Jordan: Keenan Aylwin is a city councillor in the town of Barrie, Ontario, and 99% of this country has no reason to know his name. But last month he made history, maybe not in the way he would have chosen, but the end result worked.
News Clip: Shame! Why are we surprised?
Jordan: He managed to raise a question that politicians across Canada are grappling with at the moment, and he did it in a very public way. When you see your colleagues failing to denounce, or even tacitly signalling that they welcome the support of groups associated with white nationalism, what do you do as a politician? You have to speak up but how? And what happens when you do? And as these hate groups proliferate, and the protests get angrier, and like it or not, these people bring their hateful views to the ballot box. What responsibilities do the people they are voting for have to disavow them? How should Canada’s politicians refuse the votes of white supremacists?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is a big story out of a small Ontario city. It is probably coming to a political body near you before October. Fatima Syed is an investigative reporter with the National Observer, one of our favourite guests. Hey, Fatima.
Fatima: Hi, Jordan.
Jordan: I’m gonna start from the very beginning with the main character. Who is Keenan Aylwin? And what did he do to start this story you’re gonna tell us today?
Fatima: So Keenan is a first time councillor in the city of Barrie, in the province of Ontario. Barrie is a small town in central Ontario and it has a population of, I want to say, over 100,000 people. Small knit community, Keenan is one of the youngest councillors serving, he’s 26 years old. He made a Facebook post on March 21 which was a couple of days after the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, on those two mosques. It was also the International Day for the elimination of racial discrimination, which I didn’t know was a thing, but it is. He made a Facebook post that called out two conservative members of Parliament from Barrie for their silence on the Conservative Party’s apparent links to white supremacists. The post is actually very long, but I will read the relevant part. So Keenan starts by acknowledging that it’s the International Day for the elimination of racial discrimination, he talks about how he hasn’t yet commented publicly about the Christ church attacks, he says that he’s been reflecting and listening, he says he’s heartbroken, angry, but he’s not surprised. And then he says, I’m not surprised because there are people in positions of power that are using racist and white supremacists rhetoric for political gain across the world and right here in Canada. We have to make the connection between the rhetoric and the violence that is perpetrated against Muslims and other vulnerable communities here in Canada and abroad. We have two Conservative MPs in Barrie that have been silent on their leaders appearance on the same stage as a neo-Nazi sympathizer, Faith Goldy at a United we roll rally. 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. That’s a pretty powerful post.
Jordan: So what happened immediately after he did that?
Fatima: Two days later, Keenen received two lawsuits from the two conservative MPs that he called out in the Facebook post, worth $100,000 seeking damages for defamation and then the community exploded. Very suddenly, couldn’t talk about anything else, it was what was in the post, it was the lawsuits that he delivered, and then within the same day of the loss, it’s being delivered one of the MPs also asked the integrity commissioner at Barrie City Council to investigate the post and to determine whether it satisfied the City Council’s code of conduct. And this happened within 48 hours of the post going up on Facebook.
Jordan: So this story seems kind of nuts to me because politicians speak out on stuff like this all the time, it’s kind of what they do. So why did this post in particular get this kind of blowback, I guess, from the politicians that mentioned but just take over the discussion in the town?
Fatima: There’s a couple of reasons. Number one I think the word choices were very poignant. The fact that he called them out for playing footsies with white supremacist seemed egregious. It suggested that they have links to white supremacists which they deny. Number two Barrie is a very small knit community, everyone knows everyone. There are people who go to the same restaurants every day, they gather together often, they know their neighbors, and I think to have one of their own called out in the way that he did really just put the issue on the map, but also put the divisions on the map, like which side to people take? Do they agree with him, or did they disagree with him? Was it right for him to call it one of their own so publicly for everyone to see? Those two were the main factors that I think really helped the explosion that happened afterwards.
Jordan: It’s not as if, though these things don’t get said about politicians all the time. I mean, even the language of playing footsie, and the rhetoric around appearing with a white supremacist, referring to Faith Goldie, these are criticisms that many people non elected officials have made about conservative leadership. So why would these two MP’s go so far as to sue him? He’s not the only person saying this, I guess, is what I’m saying.
Fatima: I think the difference in this case was those put down in words, and that it was put in a public post. I think most often when you hear cases like this it’s verbal, it’s, you know, in a press conference or in a speech. But this was in a post on Facebook for everyone to see, and it was there, and every time, like, you know, if you Googled their names, it would come up, if you googled Barrie white supremacy, it could come up, like there were just many ways that this post could follow those two MPs, and I think that’s what made it agree, just that it was in writing. But I also think that while Barrie is a small knit community and in Ontario, it has wider implications, right? We are seeing a very heated discussion happen across the country when it comes to racism and white supremacy, and at the center of that is, unfortunately, the Conservative Party, and members of the Conservative Party, and the way that they have reacted to or spoken about, or presented themselves in relation to these movements that seem to be growing online and offline, whether it is the yellow vest movement or, you know, their sister and brother groups, and I think Barrie just became a microcosm for how that entire situation is playing out. How what happens when you call out a political leader for their silence, or their inaction on these issues, whether that’s right or wrong, it also, you know, you could broaden the topic to say what happens if you ignore the issue completely? And, you know, you have nothing to do with it, but people around you in your party, or in the immediate circle that you work with do, do you then have to say something? Do you just still have to deny it? And if you don’t deny it, can you be called out for it? And if you are called out for it, how do you respond to that?
Jordan: So March 21st he makes this post, within 48 hours the entire town’s talking about it. He’s been sued and the integrity commissioner is involved. Where did it go from there?
Fatima: So a lot has happened. The integrity commissioner released a report that found that Keenan was in the wrong.
Jordan: How so?
Fatima: So in a 23 page report the integrity commissioner whose name is Suzanne Craig, determined that Keenan’s post denigrated the two conservative MPs and failed to treat them with, and I’m quoting now, dignity, understanding, and respect. So the point he’s trying to make that there is a code of conduct that city councillors are held to a higher standard, and when you’re in that position, you shouldn’t call out your colleagues on any level of the government the way that he did. So you can have a conversation with them, you can talk to them about it, but you shouldn’t publicly denigrate them because that is, as she said, disrespectful. The other thing that she noted in her report was that Keenan has the right to post things on social media because we live in an age of politics where most politicians speak through social media, whether it’s to the public, or with their colleagues, or to the rest of the world. She even cited a Supreme Court decision that said that elected municipal officials are quite free to discuss matters of public interest on public platforms, but they have to do so in a reasonable manner. So the question then became, was it reasonable for Keenan to call out these two conservative MPs for quote playing footsies quote with white supremacy movements? Susanne Craig, the integrity commissioner, believes it wasn’t reasonable, and she urged City Council to deliver a reprimand, the first reprimand in the Barrie City Council’s history, and also come up with a stringent guideline for how municipal councillors should behave online. She said, and I’m quoting now that Keenan went much further than stating his opinion “I’m in no way saying a member doesn’t have the right to free speech, I’m just saying it’s not unlimited.” Now I spoke to the mayor of the city of Barrie afterwards, and he said that the issue isn’t whether Barrie supports or denies white supremacy, and the mayor was in very strong terms, said that no one should support white supremacy, obviously. But he said this discussion is about what you say and how you say it, and he said that what Keenan said wasn’t appropriate for an elected official to say to another elected official. Having said that, the weird part is that we’re talking about a movement much bigger than just Barrie City Council. We’re talking about white supremacy, which is a global movement, and if a city councillor can’t call out a colleague for alleged action, inaction relations, or no relations, or silence to these movements, who can?
Jordan: The question of condemning white supremacy has sadly become one that we have to talk about when we talk about who we’re voting for now. So why shouldn’t a councillor, or a candidate, or an elected official be able to sort of state his position on it? Which is that I don’t think these politicians are doing enough to condemn it.
Fatima: Having spoken to Keenan, having spoken to Barrie’s mayor, having spoken to residents in Barrie, what I can say is that people are now fearful that calling out white supremacy puts them at risk. In fact, Keenan Cole said that it was a great risk to call out white supremacy in this country just based on the experience that he had, because he felt he was silenced. Residents of Barrie felt that he was silenced either through the lawsuits or through the Integrity Commissioners report, or through the reprimand, which again was the first reprimand the City Council delivered to one of its own in its entire history.
Jordan: So tell me about that reprimand? Because that happened at a council meeting.
Fatima: It did. It happened at a very emotionally charged council meeting. Now I wasn’t there, but I’ve seen the videos, and I have heard; I’ve spoken to people who were there, and if you look at the videos of this meeting, which happened on June 12th, first of all it was packed, like I could see people standing at the back because there were not enough seats. The second thing that was of note is that Keenan wasn’t sitting at his councilor seat. He recused himself from the discussion because it would have been a conflict of interest for him to be part of it. So you could see Keenan sitting in the crowd with this audience that was very emotional like, You know, I’m talking mouths open, gasping, yelling, you know, hand over mouth, people texting people who couldn’t be there, whispering to each other.
News Clip: Shame! Shame! Shame!
