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'We have learned a valuable lesson': Port Moody council says Middle East conflict is out of its jurisdiction, reverses earlier statement

Port Moody Meghan Lahti was forced to briefly adjourn council's April 9 meeting twice because of disruptive outbursts from the gallery.
A pro-Palestinian demonstrator on the Murray Street overpass in Port Moody. Such gatherings have become a weekly occurence in the city and in front of Coquitlam City Hall.

Port Moody council won’t be making any kind of statement about the current conflict in the Middle East after all.

On Tuesday, April 9, Mayor Meghan Lahti withdrew her motion calling for the creation of local spaces where residents of the city could gather to talk about how the war in Gaza is affecting them and promote healing.

Subsequent attempts by other councillors to craft a motion reaffirming council’s original declaration of support for Canada’s official position that calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and even an apology from council for its change of heart two days later, were also rebuffed by a majority of councillors.

The moves — or lack of them — didn’t sit well with several members of the gallery who disrupted the proceedings with shouts and catcalls, prompting Lahti to briefly adjourn the meeting on two occasions.

The atmosphere at the Inlet Theatre was highly charged.

Several representatives from the Jewish and Palestinian communities spoke out about council’s decision from March 26 to support the federal government’s call for peace and its subsequent reconsideration and defeat of that motion in an emergency meeting two days later after some councillors and members of the community were denounced on social media for their positions.

Alain Quinto, a representative of the group Free Palestine Tri-Cities BC that had originally proposed Port Moody council make a declaration for peace, accused councillors of hypocrisy and caving to “Zionist pressure.”

Members of the Jewish community said they have been living in fear and urged council to stand down.

“Council’s role is to address municipal matters and not geopolitical matters,” said Rebeka Breder. “A new motion will only serve to further divide the community.”

Lahti conceded council had strayed from its lane.

“It’s not incumbent upon this body to take a position on behalf of residents that live here,” she said. “We have learned a valuable lesson weighing into non-jurisdictional issues.”

Some councillors disagreed.

Coun. Samantha Agtarap pointed out the previous council led by former Mayor Rob Vagramov had made a declaration for peace in the Ukraine after Russia invaded that country in February 2022. Vagramov has Ukranian heritage.

“We’ve advocated to the federal government before and we can do so again,” she said. “I believe this is in our jurisdiction to advocate.”

Coun. Amy Lubik said council’s vacillations have done more harm than good.

“Our original intent was to promote peace, not take sides,” she said. “I wish we had just kept our original position.”

Coun. Callan Morrison, whose reassertion of his original position council shouldn’t get involved prompted an outburst from the gallery that resulted in a brief adjournment of the meeting, said council was in an untenable position.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any solution,” he said. “One group — no matter what we say — will feel like we haven’t done our job.”

Morrison said even a proposal by Coun. Haven Lurbiecki that council apologize for its on-again-off-again position on making a statement supporting peace was a step too far.

He said, if anything, members of the gallery should take accountability for their disruptive behaviour.

“That’s not how we open dialogue and communicate in a city,” he said of the outbursts that included shouts of “Israel is a terror state” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a politically charged slogan has come to sew fear in Jewish communities around the world.

Lurbiecki said council needs to acknowledge the hurt it’s caused.

“Hurt, confusion and upsetness has been experienced by people,” she said. “We need to recognize our role in that.”

But Coun. Kyla Knowles, who’d also been targeted in messages on social media, said such an apology would amount to a tacit endorsement of one side over the other.

She said it’s time council move on from the matter.

“It’s unfortunate this is what it’s come to,” she said. “I really do hope we can get past this and come together as a community.”

In March, Coquitlam council declined to entertain a proposed motion advocating for peace following a delegation by Palestinian supporters.

Still, last November, Burnaby council became the first in Canada to send a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for a ceasefire and the release of all hostages. Several other communities, like Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto, have since followed.