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Uncivil discourse: Pressure on city council has never been as high

IC Council Group @ Cambridge Cottage-Feb 2020

‘It was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life,’ says outgoing councillor

No one expects to be called a murderer when they take their dog out for a walk.

As the chair of Ottawa’s board of health and the city’s political liaison for Ottawa Public Health’s strategy to cope with COVID-19, Keith Egli was in back-to-back meetings from morning to night, seven days a week.

He rarely ate with his wife, even though they were both working from their home in Nepean.

“It was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life,” said the outgoing councillor for Knoxdale-Merivale.

One evening, Egli took his pandemic puppy Archie for his usual after-dinner walk in a park.

“Somebody started screaming and yelling at me from the top of the toboggan hill that I was killing people and I was a murderer,” he told CBC. 

“You don’t sign up for that.” 

‘I worry for some of the people, quite frankly, that put their names forward,’ says Egli of this year’s candidates. (Johnathan Dupaul/CBC)

More than 120 people have signed up to put their names on the ballots for the Oct. 24 municipal election for a seat around the council table.

But almost half the current council is walking away from a job that many say has never been harder.

If people show up at my house, and threaten me or my family, it has impacts.- Mathieu Fleury, outgoing councillor for Rideau-Vanier

This council has dealt with a barrage of challenges, from fatal crashes to destructive storms and floods, a faltering LRT that led to two derailments and a provincial inquiry, to bras being hung on trees in protest of harassment allegations against a veteran councillor.

A big part of being in public life is to expect the unexpected. But at the start of this term of council, municipal politicians could never have anticipated a mysterious new virus that would require the city to enforce stay-at-home orders or mandates that employees get a vaccine to keep their jobs.

And they weren’t prepared for the public’s response, particularly the anger directed at local officials that ultimately manifested itself physically as a three-week truck occupation that distressed many downtown residents and kept businesses shuttered.

The fallout from those extraordinary events raised the external pressure on city council this term to a new high. 

But inside city hall, civil discourse was also under stress. The pandemic strained personal relations, but some believe there were already cracks in the culture of council.

CBC spoke with six council members — including Mayor Jim Watson — who aren’t running again to understand what it’s been like to hold office these last four years.

On this one thing, they all agree: It hasn’t been easy.

Threats become personal

Mathieu Fleury was only 24 when he was first elected in 2010, full of Obama-fuelled hope for change.

As the councillor for a downtown ward, he’s had his hands full: shootings and fires, the controversial Salvation Army shelter complex slated for the Vanier neighbourhood and the much-maligned addition of the historic Château Laurier hotel.

“I’m used to being in very tense meetings,” he said.

But during the convoy protests, which kept people in their homes and workers from their jobs — “Only residents of Ottawa can understand having the Rideau Centre closed 23 days in a row,” he said — a line was crossed.

“If people show up at my house, and threaten me or my family, it has impacts,” Fleury told CBC. 

“I understand the responsibilities of office. But my family didn’t call for that. My neighbours didn’t call for that. My team members didn’t call for that. So that when the threats go beyond a tweet … and folks show up at your home, you say ‘OK, what’s going on?'”

I worry for some of the people, quite frankly, that put their names forward.- Keith Egli, outgoing councillor for Knoxdale-Merivale

When asked if he and his family had to leave their home during that time, he nods, but doesn’t elaborate.

He doesn’t want pity or to scare people from participating in public life, he said.

Still, he’s worried.

“Political and public life has really become challenging,” he said. “We have to find a way to talk about democracy, about civility, respect.”

The abuse that poured in during the convoy was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Councillors received emails with subject lines like “A bullet in your head.”

Outgoing council members worry the rage directed at them may stop people from running for public office. And it’s one of the reasons they haven’t spoken in more detail about these threats before.

Mayor Jim Watson has been a target of homophobic slurs since coming out as gay in 2019. During the last several years, two people have been charged with uttering death threats against him. 

“It becomes pretty real and it comes home to you,” he said of those charges, although he hasn’t accepted a security detail. 

“Unless we see a return to civility and we see less emphasis on social media, you’re going to have a difficult time attracting good quality candidates at all three orders of government,” he told CBC.

‘4 years is a long time’

This group of departing councillors said beyond the threats, even the day-to-day interactions with the public wore them down.

Across the board they say they were yelled at by constituents who felt COVID restrictions were too much and those who believed they weren’t enough, from people who wanted to jump the queue for their vaccine shot to those who accused officials of killing them.

They are told they are stupid or corrupt — or worse — for voting a certain way, sometimes on social media, sometimes by email.

