Halifax council to undergo cultural sensitivity training

Motion approved unanimously after over a dozen complaints about councillor conduct flood city hall.

click to enlarge Halifax council to undergo cultural sensitivity training
via HRM
Council chambers, pictured during one of its brief quiet moments.

In the fallout from several racially charged statements made by elected officials and more than a dozen conduct complaints submitted to city hall, Halifax Regional Council has agreed to collectively take part in cultural sensitivity training.

The idea was unanimously approved Tuesday night after three hours of in-camera discussion. 

“We could all use a better awareness,” said mayor Mike Savage. “There’re a lot of things that are changing in this municipality and I think we need to be aware of everybody’s culture and background.”

The municipality received 13 separate complaints about councillor conduct over the past two weeks. Who those grievances were filed against isn’t released by HRM, but several applicants have openly named councillor Matt Whitman as their target.

The Hammonds Plains—St. Margarets representative spent several days last month engaged in a Twitter fight with fellow councillor Shawn Cleary, arguing that it was impossible to be racist towards Mexicans. Appearing on the CTV evening news, Whitman stated one could only be racist towards “caucasians, negroes or some other race.”

He was subsequently scolded for his use of the outdated pejorative to describe Black people by council’s sole African-Nova Scotian member, Lindell Smith. Whitman—who donned a poncho and comical moustache last fall to portray a “Mexican Trump supporter”—initially defended his language choice before issuing a terse apology at council's last meeting.

“My posts lost sight of the issue, and I became engulfed in inappropriate dialogue,” he said. “For that, I apologize. I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”

The racial remarks by Whitman came the same week emails released under a Freedom of Information request showed councillor David Hendsbee joking about smoking a “peace pipe” after calling Indigenous protesters “hotheads on the warpath.”

“Just team building,” Hendsbee said about the sensitivity training on his way out of council chambers Tuesday night. “That’s all it is—team building.”

Municipal employees are subject to in-house cultural sensitivity training, but not elected officials. The cost and number of sessions for the training will be determined by the mayor and CAO Jacques Dubé.

In a separate agenda item on Tuesday, Tony Mancini’s plan to beef up council’s code of conduct was ripped apart by his colleagues.

The Harbourview–Burnside–Dartmouth East representative was looking to create an integrity commissioner at city hall and require councillors to review and sign off on the code of conduct every year. Dartmouth South–Eastern Passage councillor Bill Karsten was “appalled” at the idea.

“I personally find it insulting,” said Karsten. “It’s my good name and my reputation I will stand on—not signing a piece of paper once a year.”

Councillor Richard Zurawski also objected to what he called “creeping” social justice, post-modernist thinking and a dangerous precedent for limiting free speech.

“This has kind of a punishment attitude towards it,” Zurawski said about the motion, “and I don’t think councillors should be sitting in fear of punishment for things they do and say on a regular basis.”

The municipality's code of conduct for elected officials was created in 2013, in part due to an incident two year prior when former councillor Reg Rankin harassed a woman at a Halifax Police function.

Since then, it’s mostly been used to force Whitman to publicly apologize. Several councillors on Tuesday argued it’s a particularly flimsy piece of legislation for holding HRM’s elected leaders accountable.

“There are no meaningful consequences if somebody doesn’t want to accept other people’s views of their behaviour, pure and simple,” said Steve Craig, who stressed that even insignificant comments from councillors about race and gender can have an enormous impact on the community.

“Over the last number of years, there has been much conversation—in council, in camera and in public—enough for me to believe that we really, seriously have to take a look at this.”

According to Hendsbee, the real problem is council no longer recites its non-denominational prayer before meetings. The municipality scrapped the practice in 2015 due to a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada. Hendsbee claims the invocation’s loss was a blow to council’s morality.

“We became godless, almost,” said the councillor.

Mancini’s motion was ultimately split into five parts and voted on separately. Council approved a regular four-year review of the code of conduct, along with having staff clarify the language around community representation and asking the province for the power to withhold pay from councillors found in violation of HRM’s ethics.

The requirement for an annual signing of the document by councillors and the creation of an integrity commissioner were both defeated.

Whitman did not speak on the matter.

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