PERTH COUNTY – After reluctantly addressing the issue of racism in Perth County, council adopted a Diversity, Equity and Anti-racism Charter on June 17.
It started last summer when Melissa Bender began working 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 and then the County of Perth. Both municipal governments forwarded Bender’s concerns on to Perth-Wellington MP John Nater and Perth-Wellington MPP Randy Pettapiece, but told her there was little they could do at the local level as flying the Confederate flag is a federal issue protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Coun. Todd Kasenberg was motivated to introduce a motion last November because he said he was sympathetic to the concerns expressed by a group of Perth County ratepayers who have invited council to escalate its commitment to inclusivity and diversity.
When 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 that could be taken to strengthen inclusivity in the county, he was met with silence from council.
Following public uproar which saw over 55 letters from constituents sent to council and a petition which had almost 1,000 signatures within its first week, council introduced, not one, but two related motions during its meeting on Dec. 3. Not only did they table these motions, but members also voted in favour of circumventing the procedural bylaw to fast-track dealing with them.
One of these notices of motion asked staff to bring a report back on a Perth County Diversity, Equity and Anti-Racism Charter.
Protests, with COVID-19 precautions, which included representatives from the Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron, Black Lives Matter and local Indigenous groups continued throughout the winter.
Based on the research conducted by municipal staff and public engagement, it was recommended and approved by council that the county should pursue the development of a Charter that would serve as a tool to communicate the county’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and anti-racism, serve as a guidance document and be referenced when initiating specific diversity and inclusion initiatives throughout the county’s divisions, identify the values and principles related to diversity, equity and anti-racism that each division should incorporate when delivering annual business plans in conjunction with the county Strategic Plan, show how diversity, equity and anti-racism are considered within regular reports to council, and support council decision-making through the application of an inclusionary and anti-racism lens.
Following council’s adoption of the proposed process for the development of a Perth County Diversity, Equity and Anti-Racism Charter on Jan. 28, staff started a public engagement process to inform the development of the Charter.
Around this point, protests were stopped as a sign of good faith in the county.
Staff engaged the expertise of Pillar Non-Profit to assist in the design and execution of the public engagement activities. With a dedicated equity and inclusion team, Pillar also served as a facilitator and assisted in the validation of public input and the reporting process.
A total of 102 surveys were completed by community members. The survey asked questions about experiences with discrimination, values and principles which the county must incorporate and uphold as well as how the county could advance diversity, equity and anti-racism through the various roles it plays as both an upper-tier government and as a community partner.
Four community roundtables were conducted, which provided an opportunity for a deeper dive into the issues emerging from the survey and refining of the values, principles, roles and responsibilities related to the Charter. Participants in the roundtables included county and lower-tier staff and councillors, community leaders, school board representatives, community leaders from cultural groups, business owners and interested residents.
A dedicated roundtable session was conducted with members of Perth County’s Senior Management Team that provided leadership with an opportunity to understand the issues emerging from the community.
Following the virtual roundtables, Pillar Non-Profit conducted several individual interviews with interested participants who were unable to attend the roundtable sessions. The telephone interviews covered similar questions that were addressed during the roundtables as well as some of the emerging responses.
Dharshi Lacey, Director of Equity, Inclusion and Governance at Pillar, said that at the roundtables and meetings there was generally an appreciation that the consultation process had been developed and gave people the opportunity to participate.
“Threaded through all those conversations was a real interest in commitment to building a community that is inclusive and welcoming for all along with the recognition that the community is changing,” she said. “At the same time in our conversations obviously… there was a clear recognition that change is needed.”
There was a lot of conversation surrounding the need for intentional effort to integrate communities and people with different identities such as immigrants, BIPOC communities, LGBTQ2S+ communities, people of low socio-economic standing and younger generations.
“People saw the Charter as an aspirational document, a starting point to get things rolling within the county in terms of being able to guide the work moving forward,” said Lacey. “Also by example, you are setting a benchmark that individuals, the public and private sector organizations within the community may also use as a framework to advance the work within their institutions as well.”
The following principles and values were identified by the community as critically important in guiding Perth County as it works to advance inclusivity, equity, diversity and anti-racism through the implementation of the Charter:
• Accessibility – To enact effective changes, processes, policies and actions must be established and implemented in an accessible manner to remove any barriers to participation.
