In unanimous agreement, council has ordered town staff to find a way to ban the display of symbols of hate and racial intolerance in both public and private space in Collingwood.
Tonight, Collingwood's town council voted in favour of a motion asking staff to find what options are available to the town to prohibit the public display of symbols of hate and racial intolerance in both public and private spaces.
At least two members of council would like to see the Confederate flag, specifically, confined to a museum and not allowed to fly from any flagpole in the boundaries of the municipality - whether those poles are in backyards, front yards, or the backs of pickup trucks.
“I think we can agree the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and white supremacy … a symbol that makes members of our community feel unsafe,” said Coun. Hamlin.
Councillor Tina Comi also referred to the Confederate flag specifically during tonight’s council discussion, drawing on her time working and living in the southwestern United States.
“I am very much aware of the context in which the Confederate flag is flown and I think our council, our county and our country should pay great attention to the institutions that have recently banned this particular symbol and get on the right side of history when it comes to what it will do to stand in solidarity with our Black community,” said Comi.
Whether the municipality has the legal authority to ban the display of the Confederate flag isn’t quite clear, but Coun. Hamlin said it shouldn’t stop them.
“The law must adapt to the changing times,” said Hamlin, a lawyer by trade.
She said staff should specifically allow for consideration of options that “may require us as leaders to push the boundaries [of existing law].”
Her comments came shortly after another lawyer, Nicole Vaillancourt, encouraged council to remember Canada’s charter is often referred to as a living tree.
“The charter is not to be interpreted based on the world at the time it was written, but rather it should be read and interpreted in a way that ensures it adapts and reflects changes in society we have today,” she told council.
She said laws have changed when people have been brave and have stood up to say things need to change. She referred to the Famous Five women in 1929 whose efforts helped change the definition of “persons” to include female as well as male.
And again when Canadian law was changed to legalize same-sex marriage.
Vaillancourt was one of seven Collingwood residents who spoke to council as public deputations this evening, all of them urged – even demanded – council find a way to ban hate symbols like the Confederate flag in Collingwood.
Prabha Mattappally, whose parents immigrated to Canada from India, said she and her husband came across a sign where the letters had been arranged to spell hate speech. She reported the incident but was “disheartened” to learn it was investigated as “mischief” and never as a hate crime.
“This was nothing short of an act of racism and homophobia and should be investigated as such,” she said.
She called for a ban on symbols such as the Confederate flag, which she said should be in a museum or institution where they and the stories they are part of must be told so people remember and do not repeat the past.
“[A ban] won’t stop racists from being racist, but it is an important first step in acknowledging our intolerance for public displays of prejudice,” said Mattappally.
Alison FitzGerald, executive director of My Friend’s House women’s shelter said it’s dangerous to view incidents of racism as “isolated and unexpected.”
“We hide behind individual rights and freedoms by citing the sanctity of free speech and private property rights. Enough,” she said. “By allowing the Confederate flag to fly, we are sending a message that our community will tolerate the intolerable.”
Lisa Farano also spoke and read out a prepared letter from B. Jeff Monague, an Indigenous elder and knowledge keeper and the former chief of Beausoleil First Nation.
His letter explained the efforts of the German governments to ensure Nazi symbolism and propaganda was deemed illegal.
“I am perplexed that after all this time, I see those same symbols displayed openly in Canadian cities and towns like Collingwood,” stated Monague’s letter.
Farano said the world is at a tipping point.
“We have the opportunity right now to take this issue as far as we can take it,” she said. “It’s our chance, it’s our time, we’re here with you.”
Marcia Alderson, a biracial citizen of Collingwood, said the Confederate flag has no place in Collingwood.
“Having symbols of any form of hate or discrimination … flying in our town is beyond unacceptable,” she said. “I don’t know why we need to have this meeting. This is a slam dunk. Find a way to create a bylaw and if you can’t, move it to the next level of government, and the next. This has to end.”
Abigail Hitches also spoke to council. She first started an online petition in 2019 calling on the town to ban symbols of hate.
She has a biracial son, and they live close to a home that was displaying the Confederate flag.
She said her son experienced racism by the age of four. He asked about the Confederate flag and one day came home to tell his mom a rhyme he learned from other students at school.
“Watch out, Watch out for the man who is black. He is the one with the knife behind his back.”
She said she has had uncomfortable and heartbreaking conversations with her son about racism, slavery, and the history of both.
Hitchens asked council to work to create awareness and let people know it’s okay to learn, and she said a bylaw was necessary with consequences that can be enforced.
“Were [the bylaw] to be challenged, take it further,” she said. “Stand up for what is right. Say what is right. Create a shield for your weakest citizens and defend them. Show your citizens we really are inclusive.”
Andrew Siegwart, one of the founders of the Rainbow Club of South Georgian Bay, encouraged council to “send a clear message” that hate speech and symbols will be challenged in Collingwood.
“If there has not been a time to do this other than now, I don’t know when there will be,” he said. “I encourage you to do the right thing … and let everyone know our community is one that is inclusive, respects all, and will stand up to bullies and stand up to hate speech,”
The motion passed by council tonight also asks staff to investigate and report back on “how the town can advance and focus on community inclusivity and diversity.”
Tonight’s vote is not a ban on hate symbols or the Confederate flag, but will instead give staff marching orders to find out what options council have to implement such a ban and enforce it.