September 23, 2022

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Woolwich Township councillors and the mayor met in the southwestern Ontario community for a regularly scheduled council meeting on Monday. Council faced a controversy over a proposal for a rainbow crosswalk. (Town of Woolwich/Youtube)

A councillor in Woolwich Township in southwestern Ontario is facing backlash from some fellow colleagues and members of the community for his comments against a proposal for a rainbow crosswalk.

On Monday, at the regularly scheduled meeting of the township’s five councillors and mayor, they discussed a letter from the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington

The letter, signed by the group’s executive director, Helen Fishburn, said it supported a local petition for a rainbow crosswalk in Elmira, Ont.

The letter described the crosswalk as “a visual representation to members of vulnerable populations that let them know they are in a safe, welcoming space. The crosswalk also reminds 2SLGBTQI+ individuals that their community supports them as they move forward on their life’s journey.”

Coun. Murray Martin voiced his disapproval of the idea.

“It’s not in keeping with the values of this community, so they can send this letter right back to where it came from. And having said that, I am not judgmental on the way people live and what they do,” he said during the meeting, which was broadcast on the township’s YouTube account. 

Martin, who is seeking re-election, said his primary concern was with using the rainbow itself, and cited a Biblical reference.

“Where did the first rainbow come from? Everybody should know. It came after the big flood, Noah and the Ark. And God made a covenant with his people that he would not destroy the world again with the flood, and he gave him the rainbow,” he said. 

“So now we use that, and we trash it, to promote a lifestyle that is not correct … I do not think it is proper,” said Martin.

Despite that statement, Martin went on to say his issue was with the symbol of a rainbow and not the lifestyle of the people it represents.

Council reaction

During Martin’s comments, Coun. Patrick Merlihan could be seen visibly shaking his head.

“Wow,” said Merlihan during the meeting. 

“I’m not shocked that those statements were made, but that was really offensive to me and to many of my … friends.”

“Our values are inclusive. They should be. Maybe not for everybody, but that’s what the goal should be,” said Merlihan, who is running for mayor.

“I apologize on behalf of Coun. Martin that anybody had to hear those, and especially of our staff,” he said. 

Martin jumped in to respond and Mayor Sandy Shantz, who is also seeking re-election, allowed him to because she said he has a right to share his opinion, even though she disagreed with the way his initial statement “sounded.”

“I thought I made it clear at the start — it wasn’t about people, it wasn’t about the lifestyle. It is strictly using the rainbow and I don’t need anybody to apologize on my behalf or apologize to anybody else. I have the right to my opinion,” said Martin. 

Coun. Scott McMillan called out Martin’s comments and his use of the word “lifestyle.”

“With all due respect to Coun. Martin, we can’t allow statements to stand where we’re calling people improper for who they are. It’s not a lifestyle — it’s who they are, it’s their identity,” he said. 

He supported the implementation of a rainbow crosswalk, describing it as “a wonderful sign of support. That this is precisely the values of our community and we are a loving place and a welcoming place.” 

Coun. Fred Redekop, who is also seeking re-election, agreed with McMillan’s statements. Coun. Larry Shantz remained quiet throughout the discussion. 

Council eventually moved forward with a direction to staff to explore the idea of implementing a rainbow crosswalk in Elmira and other nearby communities. 

Community reaction 

Several members of the community took to social media, including Reddit, to share their reaction to Martin’s comments.

Some posts said: “I’m embarrassed that this guy is a representative of the community I live in,” and, “On the plus side, the other councillors rejected his nonsense.”

Andrew Jacob Rinehart, a member of the LGBTQ2s+ community in Waterloo, saw the post online and described some of the language used by the councillor as “inhumane” and “violent.” 

“I was physically shaken that this sort of discourse is happening in a formal meeting, in a formal procedure, the explicitness of it.”

Rinehart suggested the councillor’s comments single out a specific community, “explicitly stating we’re not welcome.” He said Martin should not have been allowed to continue speaking.

“I believe there was too much room given to ‘we’re all allowed to express our opinions freely here.’ It should’ve been: ‘This is unacceptable language, this is against our Code of Conduct. This is against what we stand for and this will not be allowed to continue’,” he said.

On Tuesday evening, Shantz issued a public apology, saying she regretted not stopping the comments from Martin. 

“I have listened to the comments received from the community and I have taken time to speak and apologize to those who have been harmed by these comments. Again, I apologize and regret my actions from last night and want to reassure our community that we are a safe, diverse, inclusive, accepting and welcoming community,” Shantz said in the emailed statement. 

Violating code of conduct 

Merlihan told CBC News the right thing to do was for the mayor to have stopped the councillor from continuing.

“She could have cited the municipality’s Code of Conduct, our meeting Procedural Bylaw, as well as the Ontario Human Rights code as all of those policies govern how we conduct ourselves in public,” said Merlihan. 

He said he believes Martin violated the discreditable conduct section of the Code of Conduct.

The township’s discreditable conduct harassment clause outlines behaviour that is directed at or is offensive to another person “on the grounds of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, Code of Conduct (Council, Committees of Council, Local Boards) creed, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, or family status and any other grounds identified under the Ontario Human Rights Code.”

Merlihan said formal complaints to the integrity commissioner cannot be accepted between Aug. 19 and Oct. 24 because of the municipal election.

“I have been advising residents to send complaints to the clerk. I have had additional queries to the clerk from requests from residents regarding Ontario Human Rights Code violations.

“I will connect with any community members impacted by the events of this meeting if that helps. Again, I’m sorry this happened,” he added.

A spokesperson with Woolwich Township confirmed Martin was the subject of three integrity commissioner investigations last year. A request for comment from Martin was not received in time for publication. 

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