‘It’s a human rights issue’: Belleville council supports push for workplace standards in Ontario municipalities

Belleville City Hall. – Photo by Hollie Pratt-Campbell/Hometownist

In a compelling deputation to the City of Belleville council, advocate Nancy Cairns pushed for support for legislative reform of the Ontario Municipal Act, which would create inclusive workplaces that ensure fundamental human rights and safe environments are prioritized for everyone—councillors, staff, and the diverse communities they serve.

Cairns, a former political assistant from Ottawa, brought attention to the pressing need for comprehensive changes within the Ontario Municipal Act in order to align with policies and standards for all other workplaces across the province. She cited a number of instances of abuse and harassment in other municipalities over a number of years as a result of lenient legislation within the Ontario Municipal Act.

Cairns began her deputation by expressing her deep admiration for the commitment and sacrifices made by council members and staff in serving their communities, and in particular those before her in the City of Belleville. She clarified that the issue at hand exceeds prejudice or politics, and instead stems from an urgent need for accountability to safeguard human rights within municipal settings.

“It’s not even a political issue. It is an accountability issue and a human rights issue,” Cairns said in her deputation. “I really believe that councils should create a safe environment, especially if we want to see more diversity on our councils.”

Cairns reiterated stark inadequacies in the existing penalties for misconduct by municipal councillors. Despite the presence of Codes of Conduct and integrity commissioners, the absence of a process for the immediate removal of councillors for severe misconduct can create unsafe work environments, Cairns said. She highlighted distressing instances of abuse, bullying, and harassment among council colleagues in various municipalities.

In detailed, chronological order, Cairns cited events and examples of reported harassment and misconduct from 2017 to 2023. In each case, she emphasized the inefficiencies of the current penalties, which often resulted in minor consequences for the offenders.

An extremely condensed timeline highlighting key events Cairns discussed dating back to 2017 is shown below:

  • 2017: Introduction of Bill 68; mandating Codes of Conduct and Integrity Commissioners for municipalities.
  • 2018: Municipal World Magazine reports 77 per cent harassment rate by elected officials.
  • 2019: Allegations of Rick Chiarelli hit the news, detailing traumatic experiences shared by female City of Ottawa staff, including Cairns.
  • 2021: Introduction of Bill 10; “Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act.”
  • 2022: Provincial and municipal elections; allegations and investigations into harassment and abuse in Brampton, Barrie, and Ottawa arise.
  • 2023: City of Toronto endorses the integrity commissioner’s report; Bill 5 is reintroduced but fails past the second reading.

Cairns stressed the need for action, drawing attention to failed legislative attempts such as Bill 5, which was actually supported by organizations such as the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO), the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA), and the City of Toronto. Despite these overwhelming endorsements, Bill 5 was still not passed.

“New stories involving bullying and harassment of municipal staff across Ontario … highlighted the bullying and harassment that staff endured by several council members,” Cairns explained after highlighting the above instances.

She emphasized the importance of aligning municipal standards with existing workplace conduct norms among other industries. Her hope is that all Ontario municipalities will join in advocating for legislative changes to empower the integrity commissioners to decisively handle misconduct cases without involving council decisions. This approach, she argued, would ensure a more impartial and effective resolution process, preventing HR issues from transforming into contentious political debates.

“Council members cannot be removed for fiduciary reasons. So, you know, misconduct, especially when we’re talking about egregious misconduct. There’s no protection; there’s nothing,” Cairns said. “I wouldn’t want to be in an environment where I didn’t feel safe,” she added.

Despite a setback faced by previous legislative attempts, Cairns stressed the importance of continued advocacy and urged council members to send letters of support to provincial representatives. She emphasized a need to align municipal standards with human rights, and workplace conduct norms, in other sectors.

“It’s pretty obvious we should be held to the same level of accountability as other workplaces across the province,” said Ward 1 Councillor Tyler Allsopp.

Council members responded with support echoing Cairns’ opinion that accountability measures should be in line with workplace standards and the need for the integrity commissioners to hold greater authority in addressing misconduct cases is essential.

“I’d like those protected commissioners’ rulings to come down so they can say, ‘this is what you need to do,’” Ward 1 Councillor Garnet Thompson said.

Cairns ended her deputation by recapping that existing penalties for misconduct by councillors are insufficient, creating unsafe work environments and inadequate accountability processes. Legislative changes are imperative to empowering the integrity commissioner with stronger decision-making abilities, Cairns explained. Doing so will allow the integrity commissioner to safeguard councillors and staff against abuse, harassment, and discrimination in municipal settings.

The City of Belleville council unanimously voted in favor of supporting Cairns’ call for legislative changes, supporting a unified stance for enhancing accountability and workplace standards across Ontario municipalities.

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