An Ottawa city councillor is calling on Mayor Jim Watson to apologize for how he characterized protests against police funding, which seemed to equate them to a series of widely condemned protests against vaccine mandates held outside hospitals earlier this year.
Watson initially made the comments during a media scrum Wednesday, in response to a question about the Ottawa Police Services Board limiting the force's budget increase to two per cent, instead of the nearly 2.9 per cent it had requested.
Leading up to the board meeting, there were several public protests, including one that blocked a downtown highway 417 off-ramp.
Protesters were calling for the police's budget to be frozen at 2021 levels and for money to be invested instead in community supports for Black and Indigenous people and people of colour.
"The public certainly are telling me — not the ones that go out and block roads or have rallies at city hall — the public that I talked to … they want to see a greater police presence in their neighbourhood, particularly for things like speed enforcement," Watson told reporters.
When asked another question about what measures he would take to increase representation among city staff, council and committees, Watson pointed to several people of colour employed by the city, including Police Chief Peter Sloly, recently hired head of OC Transpo Renée Amilcar and Rideau-Rockliffe Coun. Rawlson King.
His remarks, which were shared on social media, prompted dozens of responses criticising Watson for being dismissive of people of colour.
"Tell us you don't care about BIPOC / marginalized issues without telling us you don't care about BIPOC/ marginalized issues," wrote the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition, who co-organized the protests leading up to Monday's police services board meeting.
Watson responded in a tweet of his own, writing, "Just as I don't support citizens illegally blocking hospitals to fight vaccines, I also don't support illegally blocking public highways and roads. I welcome protests that are peaceful and not those that break the law."
Calls for apology
Coun. Catherine McKenney also took to Twitter, announcing they had submitted a letter calling on the mayor to withdraw his remarks and to issue a formal apology for what they said were dismissive comments against people of colour asking for supports for their communities.
McKenney told CBC that Watson's comparisons of the protests against the police budget increase and those against vaccine mandates was "concerning and almost dangerous." The councillor said his reaction "takes away from the legitimacy of people to fight for, and to advocate for, their own safety, for the safety of their community."
As for the mayor's answer on representation in the city, McKenney said it "really diminishes the role of staff who have risen to a level, who are leaders in our city, to a level of tokenism."
While it is illegal to block highways during a protest, McKenney said many people, including the mayor, hold "so much privilege" because of past civil disobedience.
On social media, some people pointed to demonstrations by members of the LGBTQ community — to which both McKenney and Watson belong — in the 1990s.
"I was there. Didn't see Jim," quipped McKenney.
In an email to CBC, the mayor's press secretary, Patrick Champagne, wrote, "Mayor Watson welcomes protests as an important part of the democratic process, but he doesn't support blocking streets or highway off-ramps. He will never condone these illegal actions.
"The mayor also believes that the residents of Ottawa do not want their City to be [governed] by demonstrations."