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Delegations give advisory firm first taste of conflict, hurt in Wilmot

Monday night's council meeting heard from both sides of opinion on the Prime Ministers Path
Sir John A. Macdonald Baden Statue
Wilmot Council passed a motion to have the Sir John A. Macdonald statue in Baden relocated until more public consultations are held. Phi Doan/ Kitchener Today

It was an introductory Monday night meeting for First Peoples Group, tasked with leading Wilmot's engagement strategy on the Prime Ministers Path.

The project would see statues of 24 former prime ministers established in front of Castle Kilbride. It was put on pause last year after public outcry and controversy, specifically around Sir John A. MacDonald and his legacy of violence against Indigenous people and other groups.

The draft engagement process presented by First Peoples Group will be adapted to the needs of the community, including as many voices as possible. Participants will have the opportunity to contact First Peoples Group directly should they not feel comfortable going through council.

Councillors and some delegates spoke to the nature of the original process in 2016, which they said lacked transparency and was done without public input.

The Sir John A. MacDonald statue is not the only one that should be reconsidered, according to councillor Cheryl Gordijk and delegate John Bailey. 

"FPG must consider the broader complications with the entire Prime Ministers Path project, and not just with the issues focused around Sir John A. MacDonald's statue," said Bailey. "In many ways, William Lyon Mackenzie King had an even more problematic history, and the presence of that statue should be examined with the same voracity as SJAM."

Bailey also pointed out that ongoing negative attention combined with reluctance of donors may make continuing the project unfeasible financially.

Delegate Dave Atkinson voiced frustration, however, that residents who support the SJAM statue are being painted with a racist brush.

"The question of the PMP project is not about racism," said Atkinson. "Regrettably, there is a small number of anonymous, racist people in Wilmot. But it is unfair and irresponsible to paint the overwhelming majority of the community with that brush. Those few people need to be dealt with without besmirching the entire township. As much as it is possible for my apology to soothe any harm that has been done, I apologize to anyone in this community who has been treated unfairly due to skin colour or any other racially motivated reason."

Atkinson also took issue with Councillor Cheryl Gordijk saying there is an "underbelly" of racism in the township, a comment that Gordijk stood by. Gordijk was defended by other delegates as well as councillors.

"How dare she acknowledge that, how dare she speak up and say we have a problem," said John Bailey sarcastically. 

"Every community has a problem. Every community in Canada, United States, China, Japan, every country has issues of race. Every country has problems, and how dare she acknowledge that we have a problem."

"The only reason that she was mentioned was because she made the quote in the [media]," said Atkinson. "If you don't make those quotes in the paper, I'm going to leave you alone and treat you like everyone else."

Gordijk's husband, Nigel Gordijk, also spoke as a delegate, referencing "white lives matter" rally posters that showed up in Wilmot and Wellesley, which are not isolated incidents.

"I've been told by people that racism in Wilmot township is a hidden secret. It is not."

Gordijk told of several incidents of blatant racism and discrimination, including that of former Waterloo-Oxford student Bryan Peralta. The Black student eventually was called the "n word" so many times at school that he became desensitized. Gordijk's granddaughter used to take the school bus to that same school, and would hear other students making racist remarks at the workers in the field, many of whom are Jamaican. 

"A few years ago, when a group of those Jamaican workers visited Wilmot's Canada Day celebrations, someone warned the organizers about 'a suspicious group of men,'" he said.

Gordijk also spoke of blatant support for racist groups in the township within the last year, such as posters supporting the Proud Boys in Baden and New Hamburg (now designated as a terrorist group in Canada), and a gathering of the Urban Infidels in Baden. That group yelled racist slurs at locals.

"I'm concerned that this committee is creating a space for white people to listen to Indigenous, Black and racialized people, reliving and sharing their personal trauma, but it won't have a clear mandate or any authority to affect change," said Gordijk.

"These talks begin at an incredibly sensitive and dangerous time in our community, with hate flowing freely, and white supremacy running rampant," said delegate Cheyanne Thorpe, of Indigenous decent. "These issues have been building to a burst for a long time coming now, perhaps most strongly fueled by ignorance toward racial discrimination at the hands of our own leaders, as well as the divide caused by the call for the absolute removal of the Prime Ministers Path project."

Thorpe called council's promises "empty," as well as too little, too late. She addressed council last year when Mayor Les Armstrong shared a 'white lives matter' video on social media, and the hurt and consequences that caused.

Council is hoping to have a direction to move forward by the end of the summer. 

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