The Grant Rant

A journalist's view from Niagara

There are many sides.

In any conflict, big or small, there are always many sides. Many motives. Many shoulders that carry the blame. Shades of grey, not stark blacks and whites, typically rule the day.

Since the events in Charlottesville, Virgina, there has been an argument in the press, on social media, around dinner tables and over office water coolers about assigning blame. Were the alt-right thugs, the Nazis, the KKK and assorted other racists responsible for the violence? Were the counter protesters – called the “alt-left” or “ctrl-left” or “social justice left” depending on who you ask – the real culprits? Do both sides share the blame equally?

There were many sides in Charlottesville and everyone who chose the truncheon over argument carries a measure of fault. In a free society, free speech means those who hold views you despise are still allowed to speak or march. Your job is to carry your argument forward, not silence someone else by using your knuckles.

So let’s not be disingenuous about it. There were, and there are, many sides.

Yet we must not lose sight of a simple truth: the existence of many sides does not imply a moral equivalency among them. All sides may share blame and responsibility in any given conflict, but the weight is not carried equally.

Some are more responsible than others.

United States President Donald Trump has it made clear where he stands. Immediately after the riots in Charlottesville that were trigged by Nazis chanting white power slogans, Trump would not outright condemn any group more than any other. It took two days before he criticized white supremacy. But then on Tuesday, Trump held fast to his assertion that both sides are equally at fault, singling out the “alt-left” and even suggesting there were very fine people among the ranks of white supremacists.

This is not the first time he has done this.

When asked by former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly why he respects Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin, Trump gave an answer that explained in full his moral vision.

O’Reilly: Putin’s a killer…

Trump: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?

This was not a president reflecting on America’s past sins. It was a statement of moral certitude: when it comes down to it, America and Russia are the same. Everyone is at fault, so therefore no one is. Anything either side does is just part of the game.

This is the moral nihilism of Donald Trump, the alt-right and the white power movement nestled comfortably in its shadow. There is no right and wrong. No moral high ground. No lines that cannot be crossed. There is only the muck through which we sift and all that matters is who managed to climb to the top of the biggest pile of mud.

This is the only position that makes it possible to claim there are “good” Nazis and white supremacists.

Part of the justification here is that the good people were only “silently” protesting the removal of Confederate statues. They were standing up for “tradition” and history, he said. To move the statues is to “change history”, as though placing a statue in a museum is the equivalent of driving 88 miles an hour with Doc Brown. The fact that the Confederate States were built on a slave economy is also easily dismissed by Trump. George Washington had slaves, he said, as though that fact ends any objection to what the South stood for and why the Civil War was fought.

The good folks had a permit to march, Trump said. And their silent protest was ruined by club wielding, permitless alt-lefters.

Perhaps “silence” means something else in the Trumpverse. It is a matter of public record the marchers were not silent. They chanted the old Nazi slogan of “blood and soil” and warned that “Jews will not replace us.”

They carried Nazi flags and shields emblazoned with the symbols of white power groups. Some came in full combat gear and were armed with military style rifles.

As I argued in my last column, these white supremacists feel their time is now because Trump has tacitly told them it was time to step out into the light to “take their country back.”

Trump’s rambling, rage filled and bizarre Tuesday press conference drew open cheers from David Duke and other white power trolls because the president refused to take a moral stand against them. Trump’s insistence that everyone is at fault is being taken in Nazi circles as a sign of approval.

The Nazi march was designed to provoke violence. They came armed and marched in phalanx formation. Some of the counter protesters, the “alt-left,” played into their game by choosing violence. By arriving with their own shields, by engaging in fisticuffs, these people fed into the white supremacist narrative.

Indeed, the alt-left or whatever label one affixes to them have been feeding the alt-right, white supremacist narrative for years.

The far left steadily built an insular cultural ethos that allows only their view point. They created ironically named “safe spaces” on university campuses where dissent is not allowed. They riot on those same campuses if someone with a point of view they don’t like is scheduled to speak. (It is not just alt-right jesters like Milo Yiannopoulos, whose scheduled speech at Berekely was cancelled because of riots, that are silenced. Richard Dawkins, biologist and intense critic of religion was recently denied a speaking engagement because his views on Islam were deemed too offensive for the ears of students.)

In the minds of the alt-right, each of these offenses to free speech was further evidence that their lurid fantasy is correct: That these alt-lefters “hate” freedom, are motivated by Marixist ideology (even if they don’t know it) and, in some version of the story, will only be defeated in a massive conflagration.

In a very real way, the anti-fascist protesters who decided to meet hate with violence were played as fools and their blood in Charlottesville is just fuel for the white power movement they hate.

Still, while one can condemn violence as the wrong path to political change, as well everyone should in a democracy, we should not lose sight of the root cause of what happened in Virgina.

The violence was provoked, deliberately, by Nazis, purveyors of an ideology corrosive to everything democracy is supposed to be. A peaceful anti-fascist protester was killed by a murderous driver. And those Nazis only felt this was their time to march and wave the swastika because a U.S. president helped create a climate for them to thrive in.

Yes, there are many sides.

But some carry more blame than others.

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Of all the things that came to my mind when watching footage of Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend chanting about blood and soil and how they won’t be replaced by Jews, I thought about pins.

One particular pin, in fact. One I haven’t seen in nearly 30 years, but one that suddenly seems sadly relevant given the recent events.

I first became aware of this particular pin in 1988, during the Winter Olympic Games in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

I’m not the most ardent fan of the Olympics these days. The corruption, the bankrupting of nations and the displacing of poor people to make way for multi-million dollar stadiums that never get used again has soured me on them. That said, it’s impossible to ignore the magic that still comes with the Olympics. And you’ll only really understand that if you have been in an Olympic city during the Games.

As a boy, it was overwhelming. I hadn’t really traveled much at that age, but the Olympics brought the entire world to my doorstep. To walk through the Olympic Plaza downtown was to move through a makeshift United Nations. It was an amazing cultural kaleidoscope. All you needed to do was turn around and you’d bump into someone from a country you’d never been to, speaking a language you’d never heard before.

One of the major occupations for locals, tourists and even athletes was pin trading. It was everywhere. At the C-Train stations and the Olympic Plaza downtown, you could swap pins with folks from every corner of the planet. Many traders had vests and caps covered in pins or carried beach towels filled with them. Language was never a barrier. Two people could share the experience with just a smile and a gesture.

But as with any bunch, there is always one rotten apple. Among the symbols of sport and nationality, there was one wretched bit of plastic and metal making the rounds.

This pin featured a white man surrounded by a small group of minstrel-like caricatures of people of colour – an African, a Hindu, an Asian and so on. Above them were the words: “Who is the minority now?”

