically and other anti-racism initiatives and I brought it forward to Perth County and Kasenberg… if they are not listening to a member of their council – if anyone has the power to sway them, it would be a member of their council and if they can’t even do it I don’t think I can.”
Bender said in one of the letters from constituents she forwarded to both Perth East and Perth County, a resident who is concerned about hate symbols being displayed in Perth East said: “The solution is to elect better members of council or to run yourself.”
“I hope this lights a fire,” said Bender. “I think it sheds a light on who is representing you. Maybe it will make people want to run and make change happen because it’s not going to happen with this council. I don’t want to believe that – say there are 10 councillors – I don’t want to believe that 90 per cent of them feel racism doesn’t exist and that 90 per cent of the population feels that racism doesn’t exist.”
He doesn’t know what motivated the other councillors to not support the motion, but Coun. Daryl Herlick said he made his decision because he has worked in the agriculture community his entire life and mixed races are employed in that field. He has also worked in construction for the last five years where he also works with mixed cultures and races.
“Me, myself – I don’t see racism as an epic issue,” he said. “I don’t believe having a working task force to combat something that isn’t there is necessary.”
He said a mission statement is something he was considering bringing back to council to allow the community to know annually that Perth County is an inclusive, antiracist community.
“I’ll tell you another thing,” he said. “My cousin is common-law with a Black lady. They have kids who are from mixed-race now. They come and go within the community like nothing. One of my best friends is dating a Filipino. On top of that, one of my best acquaintances on the side right now is the (owner of a) local gas station and he’s from the Pacific rim – Malaysian. He’s involved with the Tavistock community so to have a task force that we’re always trying to combat, you can get to the point where you are making people a poster child who doesn’t even want it. I don’t see colour. Some people do continuously, supposedly, but I don’t see it and to be honest, my community doesn’t. I know nobody that does.”
Herlick said hog farmers “use people from all over the world.”
“Is there going to be a racist?” he asked. “Of course there is always going to be a goof, of course, there is going to be but that it is epic and huge, I don’t see it. I don’t see it so I can’t support it.”
Herlick said creating the committee would have people walking around on tiptoes scared to talk to mixed cultures or races because they might say the wrong thing.
“It’s supposedly this epic issue that I don’t even see myself,” he said. “This summer I worked with three Black people off and on for two months straight and they worked with mixed cultures and they were great people.”
Reassuring the community that there is no racism in Perth County is something Herlick said he can support.
“Twenty years ago when I was in high school there was a couple of Black people and a couple of Asians and we shot the crap and I just don’t know, it’s frustrating to me at times; for me, I just don’t want to be making people uncomfortable,” he said.
Herlick repeated that the farming community works with different races, cultures from around the world in sow barns.
“The working relationships are great,” he said. “It’s a tough one for me to say we need to have a full-blown working task force because I don’t want to see – I don’t see colour.”
“I don’t see colour and I haven’t ever. It’s weird. I don’t know if that’s naturally who I am but I say not because I have too much experience with people who think the same as me including all my family members.”
Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron founder Gezahgn Wordofa said there are a lot of people from all around the world living and working in Perth County, but the Multicultural Association has to help many newcomers because they are struggling and there is very little support for them locally.
“Nobody is helping us, nobody is supporting us,” said Wordofa. “We need more support because we are struggling. There are a lot of newcomers who need support, who need help.”
Wordofa said the Multicultural Association does receive support for its efforts from local grassroots organizations, mostly churches and the Chamber of Commerce, but not much help comes from municipal levels of government.
“We are working with church groups here in town,” he said. “We are working with the Salvation Army. Grassroots, many people are helping us.”
Many of the people who Wordofa helps who work in Perth County factories are forced to commute from other cities because housing is not affordable.
“Some of the newcomers are sleeping in their van,” he said. “Is this India? Is this Africa? We’re in Canada and we’re struggling and the factories are calling us. They need more people. They have a lot of jobs. They are telling us how we are lucky to be in this county but there are not enough affordable houses.”
Wordofa said many newcomers to Canada feel forgotten and sometimes they face racism when they are out in the community.
“Sometimes they tell us to “go home” when we walk into places like Tim Hortons,” he said. “Our home is here. There are so many people working in the factories. We don’t get support from the council or the city. It is not good. We are struggling. Me, of course, I can defend myself but lots of people don’t speak the language. We need support, we need to work together. There are so many Africans, there are so many multicultural people here, they are working in the factories, in variety stores and gas stations. We are working, paying taxes and other people reject us. We are working in these communities and we ask them for support many times, they reject us.”
Clinton Springer Sr., a volunteer with the Multicultural Association, said there is education to be done for everyone.
“We want to be educated in the Canadian culture but we also want to educate them on our culture,” he said. “This is an era when people are seeing a lot of stuff in the news, things like Black Lives Matter and people think ‘oh my god I don’t want anyone in Listowel to be into that’ and what they don’t understand is – that is change. If you talk to the young people in Listowel, in Stratford, the younger generation… it’s not us and them, it’s let’s build ‘we’.
“Just remember in a few years from now that council might knock at my door to get my vote. So when the councillors who said ‘no, I don’t want it’ is knocking at my door and I open it, they will ask, can I have your support?”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner