Calls of ‘racism’, ‘shame’ and ‘disgust’ directed at Niagara councillors over Gaza motion—immediate action needed to salvage trust
After what appeared like an orchestrated shut down of dialogue at their council meeting last Thursday, Niagara Regional Council is under a glaring spotlight.
At issue was a motion brought forward by St. Catharines Regional Councillor Haley Bateman. Her proposed resolution was a recognition of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza and acknowledged an imminent threat for Israelis and Palestinians.
The motion called for Niagara Regional Council to:
Support the request for an immediate ceasefire;
Request the federal government to remove the cap on the number of Palestinians who can seek refuge with their Canadian extended families; and
Light the regional headquarters in the colours of the Palestinian flag in order to show solidarity and acknowledge the humanitarian crisis (the building was lit in the colours of the Israeli flag on October 12).
Within seconds of the opening of the meeting St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe, supported by St. Catharines Regional Councillor Laura Ip, put a motion on the floor to remove Bateman’s motion and “all other associated items” from the agenda.
Residents gathered in large numbers at the most recent Niagara Region Council meeting. They left frustrated after 26 councillors and the Chair shut down their chance to speak on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
They rationalized their request, stating, “this matter does not pertain to any area of Niagara Region business or mandate, and regardless of the outcome will result in division within our community.” Ip then used procedural gamesmanship to ensure no discussion would take place. None. No delegations by the public, who had packed the chamber. Not a word more about the issue.
Chair Jim Bradley, who only votes on matters to break a tie, was compliant if not complicit as events unfolded, using his position as the head of council to silence Bateman, denying her right during a legislative session to seek redress on behalf of her constituents.
She did not have a chance. Bradley inexplicably shut her down when she called a point of order, which should have allowed her to speak to the maneuvering of Siscoe and Ip. The Chair continued to ignore her right to have the floor before the final decision to silence Bateman was made.
The vote was 26-2, and just like that her motion “and all other associated items” were removed from the agenda. It was well orchestrated.
The public gallery was filled that night. Eighteen people had registered to speak to the issue. None of them would be heard—26 of the 28 councillors were not interested in what they had to say.
Bradley did not vote on the issue, but has since voiced his support for what happened stating, “this agenda item was not appropriate for our consideration”. On four occasions Bradley not only blatantly ignored pleas from Bateman to speak on a “point of order”, as she has a right to do, he quite obviously glared at Bateman as he ignored her, before banging his gavel to end the meeting.
The king had spoken.
Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley has not explained why he ignored Councillor Haley Bateman’s use of a point of order when she attempted to find out why her recent motion was being removed from the agenda.
The power dynamics on display were obvious and inappropriate in a democratic legislative chamber. It resembled the way “democracy” works in Vladimir Putin’s Russia (more on that in a moment).
The hypocrisy is obvious.
Relationships with the communities served by the regional council members were instantly frayed. An impromptu rally broke out after the heavy-handed maneuver by 26 councillors and Chair Bradley. Residents have taken to social media to call out the obvious hypocrisy, questioning if discrimination was a factor.
Siscoe and Bradley have both chaired meetings at their respective councils and have allowed for discussion on international issues on more than one occasion. In February 2023 Siscoe chaired an hour long discussion at St. Catharines council on the political situation in Ukraine, which had been a central concern of his predecessor, former mayor Walter Sendzik, who traces his own roots to Ukraine.
Siscoe allowed the protracted discussion and added his own thoughts on the “obligations of the rest of the democratic world” to decry Russia and support Ukraine.
Bradley chaired a meeting in May of 2022 at the Region, which both Ip and Siscoe were part of as councillors, again about the situation in Ukraine and Russia. A sweeping motion was passed in support of Ukraine and calling for Niagara councillors to voluntarily be banned from entering Russia, in a show of defiance.
