Six days after a deadly attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Keenan Aylwin took to Facebook to express outrage at what he described as the failure of two Conservative federal MPs to denounce white supremacy in Canada.
It was the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Aylwin, a first-term city councillor from Barrie, Ontario, wrote about his outrage at federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's participation at a rally in Ottawa that included people with some extreme anti-immigrant and racist views, including white nationalist Faith Goldy and members of the far-right Yellow Vest Canada movement, as well as supporters of pipelines.
Aylwin took issue with Scheer's failure to denounce the extreme elements at the rally, and questioned the silence of two Barrie-area MPs, John Brassard and Alex Nuttall, on the matter. (Nuttall was friends with Goldy on Facebook before she was banned from the platform.)
"There are people in positions of power that are using racist and white supremacist rhetoric for political gain across the world and right here in Canada. We have to make the connection between this rhetoric and the violence that is perpetrated against Muslims and other vulnerable communities here in Canada and abroad," Aylwin's March 21 Facebook post reads in part.
"We have two Conservative MPs in Barrie that have been silent on their leader's appearance on the same stage as a neo-Nazi sympathizer. This is unacceptable and it is dangerous. They are playing footsies with white supremacists who have inspired violence through Yellow Vest Canada social media channels and elsewhere," he continued.
Aylwin is now being sued for defamation by both Brassard and Nuttall, who filed individual civil lawsuits at the Ontario Superior Court on May 23, each seeking $100,000 in damages. At the heart of their claims is that Aylwin's post "intended to mean" that they are racist, that they support white supremacists and their actions, and that their personal behaviour will inspire violence — all allegations they deny. (Both Brassard and Nuttall used to be Barrie city councillors.)
Brassard and Nuttall have both hired the same lawyer, Joshua Valler, who practices at Barriston LLP, a Barrie-based law firm.
According to his bio, Valler used to work as a federal Conservative staffer.
Nuttal did not respond to National Observer's inquiries. His assistant said in a phone call, "there is no comment, that's why you didn't receive a response."
Rob Dekker, Brassard's policy director said the lawsuit was "a personal decision," being paid for out of pocket. Dekker noted that Brassard had denounced racism on several occasions, and put out a statement after the Christchurch mosque attacks.
Barrie city councillor Keenan Aylwin is being sued by two local Conservative MPs for calling out their party's silence on white supremacists in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shooting
He added that Scheer and Goldy were "no where near each other" at the rally Aylwin takes issue with in his Facebook post.
Next week, Aylwin is also set to be reprimanded by Barrie city council after the integrity commissioner conducted an investigation (after Brassard filed a complaint) in the matter and found that his Facebook post was 'offensive, derogatory, and highly partisan,' and that his comments are “wholly inappropriate and discreditable for a member of council.” If ratified, Aylwin would be the first councillor in the city of Barrie's history to be reprimanded by his own colleagues.
The series of events and discussions that have followed since Aylwin's post two months ago have put the longtime Conservative-held riding's residents on edge, many fearful at how these lawsuits are indicative of a "frightening" censorship of criticism.
Barrie resident Holly McDaniel told National Observer that the community was rallying around Aylwin, while watching what they say publicly. "The whole situation has become overblown. (Aylwin) was simply trying to say there are things happening at the international level that are reflected in our community, and that if we don’t take strong stances on this we are flirting with potential violence against members of our community," she said. "I don’t understand how in any situation a person can be sued for saying that to an elected official. I actually feel like it's his job."
"Every progressive voice in our community has to think do I have money for a lawyer when they want to engage, now, which I don’t think is fair," she added.
Another resident, who asked to be anonymous for fear of reprimand at her workplace, told National Observer that the lawsuit is a sign that "the Conservative party will shut you down if you dare to talk about them."
"It’s a frightening turn. (Brassard and Nuttal) wouldn’t take the time to shut down links to white supremacy, but they'll take the time to shut down someone who says we need to speak up about it," she said. "It means that the Conservative party demands silence."
"We live in a fearful time if we’re not allowed to speak up against our elected officials."
Today I joined #Barrie #Innisfil MPP @Andrea_Khanjin @BarriePolice Chief Greenwood, Deputy Chief Weatherill, and @OPPAssociation President @R_JamiesonOPPA at the Barrie Mosque in support of our Muslim community and to denounce hate and violence in any form. #cdnpoli #onpoli pic.twitter.com/X7gfsIKXjJ— John Brassard (@JohnBrassardCPC) March 15, 2019
'Some would call this dog-whistling'
In a 23-page report, Barrie's Integrity Commissioner Suzanne Craig determined Aylwin's post, which remains posted on his Facebook page, denigrated Brassard and failed to treat the Barrie-Innisfil MP with "dignity, understanding and respect," and urged council to provide a reprimand, which she said "was serious."
The reprimand comes in the form of a caution to the councillor, and a demand that the Facebook post be removed. A dock in municipal salary for one or two months was put forward and debated by four city councillors, but was ultimately decided to be “too much.”
While Craig said Aylwin is entitled to his opinion on matters such as race, the Facebook post breached the city's code of conduct when he "baselessly" suggested that Brassard is associating with white supremacists, Craig wrote in her report.
She noted that Aylwin's Facebook page carries the weight of the office he holds. She cited a 2014 Supreme Court decision that found that elected officials don't have an "absolute" right to freedom of speech, and were restricted by their official code of conduct.
The Supreme Court decision held that "while elected municipal officials may be quite free to discuss matters of public interest, they must act as would the reasonable person. The reasonableness of their conduct will often be demonstrated by their good faith and the prior checking they did to satisfy themselves as to the truth of their allegations. These are guidelines for exercising their right to comment, which has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the courts."
In front of a packed council on Monday night, as the clock ticked towards midnight, Craig reiterated that her investigation into Aylwin's post was not about defamation, but rather the city's code of conduct.
"(Aylwin) went much further than stating his opinion," she said."I'm in no way saying a member doesn't have the right to free speech, I'm just saying it's not unlimited."
She also suggested city hall review and strengthen its policy governing the appropriate use of social media.
Aylwin, however, remained steadfast in the integrity of his post.
“I made the post in March to invite the public and elected officials into a public dialogue around these difficult issues,” he said at the Monday council meeting. “But let me be clear, I did not say and I do not believe our local MPs are white supremacists, racist or white supremacist sympathizers or supporters. I do not believe the leader of the Opposition is any of those things.”
The integrity commissioner’s report “completely misinterprets the post and gives it exaggerated meanings that it could not possibly bear as a matter of law,” he added, noting that it was "extremely unfortunate" that council was spending time debating the matter, but that Brassard's complaint had started this discussion.
“I ran for office because I was fed up with how our political system actively discourages participation, favours the rich and powerful, and shuts down debate. I ran for office because we need more politicians who will speak truth to power, and have uncomfortable conversations about the issues we face as a society," Aylwin told council.
"While the MPs and the Leader of the Opposition have denounced hatred in very broad and general terms, I believe that their specific positions on specific anti-immigrant groups and people, such as Yellow Vest Canada and Faith Goldy, must be publicly stated. They have not done so. They are walking a fine line. Some would call this dog-whistling.
I will repeat, this does not make our local MPs white supremacist supporters or sympathizers. But they must speak out clearly and specifically against these groups, the people of Barrie deserve to know their positions.
I believe that if Council accepts the recommendations of the Integrity Commissioner, based on the flaws in the report, then Council is silencing legitimate political speech.
'We need more Keenan Aylwins'
When Holly McDaniel first moved to Barrie from Toronto some four years ago, she was welcomed by a flyer from Brassard that said Canada was wasting $10 million on Omar Khadr who was "a terrorist."
A handful of other residents have told National Observer they have received flyers from Brassard about "illegal asylum seekers."
Both McDaniel and these residents voice concerns about receiving (what they have identified as) misinformation from Conservative politicians. McDaniel said that she was blocked on Twitter by Brassard after contesting his use of "illegal" for asylum seekers, as well as their inaction on climate change.
"It feels like I'm not allowed to question my elected representative," she said in an interview. "These are educated men with policy advisors, and yet they are peddling misinformation and not engaging. And they are dogwhistling to certain elements (like white supremacists)."
Scheer has faced criticism about his failure to denounce white supremacy for months. In addition to being criticized for speaking at the United We Roll rally, Scheer has also come under fire for initially failing to mention that the Christchurch attacks had targeted Muslims in mosques when he first reacted to the terrorist attack on March 15. Following a public backlash, Scheer later issued a second statement that day about the shootings in which he condemned the "cowardly and hateful attack on the Muslim community."
On May 28, Scheer denounced racism explicitly. “I’d like to make something crystal clear,” he said in a speech about diversity and immigration. “There is absolutely no room in a peaceful and free country like Canada for intolerance, racism, and extremism of any kind. I find the notion that one’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation would make them in any way superior to anybody else absolutely repugnant.
“And if there’s anyone who disagrees with that, there’s the door. You are not welcome here.”
But, this isn't enough for McDaniel, who believes the Conservative Party is shying away from "difficult truths." When she saw Aylwin's post she was "giddy," excited to have a representative who was willing to take shots for a stand not many elected officials are taking in Canada.
"Brassard is also an elected official. If (Aylwin) is being held to a higher standard, why is (Brassard) not being held to a higher standard? Why is it not okay for one member of governance to question another one when they share the same backyard?" asked McDaniel. "I don’t understand how it is defamation if a person is asking for clarification and the other person refuses to clarify."
Robb, a longtime Barrie resident who asked to be identified by his first name as protection from any reprimand, said Barrie city council has always been "an old boy's club" with long-serving white, male councillors who identify as Conservatives. Aylwin is the city's first openly-gay councillor and also one of the youngest (he turned 26 this month). Robb believes he is the first "truly progressive voice" to serve in city council.
"Many (serving on city council) haven't faced adversity," Robb said. "I believe there's an overall lack of emphathy on council on these issues for that reason."
Robb said he was "embarrassed" by the seemingly organized and coordinated response to Aylwin's Facebook post, noting that Brassard and Nuttal filed the lawsuit on the same day through the same lawyer, and complained to the integrity commissioner days later. "I felt hurt because (council) seemed blissfully unaware of the harm they were causing," he said.
In a letter to BarrieToday, resident Michael Speers said the Monday council meeting and the entire situation surrounding this matter was "surreal."
"It’s a sad day for our city when the one man who is trying to make his community a better place is the one man who gets punished," Speers wrote.
"This recent council meeting should be a wake-up call. Barrie needs a lot of work, and we obviously need more progressive and diverse voices at the table," he added. Barrie's 11-member city council is all-white and includes just one female councillor.
"We need more Keenan Aylwins," Speers concluded in his letter. "And we need people to join forces and become a powerful movement that will remove the blight currently infesting politics in this city."
Editor's note: This story was updated on May 30, 2019 at 12:35 p.m. to include additional quotes from Barrie residents.