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Ontario needs a law to punish councillors for violence and harassment, advocates say

Advocates and opposition parties are calling on the Ontario government to pass legislation that would hold municipal councillors accountable for violence and harassment.

Province says it's working on the problem, but issue has been raised by municipalities for years

Three people, a man and two women, are pictured in the middle of talking.
Advocates, including David Arbuckle of the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (left), Emily McIntosh with Women of Ontario Say No (middle), and Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles (right), are pushing for legislation aimed at holding municipally elected officials accountable if found to be harassing staff. (Legislative Assembly of Ontario)

Advocates and opposition parties are calling on the Ontario government to pass legislation that would hold municipal councillors accountable for violence and harassment.

Emily McIntosh, founder of Women of Ontario Say No, said she started the non-partisan advocacy group in 2022 to lobby the government to address the problem. Now, her group is demanding action after watching the government block private member bills on the issue while ministers agree there's a need for change. 

Such legislation would protect municipal staff, she said.

"We should not have to work this hard to ensure that our basic human rights are protected," she said at a news conference at Queen's Park on Wednesday. 

"We are asking municipally elected representatives to be held to the very same standard as every other working Ontarian."

Municipalities, advocates and opposition politicians have been calling for action on the issue for years. Currently, councillors can only lose their seats when they break election spending rules and certain conflict of interest policies. The most severe penalty is suspension of pay — something McIntosh says deters victims, particularly women, from coming forward. Many leave their jobs instead, she said.

Minister says government will 'bring something forward'

Last month at a Rural Ontario Municipality Association (ROMA) conference, Housing and Municipal Affairs Minister Paul Calandra said he's working closely with ROMA and the attorney general "to do something" about the problem.

When asked if it's possible to deliver results by the summer, Calandra said, "I don't see why not."

"I want to make sure that what we do bring forward is constitutional. It is a very important piece of legislation," he told reporters Wednesday.

"It has to actually achieve the results that I think that everybody is asking for. Absolutely, we are going to bring something forward."

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Government House Leader Paul Calandra speaks to reporters in Toronto, on Sept. 7, 2023.
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra said the Ontario government is working on bringing "something forward" that will help boot out local councillors who are found to have harassed staff. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

The government launched consultations in 2021 in response to pressure, including from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario for more severe penalties regarding the most serious violations of codes of conduct for municipal elected officials.

The move came after CBC News and two integrity commissioner reports revealed former Ottawa city councillor Rick Chiarelli harassed former staff members and job applicants for years, as well as abused his power of office. Council urged Chiarelli to resign, but he refused. Victims later launched petitions to remove him.

In an emailed statement, Calandra's office confirmed consultations with municipalities and work with the office of the attorney general "to devise the best path forward are still ongoing."

David Arbuckle, executive director of the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, said most staff and councillor relationships are positive and respectful, but members are reporting the overall relationship between elected officials and city staff is becoming "increasingly confrontational."

"We try to stay out of some of the more political pieces," Arbuckle said.

"But for us, this isn't about politics. This is about calling for change that will improve the ways in which local governments work."

Opposing parties would support bill from PCs

Women of Ontario Say No says it is looking for legislation that will change municipal code of conduct rules to include adherence to anti-violence and harassment policies for municipally elected officials, establish a process for removing them for substantiated and "egregious" acts of harassment, and restrict the ability of people who were removed to run for office again. 

The group says over 200 municipalities in the last two years have formally endorsed their call.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said it's "outrageous" women are still getting harassed at work with "little to no consequence for perpetrators."

"The solution is very simple. Pass legislation that will hold municipal elected officers accountable for perpetrating violence and harassment," said Stiles, adding her party would support such a bill.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said his party would support such a bill as well, adding the whole province loses when "those in power can carry out acts of harassment without consequence."

"We're calling on the government to do the right thing this year," he said.

Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie agreed, adding that councillors who have been found to have harassed staff can be asked to sit at home and not attend meetings, but can still directly work with the very person they have harassed. 

"That has to change," she said.

In recent years, Liberal MPP Stephen Blais has introduced several private members' bills that tried to give municipal integrity commissioners enhanced powers — all of them stalled in Queen's Park's legislative process or rejected by the government.

A man with a blue shirt.
Liberal MPP Stephen Blais introduced several private members bills in the provincial legislature that would allow council members found guilty of harassing staff to be ousted from their seat, but they did not pass. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Blais said he was inspired to come forward with the bill after the conduct of his former colleague on Ottawa's city council came to light.

"He's not alone," said Blais, saying similar instances have arisen in cities like Barrie, Mississauga and Brampton.

"All elected officials need to be held to a higher standard. In Ontario right now, they're being held to a lower one."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Balintec is a reporter for CBC Toronto. She likes writing stories about labour, equity, accessibility and community. She previously worked for CBC News in New Brunswick and Kitchener-Waterloo. She has a keen interest in covering the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. You can reach her at vanessa.balintec@cbc.ca.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp

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