That resolution, approved unanimously on May 19, 2022, with the support of Siscoe and Ip, stated: “Whereas Russia’s unprovoked and brazen invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine has been unequivocally condemned by the majority of the free world, including by those living and working in Niagara…Whereas the residents and businesses of Niagara stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and the proud Ukrainian-Canadian community who call our region home…Whereas Niagara Region continues to be a willing host to those Ukrainian citizens fleeing their homeland during this challenging time, providing support through the Region’s Community Services Department as well as number of other local agencies” and “Whereas silence may be interpreted as complicity… Be it resolved That Niagara Regional Council unequivocally DENOUNCES Russia’s unjustifiable invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine…”.
“Whereas silence may be interpreted as complicity”.
But when Palestinian-Canadians, just like Ukrainian-Canadians less than two years earlier, sought to draw attention to the plight of their family and friends in Gaza, silence is exactly what was forced on them.
The very people elected to represent them, to treat them fairly and equally, did the opposite. There was no representation of their voice that Thursday evening. There was no fairness. And there was no equal treatment.
After the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack, Bradley directed the lighting up of Regional headquarters in the colours of the Israeli flag.
Previously, Niagara Falls and Niagara Region’s headquarters in Thorold were lit blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The large sign outside the building says, “Everyone Welcome”.
Niagara Falls lit up in the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
So what changed?
What was there in last Thursday’s motion that caused councillors and the Chair to circle the wagons against Bateman’s resolution?
It was balanced and based on humanitarian concerns for both sides in a tragic event taking place in the Middle East. It was not antagonistic and in any case was subject to change through the debate process. Compare that to the highly charged and provocative motion that Bradley, Siscoe and Ip supported in May of 2022 in which they politically dared Russia to sanction any of them, they went so far as to create a list of councillors who “volunteered” to be sanctioned by Russia. That list was then sent to the Russian Consulate.
Something very different happened last week at council.
Two very similar fundamental concerns—the horrific bombardment of Ukraine and killing of innocent citizens there; and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, whose innocent residents are being killed in a devastating war between two external entities—saw completely different responses by the same group of Niagara politicians.
Bateman told The Pointer that feedback from residents on her motion has been “overwhelmingly positive”.
Despite having a well established record of allowing for international issues to be debated at council there was something about Bateman’s motion that was a bridge too far for Bradley, Siscoe and Ip.
Bradley provided a response to The Pointer. It raised more questions about the moving goalposts he seems to be using.
“[T]his is the first time that a contentious and divisive international geopolitical issue has come before this term of council. It was the democratic will of the overwhelming majority of members that the item was not appropriate for our agenda…Council simply viewed the matter as outside our jurisdiction. I believe that Council has decisively spoken on this issue and I now consider the matter closed. I see this decision as setting a precedent for the rest of this term, and I fully agree and support Council’s position.”
A significant difference between Bateman’s resolution and others council members have enthusiastically participated in, is the inclusion of humanitarian recognition for the suffering of all people affected, including Palestinians.
The subsequent attempts of members to use this distinction have been weak and hard to accept given the track record of Siscoe, Ip, Bradley and others on council. The main thrust of the explanation from all three of them is that international affairs have no business being discussed at a local council. The claim would be somewhat defendable if there was a policy in place that prevented Niagara’s regional members to tackle such issues, and if Siscoe, Ip and Bradley applied such a policy fairly and consistently to any international event. Those policies do not exist and none of them has established a firm position against addressing international conflicts in the local arena. Just the opposite is the case, they have allowed it and robustly engaged in it.
As for claims of further dividing communities in Niagara, this ignores the multi-faith, multi-ethnic support for Bateman’s motion, which was supported by organizations, individuals and groups representing the interests of both Palestinians and Israelis who simply want peace and to help find shelter for those seeking refuge in places like Canada.
Niagara Regional Councillor Haley Bateman, who represents St. Catharines, tried to bring forward a motion to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and help those who could be given refuge in Canada.
Many of them, including those who had gathered to delegate in support of Bateman’s motion, were shocked by what the Chair, Siscoe, Ip and the other 24 councillors did.