“I worry for some of the people, quite frankly, that put their names forward, if they really know what they’re stepping into right now,” said Egli. “Four years is a long time.”

These last four years may have seemed longer than most.

While councillors felt the effects of civil discourse disintegrating in the broader world, council itself seemed more fractious than ever. 

That dysfunction was on its fullest display during a special council meeting on Feb. 16, more than two weeks after hundreds of trucks took over large swaths of the downtown core protesting COVID-19 mandates, with police seemingly unable to bring the occupation to an end.

The chief of police had resigned abruptly the previous day. And now, Diane Deans was being ousted as chair of the police board after her colleagues discovered she had hired an interim police chief from outside the city.

During the term’s most vitriolic meeting, councillors cried, charged that the mayor’s move to have Deans out as chair was”political” and called for Watson to step down.

Others called hiring a new chief frantic, ridiculous and stupid. All this with 70,000 people tuned into city council’s YouTube channel. 

For Deans, it was one of the lowest moments in her 28 years in office. She said the move by the mayor and his supporters was a public takedown and it’s what led her to change her mind about running for mayor this October.

“It did impact me, I couldn’t say it didn’t,” said Deans, who chokes up a little at the memory of that meeting.

“I have not gotten over that. I just don’t think that that was reasonable what they did. You know I had [a] cancer diagnosis this term and I want my life to be meaningful at this point … There’s part of me that’s just like, ‘I don’t need that.'”

She said her removal from the board was political and wrong and that if she was in the mayor’s inner circle, it wouldn’t have happened.

Not everyone sees it that way.

Those who voted to remove her said that Deans’ hiring of an interim chief — while in her purview as chair — was itself a political move and was further destabilizing the city’s plight.

Watson himself maintains that stepping in helped end the convoy protest.

“When you’re firing someone, which is in essence what we did with Diane Deans, it’s not a pleasant experience, but at the end of the day it was the right decision,” he told CBC.

Council members have conceded that meeting was not their finest moment. It exposed many of the fault lines on council.

How did it get that bad?

A loss of connection

Scott Moffatt has seen many a heated debate over his 12 years representing a sprawling rural ward. 

There are always going to be divisive issues and decisions on council, he said, but “it’s the moments between divisive votes that matter.”

And this term, because of COVID-19, there were no moments in between. 

Like thousands of Ottawa public servants, city councillors spent hours glued to their screens for marathon meetings, whether it was for a coronavirus update or listening to a hundred delegations on the official plan.

Moffatt is a father of five — he and his wife had a child each of the last three terms he’s served  — and although he’s in his early 40s, he’s one of the veteran councillors who’s not running again.

When council business moved from in-person committee rooms to Zoom, he set up a virtual office in a camper parked in his laneway. He’d be staring into his laptop for eight, nine, even 10 hours before being able to turn it off.

If you’re a first-term councillor this term and this is your experience and your knowledge … I feel for them because they don’t know what this job is really like.- Scott Moffatt, outgoing councillor for Rideau-Goulbourn

“My kids are asleep, I’m alone,” he said. “We’re in silence.”

If councillors had finished a heated debate on virtual council, whatever bad feelings arose were left to fester.

“On Zoom, our screens turn off and we’re separate,” he told CBC.

“If that happened at council, we’re sitting side-by-side. There’s a strong chance after the committee meeting or council meeting, we continue that conversation. And it doesn’t end up getting worse, it actually gets better because there’s a bit of different respect when you’re sitting beside someone, when you’re face-to-face with someone.”

When a virtual council meeting was over, councillors didn’t return to their offices on Councillors’ Row, where they might share a coffee, exchange views or even just have a casual chat.

“There’s no other conversation that happens,” said Moffatt.

Problems predated COVID, Deans says

The outgoing members of council say this term isn’t normal.

“If you’re a first-term councillor this term and this is your experience and your knowledge — I think of someone like Catherine Kitts that came into this job during the pandemic — I feel for them because they don’t know what this job is really like,” said Moffatt.

Deans used almost the exact same words in describing the past term, but she doesn’t chalk it up solely to the effects of the pandemic.

She said Watson set a tone of divisiveness before March 2020, picking favourites and sidelining those he didn’t agree with to an unusual degree.

Had she and her colleagues been on better terms, had the mayor not played petty politics, she argued, council might have better weathered the many storms that landed in the last four years.

The mayor, she said, “did things very differently at the start of this term.” The problem was the establishment of what critics have dubbed “The Watson Club,” she added.

Source : CBC NEWS