The pin, which was also sold in British Columbia as I recall, made headlines for a few days, drawing rapid condemnation from many quarters. It was the first time I became aware of the existence of white supremacy as an idea and it seems as vile and alien to me then as it does now.

More than anything else that pin seemed to me to be a symbol of the deep inferiority complex that must reside in the hearts of white supremacists. How fragile must their world view be to believe they are looking into the abyss of extinction merely because other people have a different skin tone?

From that ugly pin to the hate filled marches in Charlottesville some 30 years later, it seems little has changed for this variety of moral pygmy. Like an insect trapped in amber, these racists are frozen in time, their world view a fossilized remnant of an evolutionary dead end.

It’s amazing really. Three decades on white power junkies from the KKK to neo-nazis and other assorted alt-right misfits are still preaching the same vapid fantasy of Caucasians as an endangered species that must fight – nay conquer – other people as a means of survival.

Their shriveled ideology may not have changed over time, but there is something markedly different about the white supremacists hawking that pin and the dullstones in Charlottesville carrying homemade shields and marching in phalanx formation like demented Spartan cosplayers – the racists of 2017 feel no fear in showing their faces. They feel no need to dress up in sheets or wear masks.

They feel this is their time.

Thirty years ago, the weight of social progress had tamped down this sort of thing. Racism was still alive, sure, but white supremacy seemed so fringe as to be barely worth anyone’s notice. The occasional outburst from Ernst Zundel, or a KKK member appearing on the Jerry Springer Show was about as serious as it got. Neo-Nazis and their ilk were considered less a threat than the garish targets of easy jokes.

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Beyond isolated incidents, few took them seriously. Certainly, no one would have thought hundreds of racists, some members of armed militias, would answer the call to join a white power march, much less predict one of them would fatally hit a peaceful counter protester with a car.

But that is what happened, and no one is laughing anymore.

In 1988, no one would have dared march through the Olympic Plaza in Calgary proclaiming the superiority of a pale skin tone. That pin had to be circulated quietly, more or less under the radar. But in today’s climate, it is not impossible to imagine someone selling it proudly in public as a white power march souvenir.

Over the years, the rise of the alt-right and the emergence of the the ctrl-left became the meat upon which the would-be white Caesars fed.

The election of Donald Trump to the U.S presidency did not result in a swastika being raised over the White House, but it did signal to racists that now – after years of lurking in the background while the political culture descended into partisan extremes – was the time to rise.

Trump, the purveyor of the racist “birther” lie about former President Barack Obama, didn’t have to click his heels and make a Nazi salute to pave the way. He only needed to maintain his strange reluctance to condemn the white nationalists who were openly saying he was their president.

(It is no coincidence that while in Charlottesville, David Duke claimed the white power thugs were going to fulfil the promises made by Trump. He, and many like him, clearly believes Trump to be his ally even if the president may not be one in reality. Trump did finally condemn white nationalists, but only after several days of pressure to do so.)

The insistence by Trump and others that the violence in Charlottesville is the fault of “many sides” is an act of willful ignorance that refuses to acknowledge the racists at the center of the storm. Had they never felt it was safe to walk once again in the light, it is likely the march would not have happened, meaning there would have been no counter protests and no Nazi behind the wheel of a car with murder in his eye.

We live in an age of political apathy, where insults framed in 140 characters are considered clever discourse. We live in the time of Trump – a spawn of reality TV – of Mayweather vs. McGregor, of “safe zones” on university campuses and of fake news. It is only in such climate that white supremacists can feel secure enough to spread their hatreds openly.

Vigilance and the willingness to engage in the war of ideas is the price we must all be willing to pay to prevent the loss of more innocent lives, to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate any permutation of Nazism and to ensure that the worst white supremacists can do is skulk in the shadows to pawn a pitiful pin.

UPDATE: Vice News covered the Charlottesville marches up close and the video the news agency produced is absolutely worth the watch. 

 

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There is a strange and ill wind that blows across Canada these days. It brings with it ignorance and a blind rage that feeds our lowest and least noble impulses.

The rage over the decision by the federal government to settle a lawsuit with Omar Khadr – a settlement which netted Khadr $10.5 million – is puzzling in its intensity while revealing something ugly lurking in the underbelly of the Canadian political character.

At its most extreme, reaction to the settlement has included cries that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a traitor who is now funding terrorism. At its most muted, the outrage is focused on the idea that a “convicted terrorist” has escaped justice and given millions of tax dollars while regular Canadians work minimum wage jobs.

There is even polling about it – for whatever polling may be worth these days – that shows that most Canadians are unhappy with the settlement. That polling reflects past studies which showed a significant number of Canadians feel no sympathy for Khadr’s plight and – in what can only be described as a shocking display of cruel ignorance – the number of Canadians who think Khadr is a threat to the country is growing.

There isn’t any evidence to suggest that Khadr is a threat, is a jihadist, or is a criminal of any sort. But evidence be damned. Outrage is winning the day.

If you are unfamiliar with the Khadr case, there is no shortage of news coverage to read going back to his arrest by the U.S. military following a fire fight in Afghanistan. But the Readers Digest version is this:

Khadr is a Canadian citizen whose father, Ahmed, was a jihadist – a violent Islamist bent on imposing his tyrannical theology on the world – keen on his son following in his footsteps. When Khadr was still a teenager, Ahmed brought him to Afghanistan which, leading up to the 9/11 attacks on the United States, was the global hotbed of jihadism thanks to the Taliban and its infamous ally al-Qaida.

While there Khadr was pressed into combat as a child soldier and was present during a 2002 battle between U.S. troops and al-Qaida fighters. In the course of that battle, a grenade blast killed one U.S. soldier and blinded another.

Khadr was captured, brought to the extrajudicial detention centre in Guantanamo Bay where he was illegally held, tortured and interrogated for a decade. There, during a drumhead trial,  he confessed to throwing the grenade and plead guilty to terrorism charges and murder.

He was released and returned to Canada in 2012.

During his incarceration, the Supreme Court of Canada found the Canadian government acted illegally when Canadian government agents interrogated Khadar while he was in Guantanamo and turned over the results of that interrogation to the Americans, who used that information against Khadar at military tribunals.

In 2010, the court found that, because of that action, the federal government violated Khadr’s charter rights:

This should have come as no surprise as the United States Supreme Court had already found that the procedures in place at Guantanamo Bay violated the Geneva Conventions. Consequently, Khadr was detained in violation of his fundamental human rights protected by international law and Canada’s actions contributed to his ongoing detention.

So it is clear that the Charter does indeed apply. Khadr’s critics say, however, that any violations were minimal — Canadian officials did not set up and run Guantanamo Bay, they only travelled to Cuba to ask Khadr some questions.

Except that is not what the Supreme Court found in 2010. 

