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Opinion: B.C. too slow in protecting civic politicians from poisoned workplaces

'We need the public to question the lack of representation in their communities'
New Westminster city hall. Record file photo

I am pissed off and deeply concerned.  

We are a year out from a municipal election and the lack of safe and inclusive space at councils and school boards is appalling.

In the past year, I have heard about so many instances where elected officials have had to deal with bullying, aggression and disrespect, both from the public and from their council colleagues. We have had councillors and school trustees in B.C. resign because of systemic racism. We’ve had a mayor accused of spreading conspiracy theories that put their community at risk and asked to resign by her council. We’ve had a sitting mayor accused of sexual assault and be allowed to serve while he was involved in the resulting trial.

And what scares me the most is that no one seems to care.

Why doesn’t the community demand that elected officials be held accountable for their actions?

Why isn’t the community outraged to hear about elected officials resigning because of unsafe and oppressive conditions?

Why is the province too slow to protect those that find themselves in poisoned workplaces with nowhere to go for fair and reliable resolutions? 

Why doesn’t the media report on these compounding issues for elected officials and the resulting negative effect on our communities?

Local governments are closest to the people in our communities and deal with some of the most pressing issues in our everyday lives. Everything from building sidewalks and roads to delivering core services like garbage and recycling pickup to managing how our community grows and our children learn.

Yet despite the importance and daily reliance on a functioning city, we don’t seem to care enough to make sure that the people making the decisions on our behalf are doing so in a safe and equitable place. And it’s beginning to look like “WE” don’t actually care who does this work. Is that actually true?

In the last municipal election, I worked hard for months on end to get two women of colour elected in my community. I can’t express enough what a difference these women have made in our community, at the council table, and for me - another elected official. Having diverse people elected in our communities is hugely important to the health of our cities. It cannot be understated how much better our systems and cities will be with contributions from “other” voices. 

When these people are silenced (occurring in many municipalities), or a request for culture awareness training for mayor and council is voted down and a councillor resigns (sound familiar Terrace?) or we see the resignation of a school board chair because “As a First Nations leader, I can say that my voice was not meant to be at the table” (former school board chair Trent Derrick, Prince George) it will become very difficult to encourage diverse or marginalized people to consider doing this work. It is becoming more and more obvious that working as an elected official is not a safe place for diverse voices. This is hugely problematic.

We deserve strong and accountable local governments. We deserve amazing people to feel safe and supported enough to put their names forward and to be able to contribute safely in their work. We deserve a diverse variety of voices and life experiences working on our behalf. There’s a simple solution to improving accountability and creating better working environments for people who choose to serve their communities.

Several provinces have instituted municipal integrity commissioners, including Ontario and Alberta, and B.C. should do the same. This commissioner should be appointed by the province and be at arm's length with the power to investigate complaints made either by the public, city staff as whistleblowers, or other elected officials. By appointing an integrity commissioner, the province would signal that they are trying to make it possible for any member of our community to serve at local government tables. They would also create a process for members of the community to raise legitimate concerns through a process that is consistent, fair, and transparent. 

Collectively, we need to tell the province that we want and need this oversight and accountability. We, as elected officials, need to advocate for this with our local MLAs. We need the public to question the lack of representation in their communities and why diverse voices are being silenced or forced out of their work. We all need to pay attention and demand that the system is improved. 

It’s less than one year until the next municipal election and while 2018 saw a marginal increase in diversity at council and school board tables, after the past two years we are seeing those gains disappear and 2022 looks bleak. This is terrifying to me and it should be to you as well. 

Mary Trentadue is a city councillor in New Westminster.