“[T]his is really infuriating. It's absolutely shameful that this Regional Council wouldn't even consider supporting people whose lives may depend on being able to access a visa to find refuge in Canada,” Rabbi David Mivasair, of Independent Jewish Voices (Canada), said after the vote.
There were no such concerns about potentially stoking divisions between Ukrainian-Canadians and Russian-Canadians, some of whom believe the invasion is justified to liberate ethnic Russians in the Ukraine (this is not supported by official Canadian policy which denounces the aggression of Russia as an illegal act of war).
Once again politics in Niagara is gaining attention far beyond the region for all the wrong reasons. That Siscoe and Ip took such a contradictory path to derail Bateman’s motion, compared to their stance on the Ukraine resolution, and that Bradley played along leaves them all with explaining to do.
They have to find a way to make this right.
Many in the public are calling out what they describe as discrimination, demanding an appropriate response to the shameful conduct of the three main actors that night. Calls are being heard for Councillor Ip to be removed from her position as Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee of the Region. If she can not recognize the damage she has done and does not realize she can no longer serve in that role it will only amplify tensions.
She and others on council fail to realize that you do not prevent community division by snuffing out democratic debate, the hard work of solving differences through dialogue is exactly how democracy is protected.
What causes division, as is being witnessed across parts of Niagara now, is when people like Siscoe, Bradley and Ip use autocratic instincts veiled as democracy.
Bradley makes the mistake of conflating the “democratic will of the overwhelming majority of members” with what many residents across the region think is fair and Canadian. He falls into his own trap. He does not represent the demographic transition that will continue across Niagara. Canadian values on such issues, which are clear, should trump whatever is motivating Bradley, Siscoe and Ip. No one wants further division between communities. What many Canadians want is for all elected officials to support humanitarian policies that underpin this nation’s collective commitment to values of equality.
Bradley might be a relic of a bygone time, when Canadians in positions of power found justification to explain away the unequal treatment of individuals and groups. He might be genuinely concerned about stoking divisions. But what solutions does he support? Or has he declared the matter closed, as he did, without doing any of the hard work to unite residents. Unlike his very public stance, through regional government, on Ukraine, he will only contribute to the division Bradley claims to want to avoid, if he fails to welcome residents of all backgrounds back into the council chamber so they can be heard.
His response reveals just how little the Chair knows about democracy. The “democratic will” of elected members that he trumpets is only shaped by hearing from the citizens they represent—the voters who put them in their seats. It is the people who possess the power of democracy. For Bradley to ignorantly claim elected members decide what that will is, without even allowing the public they are supposed to serve a chance to voice their “will” is the height of authoritarian behaviour.
He, Siscoe, Ip and the others who shut down the issue without any debate told all of Niagara that 26 members sitting in a semicircle, and the Chair who presides in the middle, know better than the citizens. They told voters that after their ballot is cast in an election their work is over. No more participation. No more rights. No democracy for you.
From now on, elected officials in Niagara will not speak on your behalf. They will speak instead of you.
Something went badly wrong last week at Council, now all of Council should be expected to make this right, but start with the ringleaders.
Bradley, Siscoe and Ip, the people should hear from you on this issue, and not in predictable dismissive political speak. Step forward and work to make the situation right. All residents of Niagara deserve better.
“While I appreciate that some members of the public are disappointed and frustrated by the decision of council,” Bradley told The Pointer, “the reality is that there was always a very low likelihood that the motion was going to be debated by council given it had no relation to the business of municipal government.”
That is a direct contradiction of his position on the successful Ukraine motion.
The anti-democratic instincts on display illustrate what is now becoming more common around the world. Those who allowed Bateman and the people of Niagara to be silenced, are the ones creating division. The public needs to be vigilant and committed to proper representation by the so-called leaders who claim to serve them.
They should not have to wait for the next election to be treated fairly in a country that is a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world.
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