Canada interrogated Khadr with the full knowledge that he was being detained in a prison camp that violated international law and that Khadr had been subjected to a program of sleep deprivation designed to make him less resistant to interrogation.

(Some argue, incorrectly, that the Supreme Court has said that the charter doesn’t apply to events that happen off Canadian soil, citing a 2007 ruling. However, that ruling actually says that the charter does apply if Canadian officials are “participating in activities that, though authorized by the laws of another state, would cause Canada to be in violation of its international obligations in respect of human rights.”)

In other words, Khadr was tortured in a prison camp that violated the Geneva Conventions and eventually pleaded guilty to murder, and Canada played an illegal role in his detention.

As a result, we don’t know if he threw that grenade. The evidence that he did is thin at best and his guilty plea was made under extreme duress, which would make it a poison pill in any Canadian court room.

And even if one is inclined to believe that did throw the grenade, the fact that he was a 15-year-old raised by a fanatical zealot who turned him into a child soldier, can’t be ignored by a thinking person.

It is worth pointing out here that as a basic principle of international law, child soldiers (combatants under 18) are not held culpable for war crimes in the same fashion as adults. We have long recognized that child soldiers are victims of abusive adults, who press children into combat as inexpensive cannon fodder. As a result, Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child limits punishments given to child soldiers and guarantees they will not be treated in an unethical fashion:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age;

(b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;

(c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

(d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.

(It is worth noting that every member of the United Nations, including Canada, is a signatory of this convention save for the United States of America.)

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After his return to Canada, Khadr launched a $20 million lawsuit against the Canadian government for violating his charter rights.

Settling that lawsuit is what lead to Khadr getting that $10.5 million.

Undoubtedly, the government’s lawyers advised the Prime Minister that the case was a loser and, given past Supreme Court rulings on the issue, would result in Khadr getting most of what he was suing for. The price for violating a citizen’s charter rights is and should be, very costly. So the least expensive route – financially and perhaps politically – was to settle the issue now rather than let it go to trial.

Those not wailing and gnashing their teeth over the settlement purely on outrage have argued that since this was a legal matter, the government should have allowed it to go to trial and let the courts decided what Khadr deserved.

The trouble there is that going to trial would require the government to defend its actions on the Khadr case – which the Liberal government may not wish to do on moral grounds, and might find it rather awkward politically since it was under a past Liberal government that Khadr’s rights were violated.

What this all means, ultimately, is that much of the rage directed at the settlement is misplaced. What those upset at the price tag aren’t asking is a very basic, and fundamentally important question: What should be the price of the Canadian government violating the rights of one of its citizens? What is the price of that violation results the torture of a citizen? Upon what criteria do you make that decision?

The rage directed at Khadr himself is similarly rooted in shallow thinking. particularly the idea that he is a terrorist and a threat.

The man has committed no crimes since returning to Canada. Even if you believe he threw that grenade, you cannot ignore the circumstances that brought him to Afganistan in the first place. That he was a child soldier is a fact as unavoidable as gravity. And even if you believe he threw the grenade, it does not absolve the federal government for having violated his charter rights.

And even if you believe he threw the grenade, it does not absolve the federal government for having violated his charter rights.

To put that last point another way – we provide that serial killers like Paul Bernardo receive fair trials and are convicted upon evidence, proper due process and the rule of law. Yet, in the case of Khadr, many Canadians are unconcerned with the dismissal of these principles.

None of these facts, by the bye, will make the families of the U.S. soldier killed in that battle, nor the soldier who was blinded in it, feel any better. They shouldn’t. Nothing about the Khadr case, from its genesis until now, should make anyone feel anything but nauseous.

A teenager forced into combat by a jihadist father. One American soldier dead and another blinded. That teenager was sent to an illegal military prison where he was tortured and the Candian government abetted in that torture. What is there to feel good about? The entire thing is a hideous, morally corrupt swamp.

However, what underpins the rage over the Khadr settlement, beyond the crass calculation of conservative politicians eager to find an issue that taps into Trump-esque populism, isn’t a concern for justice, sympathy for fallen American soldiers or their families, or the safety of Canadians.

It’s about revenge. A pure, unadulterated desire for vengeance.

From a certain point of view, the war on terrorism has been something of a failure. Despite the war in Afghanistan – a war that cost the lives of 159 Canadian soldiers – the Taliban still exists and the country’s freedom from Islamist rules is, at best, fragile. Al-Qaida isn’t what it was in 2001, but Islamism has mutated further giving rise to ISIS, a murderous jihadist army that commits nightmarish atrocities on a regular basis.

Canadians feel helpless. We’ve been unable to stop the spread of Islamism. We’ve been wounded by incidents of home-grown terrorism. We watched jihadist attacks in Europe that feel like they occur with startling regularity.

We want to do something. Someone, somewhere, has to pay for this cancer upon the world. Justice has to be done, and we feel helpless to make it so.

But Omar Khadr isn’t a faceless jihadist organisation an ocean away.  He is a man. He is here in Canada. He may well have thrown a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier who was fighting al-Qaida. That, in the eyes of many, make him a terrorist now and forever. Extenuating circumstances don’t matter because they quickly dampen blind outrage.

We might not be able to make the Tablian, and al-Qaida and ISIS pay, but we can make this one man pay a price. From him, we can get our pound of flesh and far too many of us seem eager for it.

Putting aside, for a moment, that this perspective requires a willful embrace of ignorance, an eye-for-an-eye – that most primitive of Biblical maxims – rarely gets us very far. In 1914, Canadian parliamentarian George Perry Graham, made this point when the House of Commons was debating capital punishment:

“If in this present age we were to go back to the old time of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ there would be very few honourable gentlemen in this House who would not, metaphorically speaking, be blind and toothless.”

We should demand better from ourselves and understand that our natural and explicable moral outrage over terrorism does not now, and should never, be the guiding force behind the administration of justice.

PS. Remember that poll  I mentioned earlier, the one that showed that most Canadians are unhappy with the Khadr settlement? It’s irrelevant. Our civil rights and our justice system are not decided by polling. We don’t turn suspected criminals over to a mob for summary justice, and our judges don’t ask the public who is guilty and who isn’t, nor what the appropriate penalties are. 

Justice by polling would be mob justice, and mob justice is no justice at all. 

Politicians who cite these polls as justification for their position on the issue should be held with deep suspicion because it demonstrates they are not committed to the Constitution, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the rule of law, but rather to pandering to the most base angels of our natures in order to win votes.

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We are making a mistake. As a community of people who claim prize notions of compassion and respect, we’re making the same mistake every day, year and after year.

And we’re making this mistake because we haven’t found the political courage to chart a new course. This failure creates its own vortex of costs – physical, mental, financial and cultural – and its maw continues to expand with each passing year.

