Councillor criticizes 'white, wealthy, privileged' residents for trying to exclude others
The Lake Report
About 30 per cent of Niagara-on-the-Lake residents say they face hostility based on how long they have lived here, according to a survey conducted by the town's inclusion and diversity committee.
While 97.6 per cent of the 173 survey respondents agreed NOTL would benefit from more inclusion and diversity, 24 per cent said they have felt unwelcome as customers or employees, or have heard about or witnessed discrimination in area businesses.
Among other concerns, the survey also highlighted complaints about homophobia directed at Shaw Festival staff and a lack of women on town-appointed committees.
The inclusion committee reported the results of its January online survey on diversity and inclusivity in NOTL at Monday’s council meeting and laid out the next steps for dealing with the issues.
The immediate next step on these issues is the creation of focus groups to meet in May and more clearly gather feedback, experience and suggestions from the community, committee member Kiera Sangster told council in a detailed presentation.
The focus groups will revolve around four areas in which the survey showed NOTL needs to improve.
These include: the treatment of migratory and seasonal farm workers; racialized residents, workers and visitors; the treatment of Shaw artists and employees; and a lack of accessibility for the visually and mobility impaired.
Coun. Erwin Wiens, in speaking about a plan to allow propane barbecues in some town parks, made some impassioned comments about exclusion in NOTL.
He lambasted unnamed groups that complain about others “monopolizing our parks” and called out “very white, very wealthy and very privileged” residents for trying to exclude people.
“We should be making people inclusive,” said Wiens, who as a farmer employees migrant workers.
“My wife feels it, as a visible minority, and my kids feel it as visible minorities, and the people that work for me are all visible minorities. And they feel it,” he said.
Among the bevvy of revealing data collected by the town from the survey, councillors homed in on question 26, which asked if respondents had experienced hostility in the town based on how long they have lived here.
“That’s a pretty stark slide, quite frankly, to see that 30 per cent have felt that,” Coun. Norm Arsenault said, with Coun. Wendy Cheropita adding it is “one that really disturbs me terribly.”
The survey also featured extensive written feedback from respondents. One person, who said she and her husband work in human resources, noted: “I definitely think the town has an inclusion problem. Just look at the Facebook group comments today, again people complaining (about) too many Toronto people … (if) you pay tax here, you are a NOTL resident.”
Sangster also highlighted a comment about racial discrimination in town: “I am appalled at the stories I have heard about people of colour having racial slurs hurled at them or things thrown at them based solely on the colour of their skin. The prejudice specifically toward migrant farm workers is unacceptable and needs to be called out. We need to expose this unacceptable behaviour and ensure the community knows it will not be tolerated.”
In the wake of the report, councillors also passed a motion to fill eight vacancies on town committees. Eight women were appointed to those positions.
“I just wanted to comment on the increase in gender diversity in the appointments here, and I’d like to thank those who applied and also the committee for making that happen,” Coun. Sandra O’Connor said.
It wasn’t all negative news in the survey and Cheropita noted in an interview Tuesday that 72 per cent of people felt they do belong in NOTL.
“That made me happy. Because I think we are a community that strives from a town perspective and through our committees towards being inclusive,” she said.
Most of the worrisome results were in the 20 per cent to 30 per cent range, she said, “which is not good. We would prefer to have zero. But I think it shows us just where the opportunities lie to be able to correct the situations where it’s not a positive experience, such as with our migrant workers.”
Other positives from the survey were that 97.6 per cent said they believe that diversity and inclusivity benefit NOTL and 92.4 per cent thought it is important for the town to promote inclusivity and diversity.
“The solution will be up to all of us,” Cheropita told council. “You certainly have my heart in doing whatever is necessary to make these changes here, so that everyone feels included.”
Thanks to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the town will see quick movement on accessibility issues, Cheropita said. The deadline for businesses and non-profits to file a report to the provincial government is June 30, according to the act's website.
“With an aging population here, it becomes even more important,” she said.
Another immediate issue for Cheropita, as outlined in the town's strategic plan and highlighted by the inclusivity survey as a weakness, is attracting and retaining younger families and people to the town.
“We’re looking to attract young families and that’s to have a more diversified population,” she said.
“That comes with certain expectations for education, for accessibility to recreational activities, to creating entrepreneurial activities that are attractive to young people and affordable accommodations.”