Kitchener council ‘in a bind’ over Peterson appearance

By Luke Schulz

As Centre in the Square prepares to welcome a controversial, third-party booking of Jordan B. Peterson, Kitchener council was host to several community delegates on Monday evening echoing community concern over the viewpoints that may be presented during that late May event. Reiterating that the event is a “third-party booking” by Live Nation, Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic made the city's potential options, or lack there-of, clear – while also emphasizing that the city continues to take steps to ensure impacted community members are supported. 

Starting Monday's discussion, Vrbanovic again reminded councillors and delegates that the Peterson booking – part of a larger “Beyond Order” book tour – was “not invited” to the community by either Centre in the Square or the City of Kitchener, as he said CITS is an “arms-length organization” that operates separately from the city. While some members of council currently sit on the venue's board of directors – including Mayor Vrbanovic – the mayor said that those members “fiduciary responsibilities” are separate from their responsibilities they have with the city as members of council. He also noted that, like other third-party or arms-length facilities that receive funding from the city, Kitchener council does not have “the authority or jurisdiction” to direct CITS operations.

“Having said this, we recognize there is a significant public interest in this facility rental and believe strongly in the fundamental right for citizens to speak directly to elected officials on the issues that matter most to them,” said Vrbanovic. “… while we cannot step outside our roles and obligations as elected officials to direct action at the Centre in the Square, we can ensure the voices of those who are historically oppressed, marginalized and silenced are heard.”

Vrbanovic also said that the City of Kitchener has been in discussion with community partners since the “early days” of learning of the Live Nation Peterson rental, looking to potentially support community-led counter-programming while also exploring the introduction of a non-binary and Trans swim program at Kitchener pools. That programming was one of the three “concrete ways” that the city could show its commitment to the 2SLGBTQ+ community outlined in an open letter to council from advocacy group ActingOutWR – sent in late March. 

Among the community members delegating to Kitchener council on Monday was David Alton, who again reiterated those asks from ActingOutWR while sharing their own experience in allegedly being targeted by fans of Jordan Peterson for speaking to the Waterloo Catholic District School Board in late January about the importance of including books with Transgender and non-binary characters in their libraries. Alton said they received “over 700 hate messages” after the discussion was highlighted by Peterson on his social media, adding that their partner continues to receive further harassment. 

“We do not need Peterson coming to our community and mobilizing this movement of hate further. To say your hands are tied is not accurate; there's always a way to update or break a contract to cancel an event – and there's always a role for the city to make a statement or use the tools at your disposal.” said Alton. 

Other delegates accused the City of Kitchener of “legitimizing” the viewpoints of Peterson by allowing the event to go forward at a publicly owned venue, with one delegate – William Turman – arguing that the hosting of Peterson breaks trust between Kitchener council and vulnerable groups. 

Speaking during Monday's meeting, the General Manager of Corporate Services Victoria Raab reiterated that city staff are familiar with Jordan B. Peterson's content through “information found in the public domain”, emphasizing that his views do not reflect the City of Kitchener's values or priorities on issues of equity and inclusivity. Upon learning of the booking at the Centre in the Square, Raab said that city staff sought “extensive legal advice” to ensure they understood council's role both “as it relates to the Centre in the Square and council's role as it relates to upholding the rights and obligations under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

As a municipality, Raab said Kitchener is obligated to “not interfere with or deny individuals their protected rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms”, as she said that council moving to somehow cancel, modify or censor Peterson's event would be a “denial of the performer's right to Freedom of Expression,” resulting in a legal challenge. 

Raab said that the City of Kitchener understands it has a role in “dismantling discrimination and hate”, making changes within the organization, city programs and services to build a more equitable system that prioritizes safety and well-being for those of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Kitchener Ward 1 Councillor Scott Davey expressed frustration with the position of council, as he said that he was particularly bothered by the assertion that the city or council was somehow supporting Peterson by refusing to cancel the show. 

“All I can say is that could not be further from the truth.” said Davey. 

Davey said that the discussion amongst council was “less a question of support of Trans rights as it is a question of Freedom of Expression,” as he said that council is in a bind with how it can proceed. 

“Freedom of Expression has a cost – the cost of that is people can often be offended; people can be harmed – and it's a continuing process to figure out where that line is: but it's very, very clear from the charter and the Human Rights Code that we cannot simply pick-and-choose our own values on this council against that very clear charter and that very clear Human Rights Code … so that's the real issue that we're struggling with here.”

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