Given the limited vision that so often plagues us, it seems unlikely that we will rethink what we want our police officers to do when faced with mental health crises on our streets until our long collective inaction breeds a genuine and visceral disaster of the sort that produces chilling headlines.

The real tragedy here is that disasters are happening all the time around the country, but they are often unreported or lack the kind of gore that shake people from their reality television shows or Twitter feeds.

Our blind insistence that the men and women of our police services also act as armed therapists is costing lives. Not because of inaction by police or because they don’t care or are indifferent. It is happening because we train our police to serve and protect the public by upholding the law yet somewhere along the way we decided, without giving it a moment’s thought, that to carry badge also meant you are the caretaker of citizens suffering from mental illness.

To put it another way, we don’t ask our police to treat infections or cast broken bones yet we do expect them to act as our best response to a mental health crisis.

In the Niagara region of Ontario, that extreme difficulty of asking police officers to shoulder mental health calls was recently laid bare in a Special Investigations Unit report on two Niagara Regional Police officers.

The SIU’s investigates all instances of injury or death involving police in Ontario. This typically involves the aftermath of a police shooting, a chase or an arrest. This particular investigation was rather different. It examined the role of two NRP officers who interacted with an elderly man the day before he killed himself.

According to the SIU report, the officers did everything right. They responded to a call of someone threatening to drown himself in the Welland Canal. They talked to the man, did their best to assess his mental state, offered him assistance – including calling in paramedics – and even drove the man home.

To their eyes, the man was in good spirits. He was healthy. He joked with the officers and denied he wanted to hurt himself. From the point of view of the police officers, he wasn’t actively suicidal.

But he was. Sometime after the officers left, the man threw himself into the Welland Canal, where he drowned. His body was found the next day.

That the SIU chose to investigate the circumstances of the man’s death stretches the scope of its mandate almost to the breaking point. The entire purpose of the SIU to hold police officers accountable. The SIU watches the watchmen, as it were.

The SIU mandate is invoked when there is a reason to think the actions, or inaction, of police may have caused injury or death. Neither circumstance applied in this case. Local police officers, whose relationship with the SIU can be charitably described as cool under the best of circumstances, were understandably annoyed to find their colleagues under investigation for a suicide they were powerless to prevent.

Still, the SIU report is important because it points to something policing and mental health leaders have known for years – that expecting cops to be not just the first, but usually, the only responder to a mental health call is unfair to both the officers and those in need.

Police officers do receive some training in mental health crisis response and assessment. They also have some limited powers under the Mental Health Act to take someone into custody if they can determine a person is a threat to themselves or others. But their primary function is not to diagnose or treat someone in a mental health crisis. It’s not what we train them for. Cops aren’t therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists.

To expect cops to be mental health experts on top of everything we expect of them on a daily basis – from investigating murders to handing out traffic tickets – is unrealistic and naive.

Certainly, when someone presents an immediate threat to themselves or others, there is a clear need for the someone with the skills, equipment and authority of a police officer. But once that immediate danger has passed, someone with a mental health issue needs the help of a mental health expert.

To be clear, this is not to say it is an absolute fact that if a psychologist had been with those NRP officers when they talked to that man, his suicide would have been prevented. If someone is clever and determined to end their own life it can be difficult to determine their intent, even for a highly trained and experienced expert. But we can say if police had the proper support at the time they reached that man perhaps his family would not be mourning him today.

This case has not struck a chord with our politicians. Despite the renewed warnings from police leaders, the story of the drowning of an old man police tried to help is not vitiating the Niagara police services board or the legislature at Queen’s Park.

But it should be.

There are no quick and easy answers here. There are some programs that are making a difference, but they are too small in scope and too poorly funded to have the reach and impact they should.

Creating a more compassionate and effective system means rethinking what we want our police officers to do and how we want to spend health care and law enforcement dollars. These are hard, complicated debates that tend to repel politicians because they do not lend themselves to snappy re-election slogans or campaign ads.

But until that changes, until we insist our elected leaders take a hard look at the problem and until those leaders are willing to work to change things, we will find more bodies in canals and more police officers under unnecessary investigation.

 

 

 

 

In some far off future, provided our species hasn’t found a creative means to shuffle itself off this mortal coil, historians will look back on the early 21st century as the age when the truth was forgotten.

This is the era of Trump. The epoch of #alternativefacts. An age when facts often have but the most tenuous connection to our politics.

You might say this isn’t exactly news. After all, politicians warping the truth goes back to the days when Themistocles lied to get his fellow Athenians to spend their silver on ships instead of themselves.

But that sort of political lie served a greater end. Today, untruths are used in a banal fashion exaggerate one’s achievements or excuse mistakes and blunders. It’s become accepted practice – among a certain species of politician at least – to say whatever serves them in the moment. As the moment changes, so does their narrative. Facts be damned.

American President Donald Trump is the avatar of this mode of politics. His is a presidency built on lies. Yet, he is just the most extreme example of the fact-adverse politician.

No community seems safe from this phenomenon these days, not even Niagara.
Back in May, during a marathon regional council meeting – which itself was part of the ongoing failure of this council to establish a meaningful code of conduct – regional chairman Alan Caslin made this startling claim for himself and his council:

“This morning when I was talking to the chamber of commerce in Niagara Falls, they asked the question in several different ways, ‘How do you stay focused on what’s important?’ And I said ‘This council is great. This council understands what’s important.’ And despite the distractions we all face from time to time in council, no matter what they are, and we all face a lot of them, we always have our eye on the distance and what’s important for Niagara. And I can cite several examples of that, and I did this morning, with respect to GO Train, with respect to the GE plant, with respect to inter-municipal transit.

There are so many great things that we have done in this term of council that are probably … we have probably done more in this term of council than has been done in all other terms of council put together.”

Consider the Trumpian hubris of the claim.

This is a council so marked by internal strife, bumbling, ethical lapses, and general meanness that at the same meeting Caslin made his proclamation, Welland Councillor Paul Grenier made an emotional plea for the end of the toxic politics of the chamber.

And yet Caslin wants us to believe this council is the greatest of them all?

But we need not delve into hyperbole here. What is specifically interesting about Caslin’s boast is its falsifiable nature. That is to say, it can be tested to determine if it is true or false.

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First, let’s look at the three things Caslin offers up as evidence of this council’s, and by extension his own, greatness – GO Transit, the GE plant in Welland and inter-regional transit.

On GO Trains, council gets credit for carrying the baton as far as they have. Getting Niagara on the GO agenda was started by the previous council under the leadership of former chair Garry Burroughs and St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley, but this council did a good job of keeping the political pressure on until Queen’s Park finally took notice.

