PERTH COUNTY – When it came time for councillors to introduce a notice of motion at the Perth County council meeting on Nov. 5, Coun. Todd Kasenberg mentioned his intension to introduce a motion at the next meeting which he hopes will lead to the establishment of an inclusivity and anti-racism charter.
“Perth County is a welcoming home to a tolerant respectful community that celebrates diversity and promotes inclusivity both in our organization and for all residents,” he said. “Perth County eschews racism and works to stop it when encountered therefore be it resolved that the County of Perth establishes a committee on inclusion and diversity to explore and identify relevant action which represents this county’s commitment to a tolerant, respectful community and potential actions to be considered by the committee include the creation of an inclusivity and anti-racism charter or statement, exploration of the option to join the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities, petitioning other levels of government for actions conducive to our intentions and other actions viewed as viable to further the commitment to a tolerant respectful community and… that the committee deliver its first report to council no later than Feb. 28, 2021.”
Kasenberg said his motivation for introducing the motion is he is sympathetic to the concerns expressed by a group of Perth County ratepayers who have invited council to escalate its commitment to inclusivity and diversity.
“Working with research from county staff, and input from these citizens, it seems obvious that council should take the opportunity to appoint… a small group to study and prepare the ground for action,” he said.
He noted the demographics of Perth County are changing and will continue to change.
“We are a great place to live and work and play,” said Kasenberg. “Most people of goodwill are encouraged by this and welcoming. But we will face questions and concerns about the influx of people of different races, ethnicities, gender orientations, and beliefs.”
Kasenberg realizes some residents will question why the county needs to take formal actions to help advance acceptance in the community.
“Taking key actions – for example, bringing forward a Diversity and Inclusivity Charter – support our economic viability and growth,” he said. “Actions to celebrate diversity and welcome those who might be called minorities expose us to wonderful cultural experiences, and help us understand how to take our place on the world stage.”
Kasenberg said introducing his motion to council is a grassroots action which started in the community.
In July, Melissa Bender started a job in Milverton. During one of her commutes to work, she noticed a residence in Poole flying a Confederate flag.
“I was just shocked when I saw it,” she said. “I had never actually seen one… I was just really shocked and disgusted by it. I started researching what I could do about it and I learned of other municipalities which have also been discussing what they could do about the Confederate flag issue in Ontario.”
She started a petition and brought it to the Township of Perth East.
“Your correspondence was received for information and has been forwarded to John Nater, MP Perth-Wellington; as a municipality does not have jurisdiction to prohibit the flying of a Confederate Flag, as this freedom of expression is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” stated a response from the Township of Perth East after her petition was discussed at the Aug. 11 council meeting.
When it comes to racism and Confederate flags flying freely in public, other municipalities such as Collingwood and the Region of Waterloo have done more to address this issue.
In addition to looking at what could be done about introducing a bylaw or petitioning the government to strengthen hate crimes and hate speech laws, she suggested anti-racism options the township could pursue.
“They pretty much ignored all of the anti-racism options,” she said.
When Perth East dismissed her, she decided to bring the issue to the county level.
She sent an email with letters of support from residents and she felt she received the same response from Perth County. At that point, she created an email to send to all Perth East and Perth County council members. She did not hear back from anyone except for Kasenberg.
“I was really happy to hear he was supportive of seeing what could be done about having some kind of anti-racism action in Perth County,” said Bender.
She thinks a charter is a good first step but she would like to see further action.
“Ideally this all stemmed from the whole Confederate flag issue,” she said. “I think in addition to a statement, starting some sort of anti-racism town hall would be beneficial to get some conversations going and I also would love for them to join the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities.”
Although Bender works in Perth East, she lives in Wellesley so it was important for her to gather support from Perth County residents.
“I want to make sure that this is what people want, that it’s not just some outsider so I have been consulting with residents of Perth County throughout the whole process,” she said.
Bender spoke of the history of the Confederate flag, a symbol built on slavery, inequality, racism, discrimination and oppression. and how it has become widely recognized and used by white supremacist groups such as the KKK.
“Hopefully, you can see why flying the Confederate flag is a public display of prejudice that makes people feel unwelcome and unsafe,” said Bender.
In the United States, various institutions have prohibited the Confederate flag. Earlier this summer, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag. A few weeks later, the mayor of Laurel, Mississippi issued a historic executive order to remove the state’s flag, which features the Confederate battle flag. A few days after that, Mississippi decided to change its state flag and design a new one.
