As Pembroke takes a step back, other towns forge ahead with diversity committees

A sign welcoming people to Pembroke, Ont., is seen on July 14, 2022. While the council there voted to scrap its diversity advisory committee, other mayors say there's still work to be done on equity and inclusion and they're looking forward to their own committees or working groups continuing that work.  (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)
A sign welcoming people to Pembroke, Ont., is seen on July 14, 2022. While the council there voted to scrap its diversity advisory committee, other mayors say there's still work to be done on equity and inclusion and they're looking forward to their own committees or working groups continuing that work. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)

While the council in Pembroke, Ont., voted to scrap its diversity advisory committee, mayors of neighbouring Ottawa Valley towns and beyond say they're unaffected by its decision and are forging ahead with their own committees to combat racism and make their communities more inclusive.

Pembroke's council created its 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.

Pembroke's move to create the committee was lauded as a motivating factor for nearby municipalities — all during the COVID-19 pandemic, when discussions on systemic racism came to the forefront.

Earlier this month, the town's newly elected council voted to not reinstate its diversity advisory committee after its new mayor unilaterally decided to get rid of it.

That committee, made up of local residents and other community partners, was mandated to provide advice and recommendations on diversity, equity and inclusion to the city.

Other mayors say there's still work to be done on that front and they're looking forward to their own committees or working groups — some created for the first time this term — continuing that work.

Brand new diversity committees

Council in neighbouring Petawawa, Ont., created its first equity, diversity and inclusion committee just before Christmas, and Mayor Gary Serviss says there was an overwhelming number of applicants wanting to join it — more than any other committee.

"It was really quite impressive," he said, adding the town has just appointed six residents and two councillors to sit on it.

Petawawa has been criticized for refusing to fly the Pride Flag at town hall, despite repeated requests by residents. Last summer, Indigenous residents and groups called on council to reconsider its decision to rename Indian Diamond Park after a local family, instead of honouring Indigenous groups in the area.

Serviss says he wants to see it tackling issues like those, help the town strengthen relations with its Indigenous neighbours and residents, and help develop diversity training for staff and council.

"We're very excited that this committee has been formed," said Serviss.

Town of Petawawa/Facebook
Town of Petawawa/Facebook

Quinte West has also created its first equity, diversity and inclusion advisory committee this term. Mayor Jim Harrison says he's looking forward to the group helping council identify barriers and come up with solutions.

Harrison says Pembroke's decision to disband its committee has no effect on his city, a community near Belleville, Ont.

"We're looking at municipalities that are doing positive things," he said.

City of Quinte West
City of Quinte West

Last week, some residents asked council to switch up colours of Quinte West's rainbow crosswalks — highly visible symbols of support for the LGBTQ community.

The council decided to forward this issue to its diversity committee, once its membership is finalized in the following weeks.

"We hope to, you know, bring people together," he said. "There's more that needs to be done."

Work must continue: Arnprior mayor

Arnprior created its diversity committee in the summer of 2021.

This term, Mayor Lisa McGee says the town's slate of committees will be "fine-tuned" following a strategic planning session in the coming months.

People feel a renewed sense of ... hope. - Arnprior Mayor Lisa McGee

"I have full expectation and certainly full confidence that IDAC [inclusivity and diversity advisory committee] ... will resurface," she said.

"The resurrection of the committee or an iteration of it is absolutely necessary."

McGee highlighted the committee's public survey asking residents about the racism and discrimination they've witnessed or experienced, to learn how the town can improve its programs and communications relating to diversity and inclusion. The group also recommended a cultural night market, which McGee says was successful last year.

The next step, she says, is to come up with an action plan for the short and long term.

"This is where I really do believe that there is still very much an appetite to have the committee continue with its good work," she said.

Town of Arnprior
Town of Arnprior

Arnprior's former mayor Walter Stack came under fire for telling CBC he doesn't believe systemic racism exists in his town, then mailing out a pamphlet titled "My Opinion" arguing his opinion on systemic racism. Stack received a slap on the wrist by the integrity commissioner who deemed that a breach of the town's code of conduct.

McGee, who was also investigated by the integrity commissioner for publicly criticizing Stack's stance on racism on Facebook, says Arnprior is moving forward from those days.

"People feel a renewed sense of, I guess, hope," she said.

Renfrew aims to be 'barrier-free'

Mayor of Renfrew Tom Sidney says his town is taking a different approach this term.

He was one of the councillors to spearhead the town's ad hoc diversity committee last term, after his community faced backlash following CBC's reports on racism in the Ottawa Valley — when the former mayor said racism doesn't exist in his community.

WATCH | Renfrew mayor on Pembroke's decision: 

With many of the diversity committee's original members moving away, the town has formed a new group to tackle systemic barriers, he said.

"Gender, creed, sexual orientation, disability, age, race — all of those things are going to be addressed through this working group," he said. "So it's not just one specific topic. It's what are the barriers or injustices or systemic racism that's still continuing?"

It will be called the Inclusive, Age-Friendly, and Barrier-Free Community Working Group — consisting of councillors and reps from every department, including the library and police boards.

Town of Renfrew
Town of Renfrew

Sidney, who will also be a member, hopes they'll meet separately every few weeks with various equity-deserving groups and residents, and have deep conversations.

"So that we can take down what their concerns are, what's working well, what could be better," he explained.

Sidney did say he's "absolutely, 100 per cent" going to listen to residents if there is a push for another formal diversity committee.