But it is far too early to break out the champagne. The current timetable puts daily GO service six years away, and not one meter of track has been laid yet.

And there is at least one provincial election between now and then. The fate of this GO initiative will depend greatly on what happens in the 2018 provincial election.

The governing Liberals once again find themselves scandal-ridden and unpopular. There is no guarantee they will form the next provincial government (although you can bet Liberal candidates in Niagara will, like Caslin, use GO as a campaign carrot) and the Tories have been historically cool on GO expansion.

GO Trains would be an obvious benefit to Niagara, but it won’t take much to derail the plan. It will be up to the next regional council, and perhaps even the one that follows it, to help see the project to completion.

Similarly, inter-regional transit is a work-in-progress that began before this council was elected and won’t be finished until after the next trip to the ballot box.

A functionally useful regional transit system has been something of a holy grail for several iterations of council. Years ago, a transit committee lead by former regional chair Debbie Zimmerman nearly got a Niagara transit plan off the ground. It didn’t get past the finish line because of the Welland, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls transit commissions refused to give up their fiefdoms, and the notion has limped along ever since.

Now, those same three cities have an agreement in principle with the Region to finally, mercifully, get a transit plan together.

Even more than GO, a Niagara transit system is something the local economy badly needs. However, the system doesn’t exist yet, not even on paper. Everything is still in the planning phase, and while it is hard to imagine any of the three Niagara transit commissions bailing out now, the fact is that it will be the next council and the next iterations of St. Catharines, Welland and Niagara Falls councils, that complete the project.

Which brings us to General Electric.

In a rare bit of economic good news in Niagara, General Electric is building a plant in Welland and will hire about 220 people to work there.

In October 2016, a GE spokesman said the coordination of the Region, the City of Welland, the provincial government and other parties played a significant role in the company’s decision to build a plant in Welland. In other words, Niagara stopped bickering long enough to get something done.

The plant does not signal the return of the good old days of manufacturing in Niagara – and anyone who tells you otherwise probably wants to sell you some magic beans – but it is welcome news nonetheless.

The Region did what was necessary, and gets full marks for that. But it cannot claim the GE plant as a victory for itself. Without the other players, GE would not have set up shop here.

So Caslin’s metric for greatness is two work-in-progress projects this council won’t finish, and a third in which the Region played a part.

These are not failures by any stretch, but remember Caslin’s specific claim: this council has done more than all other councils combined.

Take a quick trip down memory lane, and you’ll find some political achievements by past councils that, given their impact on the lives of Niagara residents, eclipse anything the current council has attempted.

Perhaps most significant of these was the establishment of Niagara’s ambulance dispatch centre in 2005.

The effort took seven years and was completed during Zimmerman’s time as regional chair. Until 2005, ambulances were dispatched out of Hamilton, and there were long-standing concerns this had a deleterious impact on response times.

The project put ambulance dispatch into the hands of Niagara and, in the process, improved ambulance response times, which meant better medical treatment and lives saved. The ambulance dispatch centre is arguably the single most significant accomplishment of any regional council to date.

In 2002, regional council implemented a smoking bylaw that prevented smoking in public buildings. The bylaw survived court challenges, and although it has since been eclipsed by provincial regulations, Niagara was one of the first Ontario municipalities to have an effective smoking bylaw to protect the health of citizens.

In 2008, the Niagara Prosperity Initiative was founded at the Region to provide robust solutions to poverty issues in Niagara, improving the lives of those who need help the most.

Past councils also brought early years child centres to Niagara, funded a dental program to help those in poverty, laid the political groundwork for the expansion of Highway 406 to Welland, and passed land use regulations that permitted the construction of the Fallsview Casino and the new St. Catharines hospital.

Against all this work done by past councils, Caslin claims his council, with its handful of achievements and mountain of unfinished business, is greater than all previous councils combined.

Such a claim only has merit in the truth-adverse era of Trump.

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Just a quick update for you, dear readers.

The Grant Rant has been quiet for the last couple of weeks while I have been on vacation. But I’m back at work and that means new columns are headed your way soon.

Look for a new column on Niagara Region coming this Wednesday.

Boxing fans can look for my thoughts on Mayweather vs. McGregor as well as the results of the Pacquiao vs. Horn fight over at 8Count Media later this week as well.

And finally, some big changes are afoot for the Grant Rant podcast which I excited to announce soon! Stay tuned.

Cheers;

GL.

To forgive, Alexander Pope tells us, is divine.

We place a high value on forgiveness in our politics, religions and in our philosophies. We often regard it as the highest and noblest of acts, particularly when one claims to forgive someone who caused grievous harm.

“Forgive but don’t forget,” is often spoken as though it is a phrase of profound wisdom, as though the fundamental and absurd contradiction contained in those four words were not evident to any thinking person.

And perhaps in our everyday lives, when dealing with small everyday transgressions, forgiveness is necessary. Clinging to rage and hate does little but consume someone from the inside out in most cases.

But when the spectrum of human cruelties is considered in full, when the terrors we are capable of visiting upon one another are meditated upon, the naivety of Pope’s decree becomes all too clear.

There are some lines that should not be crossed and some acts are so terrible, forgiveness or redemption is not, and should not be, part of the equation. There are some insults to basic decency so extreme that to forgive is not a virtue, but an act of willful stupidity.

Unless your name happens to be Tom Mulcair, that is. Then, apparently, there is no crime for which we should not adopt that most prosaic and hollow of injunctions: “Get over it.”

This has not been an easy week for Canadians. For this week they learned that one of the nation’s most notorious and evil citizens, the serial killer Karla Homolka, was volunteering at an elementary school in Montreal.

A woman who, alongside her ex-husband Paul Bernardo, raped and murdered teenaged girls, was given direct access to and responsibility for the children of other people as though her hands were not stained with blood.

It is yet another affront to fundamental notions of justice and decency in a story overflowing with such affronts.

Thanks to the infamous “deal with the devil” made with Homolka to turn on Bernardo, she severed a mere 12 years in prison for the murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. In exchange for testifying against her husband, Homolka was able to plead to the lesser charge of manslaughter, even though by the end, her testimony wasn’t necessary to convict Bernardo because the videotapes of the murders had been found.

That she received so short a sentence and was able to return to society largely unfettered because she served her time was outrageous enough.

But to learn this woman had access to children made a mockery of the very concept of justice.  Even the school that gave her this access defended the undefendable.

Anger rippled across the country. It could be read in newspaper columns and heard in the speeches of politicians.

It was an anger tinged with helplessness. The deal was made in 1993. It cannot be undone. All that can be done is limit her access, with extreme prejudice, to the most vulnerable among us, including children. As any farmer will tell you, putting a fox in your hen house ends only in one way.