• Anti-Racism – Racism exists within the community and must be actively combatted in all its forms.
• Diversity – Including individuals from a range of backgrounds makes the community of Perth County stronger and more vibrant.
• Education – The process of becoming a more inclusive and equitable community requires a culture and commitment to furthering one’s knowledge and understanding. Education is an ongoing process of self-reflection and learning to create awareness, empathy and commitment to change.
• Equality – Every voice has a right to be heard and respected. The ideals expressed in this Charter apply to all regardless of background or position.
• Equity – Acknowledging existing and systemic barriers to participation, focusing outreach on under-represented groups and going over and above a simple checkbox to truly ensure that all voices are heard.
• Inclusion – That all are welcomed to participate and that structures and policies are established and implemented that ensure that diversity is celebrated. All voices are heard and considered, including those who do not feel comfortable speaking loudly.
• Openness – That the Charter is approached with a willingness to change at an organizational and individual level and that accountability is required.
• Respect and Dignity – This is the responsibility of all and involves showing respect and standing against those who seek to undermine the dignity of others.
The draft Charter was released to the public for comment on May 11. Feedback was solicited through a form on the county website for four weeks. There were 16 comments received from the public with primary suggestions related to ensuring the use of inclusionary language as well as the use of more plain, direct and concrete language. Anti-racism and diversity were added as additional guiding principles and values that had been referenced in the first draft but there was a strong desire for them to be more explicitly called out within this section.
In addition to adopting the Charter, the research and public engagement process revealed that Perth County can take several additional steps to further advance equity, diversity and inclusion. This includes joining a collective of municipalities and employers as a member of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) for an annual fee of $3,000. As a member of the CCDI, the county will gain access to a suite of services to support ongoing education and training including access to live and interactive webinars, access to practice events, annual conference passes, access to toolkits, templates and other resources in their knowledge repository.
The county also has the opportunity to join the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities.
The Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities is a network of municipalities that share resources and work together to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination.
Joining the Coalition includes signing the Declaration, pledging ongoing resources to support a plan of action and endorsing the Coalition’s Common Commitments.
To ensure that the Charter is adopted across the whole of the organization and division work plans, responsibility for ongoing implementation and reporting would be led by the Office of the CAO.
Coun. Hugh McDermid raised a concern with a part of the draft of the Charter that stated as an employer Perth County will “remove credentials or qualifications that would serve as an unnecessary barrier in recruitment.”
“I have a hard time supporting anything that would have us remove credentials or qualifications for a job,” he said. “I don’t think that should be there.”
Justin Dias, manager of economic development and tourism, clarified that the Human Resources Department will not remove any necessary credentials for a job.
“We did hear through the consultation process that sometimes there may be unnecessary credentials that may pose some barriers to applicants,” he said. “(We’re) just having our HR division look at our postings to make sure they are not providing unnecessary barriers through the credentials.”
McDermid also raised concern about the section of the Charter regarding purchasing of goods and services.
“It sounds like we are going to be policing our suppliers on what their policies and procedures are,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the business of the county to be creating more red tape or interfering with somebody how they run their business.”
Dias said the intent of that clause is in regards to contractors working at the county building or on county projects.
“We would be calling out racism or discrimination if we were to observe it but not by any means interfering with internal company policies or practices,” he said.
Deputy Warden Rhonda Ehgoetz asked for more clarity in the language of the Charter so that clauses are not left up to interpretation.
She raised another concern under the section for responsibilities of implementing the charter.
“‘Actively recruit diverse representation on committees’ – I think it needs to be specified that those are committees outside of council,” said Ehgoetz. “I want it distinguished that we know… the committees are people who are outside of council committees.”
Kasenberg said he is quite grateful for this work.
“I concur that it is an early part of what is no doubt an ongoing journey and I’m glad that it’s been brought forward for our endorsement,” he said. “I certainly appreciate the work that county staff has done, the work of Pillar Non-Profit as our guide by the side on this one and I think we have some appealing project outcomes.”
“I do want to point out that this work comes in the aftermath of some interesting complexity which I don’t need to rehash but I will say that in the aftermath of some of what happened earlier in the life of all of this… I heard from several people who indicated to me that they were quite unhappy with my intrusion into such matters. They found and they felt that there was no racism in Perth County. They had never heard of racism or heard racist comments spoken here… and I think the background report that was collected through our project identified that that belief is not correct.”
“There is racism,” said Kasenberg. “It is being perceived by others as well as other forms of discrimination. So I think we have proof now that there is work to be done.”
“I want to say that I also took note during the focus group that I participated in of a call for an ongoing committee or advisory group,” he said. “A body that allows those with lived experience to contribute to bringing this Charter to life, to supporting our county with the work that lies ahead and adds to the diversity of voices. I did not spot significant reference to that call in the report from the consultant… I think that request is logical, even if it may create work for us.”
Kasenberg said it’s akin to the joint accessibility advisory committee and it shouldn’t need to be mandated by the province for the county to do it.
“Neighbouring communities have created committees,” he said. “They have groups of interested citizens, most of whom do have lived experience to support the work of creating inclusive communities, the work of antiracism, the work of equity and I have a sense that this remains an important step that is going to be needed to support the office of the CAO, which has been proposed for the focal point for the county actions, moving forward.”
“Some may argue that a committee that might be designated as this is the Community Safety and Well-Being Plan’s steering committee moving forward but frankly I disagree that that’s the place to assign this work. I think it sends the wrong message when we assign concerns about diversity, equity, inclusivity and anti-racism to structures that have a significant focus on policing.”
“When we think about next steps there is one piece that was alluded to in the presentation but I want to sort of hammer this home,” said Kasenberg. “I think that this Charter represents an opportunity for broad dissemination, not just corporate interests – the corporation being the County of Perth and that there is an opportunity for adoption… by others.”
“I think we need to think about how we move that forward so that others in our county can sign on… and indicate that they too aspire to live and act in ways that are espoused by this Charter, this good Charter and so I think we need to formulate that opportunity,” he said. “I’m grateful for these suggestions that we join these organizations. I think that we should be at the table… I wrap up by saying I think this is a great start and even if we continue to neglect the idea that we need a committee… we do need a plan… we’re going to need some budget and resources I suspect and I look forward to seeing that emerge in the budget process as we move ahead to 2022.”
Coun. Daryl Herlick noted the fee to join CCDI and then asked Kasenberg if he was suggesting more money on top of that.
“From what I understood they were coming in with regular info for us to incorporate,” he said. “Now you’re asking again? Is that what we’re asking here?”
Kasenberg said he can’t prejudge what that budget is going to look like be he could say there is a reasonable budget for the joint accessibility advisory committee and he pointed out the similarities to the work which will be done for the Diversity, Equity and Anti-Racism Charter. “I suspect there will be a need internally for some allocation of funding in the future,” he said. “I think we wait for that until budget 2022.”
McDermid suggested an amendment to the motion saying that staff was extremely busy and joining CCDI should be looked at in the future.
“I think right now the economic situation as it is that they need to be more focused on getting our economy moving and getting businesses help,” he said.
Warden James Aitcheson pointed out that the motion only says they will initiate the process, the county will not be joining right away.
CAO Lori Wolfe suggested for clarity it be amended to state that they would be joining in 2022.
Kasenberg suggested a resolution that staff should consider and bring forward budget requests to support Diversity, Equity and Anti-Racism Charter efforts in the 2022 budget year.
“It seems more expansive,” he said. “It gives a little bit more room to move.”
Ehgoetz asked for a report stating what CCDI does or what the county’s involvement entails.
“We’ll bring a report on the budget and we will make our best effort to outline what the budget reflects in terms of activity so that it’s clear,” said Wolfe.
Herlick agreed with Ehgoetz. He also raised concerns about whether CCDI is a legitimately-recognized organization.
“We’ll follow up on that,” said Wolfe. “We’ll make sure that is part of the report.”
“Going forward we always need to make sure our local groups are too,” said Herlick. “We want to make sure all the groups that do engage in our collective per diems… is that something we do? How does that work?”
“We’ve come to a very good starting point and let’s hope we can keep it moving,” said Aitcheson.
All council members except Herlick voted in favour of the motion to adopt the Diversity, Equity and Anti-Racism Charter and initiate the process to join the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities.
The motion to consider budget requests in 2022 passed unanimously.
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner