St. Catharines won't ask arena to cancel Jeff Dunham comedy show despite racism concerns

·4 min read
Jeff Dunham is an American comedian and ventriloquist who rose to global stardom in the 2000s. (www.jeffdunham.com - image credit)
Jeff Dunham is an American comedian and ventriloquist who rose to global stardom in the 2000s. (www.jeffdunham.com - image credit)

St. Catharine's city council won't ask the managers of the Meridian Centre to cancel Jeff Dunham's comedy show in November despite concerns from the city's anti-racism advisory committee.

After an in-camera period, Coun. Greg Miller and Coun. Karrie Porter came out as the only two on council to support asking ASM Global to consider cancelling the show at the city-owned venue.

However, all councillors did support a motion that asks city staff to create guiding principles for future performances at all city facilities with input from equity seeking groups and or advisory committees.

Jeff Dunham is an American comedian best known for his ventriloquism. He gained global popularity in the 2000s but has also faced criticism in the past for portraying characters that rely on racial stereotypes.

There's a long history of not wanting to upset people who either are racist or think racism is funny. - Saleh Waziruddin, chair of the anti-racism advisory committee

Some of the characters on his current tour include a dead terrorist named Achmed and a "totally legal" jalapeño on a stick named José.

Dunham's new tour is set to make a stop at the Meridian Centre on Nov. 20 and is also scheduled to visit other Ontario cities including Oshawa, London, Peterborough and Kitchener.

Dunham's team didn't respond to requests for comment.

The St. Catharines's anti-racism committee raised concerns about Dunham's use of racial stereotypes, saying his act harms marginalized communities and could make people think racism, misogyny and homophobia are acceptable.

Saleh Waziruddin, chair of the anti-racism advisory committee, spoke to councillors during their Monday evening meeting, saying jokes about marginalized communities could embolden some people to escalate hate.

He also said the event was taking place on city property and the local Rzone policy — that states the municipality has zero tolerance for things like racism at city-owned recreational facilities — should apply.

"When there's a hate crime, we can't say we're a compassionate city, racism won't be tolerated here, but when a brazenly, openly, racist, misogynist, homophobic act comes to town, we then say 'Oh well, we have no choice but to lie down and do nothing,'" he told council.

Kay Meilleur, the Meridian Centre's marketing director, previously told CBC in an email the views expressed by acts aren't necessarily shared by the venue or staff, and said they present acts for a diverse community.

"ASM Global and the Meridian Centre remain steadfast in our commitment to providing a safe environment for all fans and employees who choose to attend an event, while supporting those groups who choose not to attend due to content that might be viewed by some as offensive," Meilleur wrote in an email.

Meilleur didn't immediately answer additional questions from CBC.

Mayor and other councillors push back

Mayor Walter Sendzik said it could lead to a slippery slope.

"Would the next step be going into our [public] libraries and removing books that would have characters of fiction that could be seen as offensive to a group?" he asked, to which Waziruddin said a comedic performance is different from a book.

"We can't make a decision in a vacuum," Sendzik said.

Coun. Bill Phillips said cancelling the "virtually sold out" show could upset a lot of people who bought tickets and could cast a "negative light" on the good work the anti-racism committee has done so far.

"The damage caused by the racist performance is greater," Waziruddin said. "There's a long history of not wanting to upset people who either are racist or think racism is funny."

Submitted by Saleh Waziruddin
Submitted by Saleh Waziruddin

Recreation director Phil Cristi said the Rzone policy is intended to address issues programs at facilities, like sports activities, but doesn't name performances and, in his opinion, doesn't apply to them.

Coun. Miller said the rules seemed hypocritical if they were meant to kick out fans who were being racist, homophobic or misogynist but not meant to stop an event with racist, homophobic or misogynist material.

"I think it creates an atmosphere of distrust when we ask for this committee to give us their experience and we don't take those experiences seriously. What they're asking for us to do is pretty basic here," Miller said.

Coun. Porter said she was "literally shocked" to see Dunham would be coming to the city and allowing him to perform is "poor decision making."

"I worry about people who work at the Meridian Centre who, for example, are Muslim and they're going to have to sit through an Achmed the terrorist show and where's the thought behind that? I'm struggling with it," she said.