These visceral emotions were not heard in the statement of federal NDP leader Muclair, however, who seemed to treat the Homolka case as though Canadians were clinging to some petty grudge.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair raised the question of whether it might be time to forgive and move on.

“Everybody is going to have to take their own stock of that and ensure that first and foremost that the security of their kids is taken care of,” Mulcair said on Wednesday.

“Beyond that, it becomes a question of forgiveness,” he added, pointing out that Homolka had “paid her debt” to society.

“If you’re ensuring the safety of the kids, beyond our revulsion at the horror of the crime, is there any room for atonement and forgiveness?” he asked.

Forgiveness? Atonement? For Homolka? Not in this reality.

This is not just insensitivity on the part of a Canadian leader who ought to know better. It rather a reflection of a staggering ignorance.

 

What are we to forgive exactly, Mr. Mulcair?

Are we to forgive the series of rapes and murders Holmolka willfully took part in? Are the families of the murdered girls supposed to forgive the person who so violently, so callously, ripped their hearts away from them and has never shown a hint of remorse?

Are we to forgive the string of blunders that so insulted the very meaning of justice and are the only reason this woman is allowed to roam free on Canadian streets? Are we to forgive failures of the police and attorneys that permitted and sustained the infamous deal that resulted in Holmoka escaping the justice that was surely her due?

No, Canadians should not find room in their hearts to forgive Homolka. They should not attempt to sell a piece of themselves for such a petty bromide.

Canadians are justly outraged at the killings, the sentencing and its aftermath. They hang onto their rage and they are right to do so. That rage may be the only assurance that justice will not be dismissed when the next serial killer strikes.

It does not matter if Mulcair thinks forgiveness is divine. It does not matter if Jesus is Mulcair’s special friend, or if he thinks he was somehow channelling his inner Gandhi. Asking Canadians to forgive Homolka is to ask them to pour acid into their collective wounds.

If nothing else, the statement proves the nation dodged a bullet when it refused to elect him to lead our government.

Monsters do walk among us, Mr. Mulcair. They are few, but they do exist. And by mistaking your seat in the House of Commons for a pulpit from which to preach your naive morality is to demonstrate just how unworthy you are of the leadership position you once sought.

Forgive the serial killer if you will, Mr. Mulcair. Leave the rest of us out of it.

 

It’s been a trying few months for Niagara residents forced to watch the political danse macabre performed by Niagara politicians.

From the regional council chambers to meetings of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, we’ve been witness elected representatives responsible for roads, sewers and public health behave of though they were in an epic political battle worthy of the schemes of Frank Underwood.

The cold war between some factions of regional politicians has turned hot, and the lack of self-reflection and sober thinking among their ranks is astonishing.

While this circus of the mundane and the mendacious continues, issues that should be front and centre of every council meeting, on every front page of every local newspaper, and leading every local radio news broadcast, get lost.

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Regional councillors need to stop taking their cues from Frank Underwood and get down to serving the public that elected them.

One of these underreported stories was recent Statistics Canada data on the state of Niagara’s economy.

In short, the news is bad.

Although Regional Chairman Alan Caslin was pleased to announce in March that Niagara’s unemployment rate was 6.4%, down from a rate over 8% three years ago at the end of the recession, he hasn’t made a similar announcement about recent Stats Can labour force data.

According to Statistics Canada’s seasonally adjusted employment figures, the unemployment rate for St. Catharines and Niagara, from March to April rose from 6.4% to 6.8%. In real numbers, it means that the number of Niagara residents who were unemployed rose in April to 14,300 from 13,500 people in March.

That means 800 more of our neighbours are without work in Niagara.

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April Labour force data from Statistics Canada

Remember these are seasonally adjusted numbers. For those unfamiliar with the jargon of economics, seasonally adjusted data takes into account known fluctuations in the labour market. For instance, both the tourism and agricultural sectors move through fairly regular intervals of peaks and valleys depending on the time of year. So seasonally adjusted employment data attempts to compensate for those fluctuations to present a more accurate labour force picture.

Think about those 800 people. They aren’t just a statistic to be brushed off. They are ordinary citizens trying to put food on the table for their families, trying to pay their bills and build a better tomorrow for themselves. Eight hundred people just like you and your family.

It is worth noting that these job losses are happening against the backdrop of a regional government struggling to keep pace with the demand for social assistance.

In 2016, Niagara’s Ontario Works budget was $1.3 million in red as a result of higher than expected demand for so-called “discretionary programs” – programs that help low-income residents pay for rent, medical bills and cope with Ontario’s crushing hydro rates. That demand was driven by the politically inconvenient truth that far too many people in Niagara are working jobs that pay far too little to make ends meet.

And yet, what do we hear from our regional council? Has the precarious nature of the economy consumed their deliberations?

No.

Last week, Niagara was subjected to a four-hour council meeting about the integrity commissioner and a proposed code of conduct. Few councillors spoke about the need to restore the public trust in their government, or about how St. Catharines representative Andy Petrowski, the councillor who was the focus most of the commissioner’s findings, recently dragged the majority of councillors to court in a bizarre bid to prevent the release of commissioner’s reports.

Instead, councillors attacked the integrity commissioner and assaulted the very notion that, as elected public representatives, they should be held to a higher standard of conduct.

We’ve watched councillors with no legal background attempt to lecture the lawyer hired by council to act as an integrity commissioner about legal precedent. During that four-hour meeting, one councillor, Fort Erie representative Sandy Annunziata decided to sidestep the local issue entirely and attack a political opponent in Queen’s Park – Welland MPP Cindy Forster – by accusing her of supporting anti-Semitic boycotts of Isreal. (Some unavoidable facts here: Annunziata is the chair of the beleaguered NPCA, and Forster has been a leading voice calling for an audit of the NPCA’s operations.)

And it’s not over yet.

The integrity issue will return at the next meeting with Petrowski’s “official” response to the commissioner, which is as likely as not to send the session down another black hole.

There will also be a vote on a motion to suspend Petrowski from council committees until he takes sensitivity training. And at some point, there will be a vote on a version of the proposed code of conduct produced by the integrity commissioner that has been drastically edited by two councillors before the rest of council could consider the original report they paid for.

This swim through the muck won’t end until councillors, as an elected body, pledge themselves to a higher standard of behaviour instead of making excuses and trying to build escape hatches for themselves. And until it ends, the more pressing issues facing Niagara will continue to simmer on the back burners.

Where does all this navel gazing and pointless manoeuvring leave those 800 people now without jobs in Niagara? Or the 13,500 other people that were unemployed before them

Nowhere.

By their actions,  this council has said loud and clear that their need to avoid consequences no matter what they say or do trumps the plight of those struck by the pieces of a crumbling economy.