“If organizations like NASCAR, towns in Mississippi and the state of Mississippi can remove the Confederate flag, surely cities and towns here in Ontario should be able to as well,” said Bender.
Here in Canada, an employee in Hamilton was fired for having a Confederate flag on his truck in 2017. Bringing a Confederate flag to the workplace is viewed as a discriminatory act that justifies cause for termination because employers should maintain a workplace free of discrimination.
“If the environments in which we work are required to be free from discrimination, shouldn’t we want the environments where we live to be held to the same standard?” she asked.
At the Township of Perth East’s council meeting on Sept. 1, Bender spoke to council, along with other delegates, and read letters of support on behalf of residents.
At the end of the council meeting, Mayor Rhonda Ehgoetz read the following: “A municipality does not have jurisdiction to prohibit the flying of a Confederate flag as this freedom of expression is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is suggested that concern regarding this matter should be addressed by contacting local members of Parliament to address at a federal level.”
In a letter directed to Perth East council, Milverton resident William Paul Rayner recalled being shocked and surprised when he and his wife spotted the Confederate flag flying in Poole as it seemed so out of place and disconnected to their understanding of Canada and its history.
“We thought we had left that form of symbolism behind us in the U.S.,” he said.
Rayner spent the majority of his adult working life, 37 years, living and working in the United States, returning to Perth County in 2014 after retiring from his position as a sworn administrative staff member at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office in Fresno, California.
Jennifer Ledlow, a resident of Perth East and a mother of two young boys felt it was important to speak up about the issue of racism and oppression in Perth East.
“I don’t believe the request to ban hate symbols was taken seriously enough nor considered deeply enough during the (Aug. 11) meeting,” she said. “The history of the Confederate battle flag is one of hate, racism, oppression, slavery, white supremacy and white privilege. Some may claim it stands for country life, Southern Pride, the American Civil War or American history.”
She closed out her letter to Perth East council with a quote from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Another Perth East resident, Michelle Small, expressed disappointment when she learned there wasn’t already an existing bylaw banning the Confederate flag in the area.
“I’d believed Perth East to be a progressive community which would be conscious of the historical significance of this symbol,” she said. “I am very grateful to Melissa Bender for raising this issue within our community.
“There has been significant attention in recent months towards institutional and systemic racism, with many institutions… reflecting on how to be as inclusive, non-oppressive and as anti-racist as possible. Therefore, we should not be advocating to protect the freedoms of those displaying the Confederate flag, rather, we should use this opportunity to eradicate symbols of racism in our community.”
Stratford resident George Jansen expressed his disappointment with Perth East council’s decision of Aug. 11.
He questioned the reasoning expressed by Coun. Daryl Herlick.
“I may have misunderstood but (he) seemed to be defending the flying of the Confederate flag,” said Jansen. “He did so in the name of recognizing the various cultures in the south and in fear of people next going after the cross. I certainly hope I misunderstood and that he was not speaking out in defence of a symbol that represents the preservation of slavery and racism. A symbol of hate.
“Certainly, something that is contrary to what the Christian cross represents.”
The second thing he noted was the silence from the rest of council.
“Given the opportunity to speak out against symbols of hate – council remained silent,” said Jansen. “I am sure I do not need to remind council members of the mission and vision of the Township of Perth East… Mission Statement – Township of Perth East provides innovative leadership and services essential to creating an inclusive, thriving and sustainable community. Vision Statement – The Township of Perth East will be an inclusive, thriving and sustainable community committed to maintaining harmony between rural and urban areas and fostering opportunities for current and future generations.”
He drew attention to the word inclusive which is in both statements.
“A Mission and a Vision that you pledge to when you take your office,” said Jensen. “I fail to understand how not acting or speaking out against the display of symbols of hate makes Perth East an inclusive community.”
When Tim O’Connor moved to Perth County over a decade ago to take a teaching position in the religion department at St. Michael Catholic Secondary School in Stratford, he was shocked to see so many confederate flag symbols displayed on bumpers around the area. At the time he heard references to The Dukes of Hazzard as the explanation for their prevalence in this area.
“Over time, the presence of these flags has become more and more disturbing,” he said. “I think this was most evident during the white supremacist rallies that were held in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2018. The recent murder of George Floyd and the subsequent outcry for an end to systemic racism makes this an appropriate time to get rid of these symbols once and for all in Perth County. We do not condone flags that promote the Nazi movement which led to the Holocaust during World War II – nor should we.
“It is equally reprehensible to see the Confederate flag on display given its correlation to the movement to maintain slavery in the United States.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner