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Keenan Aylwin was having lunch with his father the day he wrote a Facebook post calling out two of his city’s Conservative members of Parliament for “playing footsies” with white supremacists.
His father, Randy, was hesitant about it.
“Are you sure?” he asked his son, a first-time city councillor in Barrie, Ont.
Randy has lived in Barrie for 23 years, ever since Keenan was three years old. Both are quick to note the close-knit central Ontario community is “a very white city” that has yet to reckon with issues like racism.
Keenan Aylwin said that fact was “weighing” on him as he sat down to write the post on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and make a belated comment on the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which had happened six days earlier.
A month before, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had appeared at the United We Roll rally, in Ottawa, where far-right commentator Faith Goldy and members of the Yellow Vest Canada movement, which has been repeatedly targeted by anti-racist organizations for accommodating white-nationalist and anti-immigrant groups at its events, were also in attendance.
Aylwin decided to call out the Conservatives by way of two Barrie-area Conservative MPs, John Brassard and Alex Nuttall.
"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 didn’t expect to receive two $100,000 defamation lawsuits (which were both dropped Thursday) or an integrity commissioner complaint when he wrote it. He said he had hoped for a public response, “where we could all stand together against white nationalism and white supremacy” to make it clear to the Barrie community that those forces won’t ever be tolerated in their city.
“I was hopeful that we could actually have a difficult, uncomfortable conversation,” he said.
Instead, his colleagues in council reprimanded him for saying all this out loud.
On June 12, Barrie city council voted unanimously to punish the rookie councillor during an emotionally charged and fully packed special meeting and instructed him to take down the Facebook post — which he has now done.
The reprimand was the first the city council had delivered to one of its own, and in delivering it the city of Barrie and its more than 150,000 residents have become a microcosmic study in how difficult it can be for governments to effectively tackle the increasingly troubling issue of white supremacy.
“While his purpose may have been right, the way he said it was wrong,” Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman told council after the vote. "We should never have got to this point."
Mayor Lehman said he was “dismayed” by how the entire situation has unfolded. Barrie residents are concerned the episode amounts to silencing of criticism of the Conservative party and of outrage against white supremacy. And onlookers are disappointed by the narrow approach the local city council applied to an issue that has far-reaching consequences.
Aylwin, meanwhile, remains steadfast. In an interview with National Observer, he said, unequivocally, that he doesn’t believe, nor did his controversial Facebook post say, that the two Conservative MPs “are racist or that they are white supremacists or that they are sympathizers with white supremacists.”
“I think the problem here is that there are some politicians out there that are walking a very fine line (and some would call it dog whistling), where in one breath they will denounce racism, as they should, and then in another breath will support groups like the Yellow Vest movement or United We Roll that we know are rife with white nationalist elements and hateful elements,” Aylwin said. “And they fail to make the connection between the harmful views and those in those movements and the creation of an environment where violence can fester.”
“If there’s anything we can learn from my experience, it’s that there is a great risk to calling out white supremacy in this country.”
Council ‘saw an issue that has much broader implications as one with a narrow impact’
Aylwin’s Facebook post and the subsequent integrity commissioner investigation that ensued put Barrie’s city council in “a very nasty, difficult and seemingly impossible position,” said Mohammed Hashim, a board member of the Urban Alliance of Race Relations, who deputed at the June 12 council meeting.
“The city council saw an issue that has much broader implications as one with a narrow impact,” Hashim said in an interview. “Though they were cognizant and were told it didn’t convey what Barrie stands for, they saw the issue as whether you agree or disagree with the integrity commissioner’s report and with the code of conduct, or not.”
If they accepted Barrie’s integrity commissioner’s report — which found that Aylwin broke the city’s code of conduct by denigrating a fellow elected official in a public forum and failed to treat him with "dignity, understanding and respect” — city council would look like they were “cracking down on somebody who's speaking out against racism.”
If they didn’t accept the integrity commissioner’s report, city council would be rejecting the role and purpose of the integrity commissioner, an independent officer who rules on and upholds the city’s code of conduct.
“I don’t think anyone wanted there to be a code of conduct reprimand or a defamation suit, because they understand they’re silencing an important voice,” Hashim said. “But I also think politicians make political statements. Sometimes they’re crude. Sometimes they’re full of flowers and rainbows.”
“The tone (Aylwin) used was harsh, but he had a right to use it as a politician,” Hashim added.
Mayor Jeff Lehman echoed a similar frustration. As someone who has been directly targeted by white supremacists, such as Kevin J. Johnston, he is “dismayed” that the city’s residents are perceiving the issue as an act of silencing.
The issue at hand for the past several months has been not whether the city of Barrie denounces white supremacy but whether what was said by Aylwin was appropriate for one elected official to say to another.
“I'm just trying so hard to try to explain to people that there's nuance and detail here that's very important,” Lehman said. “That what you say and why you say it can be hugely important.”
‘I felt like I was witnessing a dereliction of duty by Barrie city council’
Residents have not perceived it that way. Videos of the council meetings have shown a packed room, with many standing for lack of seats. When the camera has turned to the crowd, people can be seen holding their hands over their mouths, often audibly gasping or shaking their heads in exasperation.
Many watched from home, and those who attended were texting those who couldn’t attend or took to Twitter where they employed the hashtag #IstandwithKeenan.
On the night Aylwin was reprimanded, 10 people spoke out on the motion. Another six “emergency” speakers were denied an opportunity to plead a case to council after a failed vote among city councillors. Those who did speak argued the matter had become too partisan.
"What I have witnessed over the past couple of weeks is incredible partisan politics, shaming and humiliation of a young person with a passion for change," one woman said. "I've been, frankly, embarrassed by my council.”
One councillor berated the public gallery and called attendees "hysterical," "embarrassing" and "biased.”
That night was the first time Lehman ever banged his gavel in the nine years he has served as the city’s 46th mayor.
“I felt like I was witnessing a dereliction of duty by Barrie city council,” said Sheetal Rawal, a Barrie-area lawyer and one of the speakers that night who urged council to be fair in their decisions and consider Aylwin’s democratic and constitutional rights. ”They didn’t seem to hear us. … It felt that most people came there with their minds made up.”
Rawal said she couldn’t help but observe Aylwin sitting quietly in the audience, having recused himself from the portion of the council proceedings that pertained to him. Other attendees who spoke to National Observer remarked on the contrast between Aylwin and other councillors, describing his demeanour similarly: graceful, stoic, calm.
Part of the problem, Lehman said, is that the political process demands that an issue like this come to the legislature, be received by governments, debated and accepted or otherwise.
“I don't think that's a great process,” Lehman said. “But, unfortunately, that's the position we were put in because of this dispute between the two individuals and it never should have gotten to this point to begin with.”
There was evident anger and embarrassment in the room afterwards, Hashim said. Many in the room came up to him afterwards and thanked him for his deputation and then apologized.
“It was disappointing to see council take a narrow approach to things,” he said. “I just thought politicians would have wider perspective on what this means, not just for a single vote but for different communities and Canada.”
“They all made commitments to diversity and inclusion…but I also think our words and our deeds matter,” he added. “And they just didn’t see the bigger picture of what they did that night.”
Randy Aylwin said that entire night was “awful.” He wished one or two of the councillors had stood with Keenan, but their unity was not to be broken.
“To have your son ridiculed by these men and women…I don’t understand any of it,” he said. “Why they had to be so blinded, or blindly accept the integrity commissioner’s report…there was not one mention of charter rights. They completely dismissed (Keenan’s) right to free speech.”
“All they could say was ‘He broke the code. He broke the code’,” Randy Aylwin added. “But they couldn’t see that it's not about the post. It’s about waking up the community.”
‘I don't think it can be forgotten that this attempted silencing happened’
Lehman wishes the whole situation had played out differently — that Aylwin had been able to speak to the two federal MPs in person and resolve their differences over an incredibly difficult issue, rather than having a political body rule on an independent integrity commissioner’s report and elected officials vowing to see each other in court.
But social media has changed the way politics operates, he observed.
“We live in this age where racism seemingly has become enabled and empowered online,” he said. If left unacknowledged, it can “can create an impression about a community that just isn't correct.”
“It is very difficult in this day and age to do politics in complete sentences when it comes to the nuances of issues like white supremacy," he added.
The mayor says he now has a responsibility to put in “extra effort” in making sure Barrie’s residents understand that this had nothing to do with limiting speech against white supremacy. “It is the issue of how one person spoke about another,” he said.
On Thursday the two defamation lawsuits launched against Aylwin by MPs Brassard and Nuttal were officially dismissed. In statement released June 13 — the day after Aywin’s reprimand — Brassard said he’d instructed his lawyer to drop the civil lawsuit against Aylwin, stating he was “satisfied with the findings made by Council and the Integrity Commissioner.”
“It's quite a relief,” Aylwin said. “But it also confirms that the intention was to silence political criticism, and they realized they didn't have a case.”
Aylwin said he was open to “a reasonable discussion on a resolution,” but did not receive a response from either MP. He even offered to do a mediated discussion, but they didn’t respond.
“This needs to be a public dialogue,” he said. “I think there’s a time and a place for calling things out publicly and having a public dialogue. And I think this is one of those instances…where we have an important public discussion on racism but also a private conversation about working through those issues as well.”
Aylwin believes that the problem with white supremacy in Canada is that “there’s a tendency from political leaders to want to put an image out there of their jurisdiction, their city, their province or their country that everything is fine. And that those issues don’t exist here.”
“I think it takes some political courage to stand up and say, ‘No, this is something we need to talk about and address,’” he said, noting, again, that speaking out against something like white supremacy is “a great risk.”
“But it is absolutely a risk worth taking,” he added.
“This is why I ran for city council,” Aylwin said, to hold power to account. He has removed the Facebook post, even though he believes he had a right to write what he did, because he respects the commissioner’s report.
Council has work to do to regain some of its constituents’ respect, said Rawal, the lawyer who addressed council the night Aylwin was reprimanded. The integrity commissioner has advised councillors to review the city’s code of conduct to create a social media policy, sparking concerns about what additional limiting powers it may include.
“Is their code of conduct regulating ethical behaviour? If so, it has to do it in a way that balances their free expression and the public’s right to hear that free expression,” Rawal said.
“We live in a democracy. We can’t let them silence critics,” she said.
Understatement! This doesn’t feel over, or like the Barrie I call home. #IStandWithKeenan— Penelope Morrow (@penelopejmorrow) June 13, 2019
Aylwin agrees that his experience will not be forgotten easily by the local community.
The silver lining to his experience, he said, is that Barrie, as a community, has never been more engaged in municipal politics. At the last election, there was a 29-per-cent turnout, he notes, but now, perhaps as a result of his Facebook post, people are learning that they need to be engaged and involved and hold our elected officials accountable.
“They're realizing they need to hold power to account; otherwise they, too, could be involved in political bullying through litigation,” he said. “I'm happy that it's ended, but I don't think it can be forgotten that this attempted silencing happened.”
“It’s started an important conversation in Barrie.”