If Thursday’s meeting demonstrated anything, it is that the council needs a remedial class in ethics before it can adequately represent the people of this region.

Niagara’s politics are sick. The symptoms, like a wet cough that bespeaks a serious lung infection, are easy to see. If the proper cure is not administered, the illness will simply get worse, and the body will grow ever sicker and weaker.

This week, one of Niagara’s long-time public servants stepped down from his post on one of the region’s key governing bodies, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.

Lincoln regional councillor Bill Hodgson, a politician for whom scandal and controversy are total strangers, resigned from the NPCA claiming he was bullied by other members of the board.

The reaction of the NPCA so far has been silence, although its board chair, Fort Erie councillor Sandy Annunziata, was less restrained when the chain of events that led to Hodgson’s registration began.

This started with an accusation from Annunziata about Hodgson’s conduct – the details of which the public, its news media and most of its elected representatives, have not been permitted to see. The road began there and ended with more political controversy for a region that simply cannot avoid stepping on political rakes.

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Hodgson’s resignation from the embattled NPCA board is not something to be cheered by the remaining members of the board, nor NPCA staff, nor other members of Niagara’s regional council, nor the citizens that elected Hodgson to represent them.

Shame and outrage should be the appropriate reactions from those involved and those impacted. This is not how local government is supposed to operate.

This latest round of Niagara political controversy began when the NPCA board announced it had censored Hodgson for allegedly interfering in the bidding process that would have seen the NPCA hire an auditor to review its operations – something the public had been demanding for months.

How, why and when did Hodgson allegedly interfere with the process? We don’t know because the NPCA leadership refuses to disclose the details of their allegation.

Annunziata has said he engaged a legal firm to investigate information he received, and that legal firm – Gowling WLG LLP – produced a report which was used as the basis to censure Hodgson.

Annunziata sent a letter to every municipal council in the areas within NPCA jurisdiction. That letter alleges Hodgson had acted improperly, but it did not contain the details of the allegation nor the Gowling report it references. Annunziata has so far declined to speak to the press about the specifics of this allegation.

(There are also unanswered questions about whether the vote to censure Hodgson happened behind closed doors, and whether the vote conformed to NPCA bylaws.)

In effect, Annunziata and the members of the NPCA who voted to censure Hodgson are telling the public to take their word for it.

“Just trust us,” has been the message.

To put it plainly, we do not have to take their word for it.

As the late, great Edward R. Murrow pointed out a long time ago, accusation is not proof and conviction depends on evidence and due process. It also requires transparency. If we, the citizen of Niagara, are to take the claims of the NPCA and Annunziata seriously, then they must present in public their allegations against Hodgson.

That does not appear to be the prevailing thought among Niagara’s politicians, however.

During an email exchange with NPCA critic Ed Smith, Niagara Falls regional councillor Bob Gale told anyone else who wants to weigh on the Hodgson issue to “shut up.”

More than that, Gale suggested that Hodgson should either tell the public what he is accused of doing or give the NPCA “permission” to release the Gowling report.

This is not how the most basic principles of justice work. The burden of proof always rests on the shoulders of those making an allegation. It is not up to Hodgson to present that information to the public, but rather it is up to the NPCA to present its allegations in an open forum. (This is why in our criminal justice system, the accused has a right to remain silent. The accused is not required to incriminate himself.)

It is difficult to understand why the NPCA would make its allegations public in so vague a manner and so resolutely insist the details are not for public consumption. It tried and convicted Hodgson in the shadows and then insists everyone simply accept their judgement as just and proper.

Other recent events might shed some light on the current political mindset in Niagara and explain, in part, these actions.

As reported in the St. Catharines Standard, the NPCA is considering a code of conduct that will, among other things, require absolute loyalty to the board from members, require board members never express a dissenting opinion about board decisions and, if they do, they can be expelled from the board.

This kind of code of conduct language is common in private corporations but rarely used in public bodies that can tax the public and are governed by elected officials whose first and only loyalty is to the people who elected them. (The public bodies that currently use this kind of language in codes of conduct in Ontario are, perhaps unsurprisingly, other conservation authorities.)

I again turn to Murrow: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.

It is not uncommon for dissenting politicians to discuss their opposition in public after a vote at a council or board. Indeed, hearing voices of dissent are vital to a properly functioning democratic system. Gagging politicians and insisting they march in lock step with a publicly accountable board, regardless of opposition, is profoundly undemocratic.

(A few NPCA board members expressed their disagreement with the board’s decision to censure Hodgson. Under the proposed code of conduct, those board members would be gagged thereby providing a false impression of total board unity.)

Yet, closing ranks instead of improving democratic transparency seems to be of great concern to our local political leadership.

Consider the recent comments by regional chair Alan Caslin on the May 16 episode of the Tim Denis show on CKTB 610 A.M.

Denis and his other guests expressed dismay as the NPCA’s draft code of conduct’s insistence on absolute loyalty from board members that supersedes any other loyalty that member may have. Caslin’s reply is telling. He did not address the problems associated with the NPCA demanding loyalty from elected officials, but rather focused on the issue of leaks.

When it comes to codes of conduct and conduct of councillors, we struggle with trying to keep in-camera items private. Inevitably, they get leaked way too often and that has to stop. So those sorts of, that decorum has to be more more prevalent,  not only prevalent but followed and respected because, quite frankly, the information that is dealt with in-camera is in-camera for a reason.

Denis said he was concerned with the emphasis on loyalty and the consequences of dissent. Caslin again changed the focus on the need for loyalty:

Being prescriptive where the loyalty lies is an absolute necessity and quite frankly may help in keeping that confidential information private.

There are already existing rules around the what can and what cannot be held in-camera by municipal councils in Ontario and as a general principle, governments should err on the side of openness. The issue we face in Niagara is whether our councils and public boards are overstepping those bounds, conduct public business behind closed doors and are trying to narrow the scope of public debate.

If we take democratic transparency seriously, loyalty to a board is vastly less important than, say, publicly accusing a politician of acting improperly and keeping the details of that allegation secret.

Leaks and loyalty are less important than the conduct and decisions of elected bodies.

Either transparency is a guiding principle of our local politics, or it is not. If it is not, then the illness that infects our body politic will simply spread and make our local democracy sicker.

Amid all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the most recent insult to Niagara’s political culture, amid the shaking of heads and rolling of eyes, something important is being missed.

I am referring to St. Catharines regional Councillor Andy Petrowski’s recent courtroom misadventures. But beyond the incident itself,  there is something obvious and uncomfortable that we’re not talking about. But it is something that cannot be ignored anymore.

Everything Petrowski has done, every stunt, every inane and insulting tweet, and every outburst in the council chambers, is Niagara’s fault.