Fatima: So Keenan’s sitting in the audience, and then you have a panel of councillors debating whether or not to deliver a reprimand to one of their own colleagues. There was one instance where one of the councillors even turned to the audience and said that they’re not behaving properly, and that wasn’t received very well. So this was a very emotionally charged council meeting, and at the end of it, Keenan Alywin was the first Barrie city councillor to be reprimanded. What that means is that in the city record, it says that Keenan Alywin did something wrong. He’s not hindered in any way from performing his councillor duties, but there is a record that says that Keenan Alywin was in the wrong for posting what he did on Facebook.
Jordan: Do he take it down?
Fatima: That’s the other part of the reprimand, that he was asked to take that Facebook post down, which he did, but he told me he did so thinking that he had the right to put up that post and he didn’t agree with the decision but he respected City Council’s decision, and he wanted to serve the people of Barrie, and that’s why he took it down.
Jordan: Did either of the two MPs who sued him, talk publicly about why and how they felt, and if they really were refusing to condemn white supremacy, which I’m sure they don’t think they are.
Fatima: I haven’t spoken to either of them extensively, I’ve spoken to one of the staffers for one of the MPs who said that the lawsuit was a personal decision, that it was being paid out of pocket. Both MPs have noted that they have denounced racism at several occasions, one of them has even shared his statement after the Christchurch mosque shooting attack as evidence I suppose that he is not at all linked to white supremacy or, you know that he denounces white supremacy. I haven’t heard the words I denounce white supremacy from either of them. I haven’t seen that anywhere they might have.
Jordan: It’s just such an interesting question to where the line is.
Fatima: It’s very interesting, like as residents of Ontario, or as residents of Canada do we want our leaders to go in the public record and say explicitly I denounce white supremacy for us to believe that they do denounce white supremacy?
Jordan: I think we want a world where we don’t have to do that.
Fatima: I think we want a world where we don’t have white supremacy at all, let’s take it one step further.
Jordan: But where is the line and did you and Keenan talk about that? About if there was a way he could have been more gentle and still gotten his point across, or if there was a way that the MPs he was calling out could have made it clear that they don’t support the yellow vest movement without going as far as he would want them to go? Like it’s just such a such a tricky language when it shouldn’t have to be.
Fatima: I think, yeah, I think there’s a lot of moving parts. You know, as a councilor he has a right to social media, he can say what he wants on social media, and he can use that public forum to speak to colleagues through it. Should he have done so privately? Now that’s the question that a lot of people are asking, right? Like the city of various mayors said to me that he would have preferred if Keenan and the two conservative MPs could have gotten together in the room and spoken about it, instead of the Facebook post happening. But then the question becomes, this was a counselor making a statement on the International Day of the Elimination of Racism, also commenting on an attack that gripped the world, that he hadn’t said anything on because he was sorting out his thoughts. Did he have a right to connect it to Canada in that way?
Jordan: Well also do we want our politicians talking to each other about these things behind the scenes, or do we want them in front of us on the record about what they’re saying to one another about their conduct?
Fatima: Yeah, and I think Keenan said to me that he had requested a public dialogue, after the fact of course, after the post he asked for public dialogue, he even suggested a mediated discussion with the integrity commissioner in the room or anyone else that the two Tory MPs would have seen fit, to have this out in the open. He said that he was of the belief that it had to be a public dialogue because of the state of affairs in Canada and around the world when it comes to racism and white supremacy. I’m going to read out a quote, he said, because it was very powerful to me, he said “I think there’s a time and 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 these issues as well.” So we want to have; If it’s gonna happen in private we also want to happen in public, because how can you effect change if it’s just happening between two elected officials in a room? I don’t think the City of Barrie would have been having this discussion that is happening now about how to handle racism or how to react to white supremacy and how to curb it if this Facebook post hadn’t been written.
Jordan: I’m gonna ask you another question from the other side of this argument, and that is should politicians be expected to denounce individually every person that might be connected to a nasty movement who might support them? Because this is not an easy thing to do because, as we’ve seen, they’re sadly more of these people. But more than that, does it risk it becoming a boilerplate statement that goes out every time and means nothing?
Fatima: I can only speak personally when responding to this question based on what I’ve seen, and what I’ve read, and what I’ve covered, and I think that if you’re an elected official who is going to face questions from your constituents about your links to a certain movement, or a certain group, or a certain person, then you should be in a position to clarify what your stance is, and what your relationship is to those things.
Jordan: Their point though would have been that they don’t have links.
Fatima: My argument to that is that you are members of the Conservative Party, and the Conservative Party right now is facing hit after hit when it comes to their stands on racism and white supremacy. You know, a couple of weeks ago we had a conservative MP who read out the manifesto, or part of the manifesto that the shooter from the Christ church mosque attacks put on the internet just before the attacks happened, which has been banned in New Zealand. That same conservative MP is now threatening to sue The Hill Times for defamation, for publishing an opinion column that strongly criticized the remarks that he made to Justice Committee, where he read out that part of the manifesto. Conservative leader Andrew Sheer still hasn’t really addressed the issue of him being at a rally in Ottawa where people like Faith Goldie who’s a notorious white supremacist, was also present. He published as we’ve spoken out before, a very vague comment after the Christchurch mosque attack. I think because every party has made headlines after headlines about these issues, and I think at a certain point it’s gonna reach all of its members, and affect them individually through their constituents, because people are paying attention, whether they like it or not, and people want answers. So even if these two conservative MPs from Barrie have nothing to do with white supremacy, and it’s very… and, you know, they say that they don’t I think they need to make their stance clear, that we have nothing to do with so and so, we have nothing to do with these headlines, we have nothing to do with these groups, and I think those are the kind of answers people want. It’s a case by case thing Jordan. I think it depends on the issue and the connection, and right now, though, the Conservative Party as a whole is producing headlines after headlines about Islamophobia, and racism, and white supremacy, and so forth.
Jordan: And how are they responding to those outside of this Barrie case? Because Keenan is not the only person to make that allegation.
Fatima: He’s not, no. He might be the first person to do so in writing, but he’s not. The fact that there continues to be headlines about this related to them, specifically or broadly, means that they’re not addressing it properly. And to be honest, there is, you know, let’s call it what it is, there is a problem in this country where when you call out white supremacy, you face a lawsuit or, you know, some kind of thing related to a lawsuit, you know. There’s a journalist in Alberta whose name is Bashir Mohamed, who called out conservative MP Kerry Diotte for posting pictures with Faith Goldie, and he received a lawsuit which has now been dropped. Keenan’s lawsuits have also been dropped, but he did receive them. There’s a group called Yellow Vest Canada Exposed, which really highlights the links to white supremacy people have, whether they’re elected officials, or just the general public, or what these groups are doing in Canada and how they’re spreading their message, and they tell me they’re facing tons of legal action and sort of dealing with that. So you see example after example where every time there’s an attempt to call out white supremacy in this country, they have to sort of roll back a little bit.
Jordan: Tell me about how this story ends in Barrie. He’s reprimanded at this incredibly emotional meeting. What happens to the city and the council especially after that? What did this do to the council and the people in that room?
Fatima: So there was a huge movement among the residents of Barrie, there was a hashtag called #IStandWithKeenan that was trending for days whenever a council meeting came up. So there’s huge support for Keenan, and a couple of things have happened because of that. One the public has become super engaged. Keenan said this, the city of Barrie’s mayor said this to me, that the public is now really involved in municipal politics, realizing perhaps that they have a role to play when it comes to holding power to account, realizing that they have voices, that it can’t just be a councillor’s job to do it. The other thing that’s happened is that it started a discussion. You know, I also spoke to Keenan’s dad, who’s lived in Barrie for some 23 years, and he said that community is very white, and while the demographics are changing, they’re grappling with this issue of racism and white supremacy, but they’re not talking about it enough. And he said that Keenan’s case was about waking up the community to that, and those were his words. So that engagement, that sort of wake up call is definitely something that Barrie’s experiencing. It’ll be interesting to see how that community deals with the aftermath of this case, because while the reprimand has been delivered, the Facebook post has been taken down. The issue still continues, right? It’s always going to be underlying until someone resolves that, you know, the mayor said to me that he has a tough job now where he has to prove that this wasn’t about Barrie being racist, because, frankly, the mayor of Barrie has also faced attacks from white supremacists online by a newspaper called Your Ward News by Kevin J. Johnston, whose a white supremacist from Mississauga. The mayor of Barrie has personally experienced, you know, the worst parts of the white supremacy movement, and his point is that it’s not about whether or not Barrie is racist, which he says it isn’t. It’s about how do we talk about it? And that’s an answer no one has yet. I don’t have it, he doesn’t have it, I don’t think Keenan has it, and the City of Barrie is trying to figure that out and, hopefully, Canada’s paying attention.
Jordan: Thanks Fatima.
Fatima: Thank you, Jordan.
Jordan: Fatima Syed, investigative reporter for The National Observer, and that was The Big Story. If you want more of them were at thebigstorypodcast.ca, and @thebigstoryfpn on Twitter. You can find more podcasts from our wonderful network at frequencypodcastnetwork.com. And of course, you can listen to any of those podcasts on your favourite player, whether that’s Apple, or Google, or Stitcher, or Spotify, or Podkicker, or Beyondpod, but only on Android. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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