New mayor scraps Pembroke diversity committee, shocking residents

A sign welcoming people to Pembroke, Ont., is seen on July 14, 2022. Several residents and former members of city-sanctioned committees are speaking out after new mayor, Ron Gervais, decided to discontinue the diversity, seniors, and climate action committees in the new council term. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)
A sign welcoming people to Pembroke, Ont., is seen on July 14, 2022. Several residents and former members of city-sanctioned committees are speaking out after new mayor, Ron Gervais, decided to discontinue the diversity, seniors, and climate action committees in the new council term. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)

Some residents in Pembroke, Ont., say they're shocked and disappointed after learning their new mayor scrapped — without notice — several local committees, including one created about two years ago to address racism and discrimination in the community.

They now want accountability from Mayor Ron Gervais, inaugurated just last week, who even sat on the 10-person diversity advisory committee as a city councillor last term.

"For all of a sudden, just out of the blue, for this committee to have the rug pulled out from underneath it — it really sends a bad message ... to Pembroke's LGBTQ2S+ and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] community that we're not really welcome here," said Duane Gastant' Aucoin, who was a member of the diversity committee.

"To be disbanded by the mayor, it's really a punch in the gut for us."

Council created the city's first diversity advisory committee in 2021. It was spurred by former mayor Mike LeMay, who vowed Pembroke wouldn't be "defined by racism" after an elderly Vietnamese woman became a victim of an alleged hate-motivated assault in late 2020.

In the following months, several people in the Ottawa Valley came forward with their experience living with racism in towns such as Pembroke.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

The committee's goal was to provide advice and recommendations on diversity, equity and inclusion to the city's planning committee. It was also mandated to advise the city on actions it can take to make it a safe and welcoming place for people from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, ages and sexual orientations.

Pembroke's committee motivated other Ottawa Valley communities to create their own diversity committees. Council in Petawawa, Ont., became the latest to vote in favour of creating a diversity committee last month.

"All eyes were on Pembroke," said Suli Adams, co-chair of the former Pembroke diversity committee, which ended its term this November. "People were watching very closely and they saw some really good things happening and so they have followed suit."

Adams explained she and the other co-chair only found out the committee was abandoned when the city didn't post it on its renewed list of committees last week.

"Why would you drop this now?" she said.

Mayor issues statement on unilateral decision

Mayor Gervais did not agree to an interview after CBC contacted him late last week.

In a statement released Saturday, Gervais justified his decision to discontinue the diversity advisory committee, alongside committees for seniors, climate action and parks and recreation.

"With the commencement of the new council, I, as Mayor of the City of Pembroke exercised my prerogative to implement the slate of committees for the new term," Gervais wrote.

City of Pembroke/YouTube
City of Pembroke/YouTube

Gervais didn't directly answer why he made the decision to discontinue the diversity committee.

Instead, he promised to fund an Indigenous mural, to train senior staff on inclusion and reconciliation with Indigenous people, and to review and try to implement the diversity committee's action plan — which was presented to the previous council in November.

(The city paid for a third-party company Chéla Inc., to conduct and gather interviews, focus groups, news stories and surveys from people of colour and members of the 2SLGBTQ community in the city and developed a 58-page inclusion action plan with recommendations to make Pembroke a more inclusive place.)

"I will personally ensure that the City remains cognizant of diversity, equity, and inclusion as we move forward," wrote Gervais.

Several residents took to the comments section on the City of Pembroke's Facebook post, sharing they're "extremely disappointed" with the mayor's decision, and calling on council to "please strive for better."

Suli, Gastant' Aucoin and other committee members also told CBC Gervais reassured them during prior meetings that the diversity committee should continue.

"That's why for many of us committee members, it's such a shock," said Gastant' Aucoin.

In a response to this by email, Gervais cited the action plan and said, "in the time since I may have made those comments, new information has come to my attention."

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

Councillors should vote, say residents

Julianna Morin, another former member who goes by the pronouns they and them, said the decision doesn't make sense and it was "three really big hits to social diversity" in the community.

"Having diversity, climate action and seniors advocacy cut from the slate ... is unsettling in the worst possible way," said Morin.

"This committee served as an inroad for really bringing that voice of the community directly to city hall ... Some of those inroads are being lost."

Submitted by Dorian Pearce
Submitted by Dorian Pearce

Morin, who penned an open letter alongside Gastant' Aucoin, said they're concerned with the mayor's statement as there appeared to be a lack of consultation.

In the letter, the two authors point out "recent unfortunate incidents of intolerance" against Pembroke's BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ residents, and argue there's more work for the committee to do.

The authors point to the committee's terms of reference passed by last council, which state the diversity committee "be reviewed with every new Council to determine the membership and if the Committee should remain in place."

"We feel that it should be all of Council who decides the future of this committee," the letter reads.

CBC contacted all six councillors on Friday. Only Coun. Ed Jacyno responded, referring the matter to the mayor.

Reinstate groups, calls climate committee chair

Dorian Pearce, chair of the climate action advisory committee, said he was also shocked by that committee getting the axe.

Pearce pointed out that during a council meeting on Feb. 4, 2020, when councillors discussed creating the climate action advisory committee, Gervais expressed support of it.

"This committee has been reworked to be included in a related committee known as Keeping Pembroke Beautiful," Gervais said in his statement.

"I very simply would like to see the committees reinstated," Pearce shared. "People in our community wanted to see Pembroke continue to move forward on these issues."