Meaning it’s our fault. Not just Petrowski himself, although he has to carry the consequences and responsibility for his choices. Not just regional council, although it carries its fair share of blame for its lousy decisions and for enabling Petrowski for nearly two terms.

I mean it is OUR fault. The voters. The citizens of Niagara. Specifically, those citizens who willfully disenfranchised themselves during the 2014 municipal election by refusing to vote.

You’ve heard the old saying that in a democracy the citizens get the government they deserve? Well, it’s high time Niagara took that to heart.

This iteration of council – which has brought us a string of controversies including the NPCA audit, the NRP board survey, the long spat between the chair and former CAO, who sits where in council, and now Petrowski’s antics around the integrity commissioner reports – was elected by the mere 37.6% of eligible voters who cast ballots.

If math isn’t your thing, that means that 62.4% of citizens who could have voted chose not to. How many of those people, I wonder, have complained about Petrowski in the last week, or about or council as a whole since the 2014 election?

If Petrowski and the council he sits on is the monster, then the Niagara electorate is the Dr. Frankenstein that created it.

I understand it can be hard to see it that way, especially after Niagara Regional council managed last week to sink further into the fetid swamp of the ridiculous it has been wading in since it first assumed office.

Once again, an integrity commissioner has said Petrowski’s conduct has violated the Region’s tepid code of conduct. Once again, a commissioner is telling Petrowski to apologize and to shape up or next time he will be fined.

This has happened before. It was in 2013 when then integrity commissioner Robert Swayze found Petrowski bullied regional staff. At that time he told council that if Petrowski did not improve his conduct a more severe penalty than an apology should be imposed.

Well, it’s 2017 and it seems nothing has changed. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we know nothing will change. Not so long as Petrowski stays in office and the roost at regional council continues to be ruled by the same people. And not so long as Niagara voters continue their march of political apathy when election day roles around.

For as much as this iteration of council has stepped on one rake after another, the voters put it into office. The ultimate responsibility rests on the shoulders of the citizens who duty it is to stay informed and elect their government.

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Footage of Niagara regional council at work.

The last week should serve as an object lesson of just how important it will be in 2018 for Niagara residents to pay attention to local politics and vote.

Consider the road that brought us to this point.

You may recall that one of the first things this council did was to eliminate the integrity commissioner. It did so on the grounds that council could police itself – chair Alan Caslin said he could adjudicate complaints –  and it cost too much. (Council then voted itself a pay raise that cost the taxpayer more than the integrity commissioner did.)

That decision didn’t exactly pan out well for council. In December 2016, Caslin gave up the ghost on policing council, which voted to restore the integrity commissioner. Until council hires a permanent commissioner, Toronto lawyer John Mascarin is filling the role.

He has dealt with six complaints against complaints against councillors that required investigations and dismissed others. No wonder Caslin backed away.

At least three of those complaints were about Petrowski, which brings us to our most recent episode of Niagara’s Political Merrygoround of the Damned.

Petrowski tried to block the release of Mascarin’s reports. First he found support in fellow councillor David Barrick, chair of the corporate services committee, who ruled the reports should be put on ice pending some manner of legal review of the constitutionality of regional code of conduct.

When that didn’t work, Petrowski and Fort Erie resident Fred Bracken (best known for one-man street corner protests, getting arrested for assault and following around politicians, police officers and reporters with a video camera) decided to take most of regional council to court last week.

The pair filed a notice of motion for an injunction against the release of Mascarin’s reports, naming the commissioner and 24 of 31 regional councillors as respondents. Petrowski claimed the release of the reports would ruin his reputation and prevent him from getting a private sector job in the future.

A judge tossed the attempted injunction out of court and awarded legal costs to the Region.

The councillor, cribbing from Donald Trump’s Big Playbook of Political Excuses, took this with his characteristic grace:

“The judicial system is rigged from the judges all the way down to law offices,” he wrote. “Our courts will have no part in upholding our constitution if it means the politically correct crowd of politicians will lose their only tool to punish and silence folks like me willing to stand up for the taxpayers almost at any cost.”

Before the week was out, Petrowski did an about face and, now claiming he has nothing to hide, released three of Mascarin’s reports to the local news media before they could be released to council later this month.

Welcome to the cognitive dissonance of Niagara politics, folks.

In response, the St. Catharines Standard called for Petrowski to resign from office – which is the only sensible thing left for him to do if he has any concern for the citizens he is supposed to represent.

 

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Councillor Andy Petrowski’s reaction on Twitter to news coverage of his recent courtroom misadventures.

Petrowski’s behaviour has never changed and there is little reason to expect it will, anymore than there is reason to expect council itself to shape up.

As Standard columnist Doug Herod pointed out, many councillors have acted as Petrowski enablers over the years.

By way of a for instance:

  • When asked about the farcical court action, regional chair Alan Caslin – one of six councillors not named in the Petrowski/Bracken notice of motion  – wouldn’t comment beyond repeating the tired political trope of that focus is on job creation and the like. (Note to local politicians: Your councils manifestly do not create jobs beyond hiring municipal staff, but that is a chat for another day.) He claimed “special interests” were distracting council but has so far not said who those interests are.
  • Port Colborne councillor David Barrick went along with Petrowski’s Charter challenge of the code of conduct in the corporate services committee, setting the stage of last week’s court case.
  • 16 councillors voted to put Petrowski onto the Niagara Regional Police services board. That ended with Petrowski’s being prohibited from participating on the board while the Ontario Civilian Police Commission investigated his conduct. That investigation was kept from the public until revealed by the Standard.
  • Following Petrowski’s comments about gay marriage in 2015, it took council nearly a month to react, and even then the response came only after the winds of public opinion were blowing against them. Council voted for a review of the code of conduct, which two years later remains a task unfinished.
  • During a recent public meeting about the code review, Caslin allowed Petrowski to speak last as a member of the public rather than as an elected official.

Every councillor who voted to put Petrowski on regional committees or boards, who stayed silent during his outbursts in council or on social media, or refused to stand up for the people in the community impacted by those comments, are complicit in the creation of the state regional council now finds itself.

And this is to say nothing of more substantive issues including the regional budget, transit, the hiring of its new CAO, the region’s Ontario Works budget going into the red, and other matters about which there remains considerable debate.

What I am saying here is that this is not all about Petrowski. It is not even all about Caslin, or Barrick or whichever members of council you personally think aren’t doing the job well enough.

This is about us. The voters. The citizens of Niagara. We created this political monster through our collective apathy and our indifference.

I began this column by making an allusion to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the story, Victor Frankenstein creates a creature he cannot control and, in the end, is destroyed by it.

Perhaps that is a metaphor Niagara voters should keep in mind as the next election approaches.

NOTE: This column was edited to correct the number of complaints the integrity commissioner investigated. -GL.