WEST ST. PAUL — It seems appropriate West St. Paul Coun. Cheryl Christian suggests meeting at the Eye Opener diner for an interview.
Perched in a corner booth at the restaurant (which also goes by the Red Eye), she swiftly rattles off instances of abuse she’s seen or heard about in the past year involving municipal government councillors throughout the province.
"A female CAO (chief administrative officer) that was told to fall in line or they’d take her pantyhose and wrap them around her neck. Dead animals left on decks and porches. Threats," she said. "What is typical is withholding information, not returning phone calls, stuff on the basic level. I’ve absolutely experienced discrimination where policies and processes apply differently to some than others."
Last spring, Christian helped pen a resolution aimed at stopping harassment and bullying of elected officials and municipal staff, then received a multitude of phone calls about others’ experiences.
The first-term councillor said she’s heard of restraining orders issued between councillors, lawsuits at other municipalities, and calls to the RCMP.
One former councillor, who asked to remain anonymous for this article because she fears for her safety, said her council passed a motion preventing her from going to the washroom without permission from her colleagues, among other instances of bad behaviour. Her doctor encouraged her to resign from her job for her own well-being, which she eventually did.
Christian is frustrated, as are at least eight other rural councillors from across the province who spoke to the Free Press. Two of them spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their personal and job safety.
There are 137 municipalities in Manitoba, with 908 council positions, according to the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. After the last municipal election in 2014, 154 women won seats — roughly 17 per cent of all elected officials.
Jackie Hunt, a former mayor and councillor in the Rural Municipality of Ritchot, made headlines last April, when she resigned after "name-calling and belligerent behaviour" became the norm among some of her co-workers.
"I gave up my seat so that it might start a conversation at the municipal and provincial levels of government about how to better protect the residents that want to serve our communities. If I stayed and did nothing, then I became complicit and accepting of the behaviour," Hunt said in a prepared statement last year. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Hunt’s departure spurred conversations among other municipalities and inspired Christian to write her resolution, which eventually made its way to the floor of the AMM convention last November. It passed by a whopping 91 per cent, with votes from more than 900 delegates.
The Workplace Safety and Health Anti-Harassment Resolution asks the AMM to lobby the province "to strengthen legislation regarding prevention, investigation and enforcement mechanisms available to municipalities in response to harassment and bullying in the workplace" between elected officials and municipal staff.
"If the intent of (the) Workplace Health and Safety (Act) is to ensure that all Manitobans, whether you’re an employee or an employer, are covered and protected, then we should fall within that," Christian said. "I think it’s an oversight issue because elected officials aren’t employees or employers."
Politicians may have fallen through the cracks when the act was crafted, but movement to cement repairs may be underway.
The AMM declined an interview request on the topic, but president Chris Goertzen said in an emailed statement it is "actively working" to address the issue.
"Municipalities, like most workplaces, strive for a respectful work environment for all. We recently met with... Jeff Wharton, minister of municipal relations, who is willing to work together to improve workplace safety. We are currently waiting for the province of Manitoba to meet with us regarding the next steps in this process," Goertzen said. He did not respond to follow-up questions.
Christian said she was glad to see the province addressing misconduct issues at the legislature in February.
Premier Brian Pallister said, going forward, the government will follow a "no wrong door" policy when fielding complaints. There will also be mandatory respectful workplace training for political staff, public-sector workers and those working in municipalities.
When she previously tried phoning the province’s advisory services to report bad behaviour, Christian said she was told: "‘No one’s going to come in on a white horse and save you.’"
Now, she has a hint of hope.
"I think (Pallister) has made a promising step forward in acknowledging that this is happening. I think that his statements about wanting to create policy are great and his no-wrong-door approach seems very positive," Christian said. "But I want to know which door. I want to know what this looks like in the details."
• • •
What will happen when Christian and others come knocking again remains to be seen, though Manitoba Minister of Municipal Relations Jeff Wharton said last week changes are underway.
"Certainly, the Municipal Act is the governing act, such is the Planning Act, and those are the areas we’re looking at to enhance and improve on," Wharton said by phone.
He couldn’t say whether improvements would be made before the next general election, slated for Oct. 24.
"I’m pretty confident that we can move this forward fairly quickly. It’s an important issue. Our government takes this very seriously," Wharton said.
St. Andrews Coun. Joy Sul said she told Wharton, who is also her area MLA, about issues with her council many times over the last three years, but never received help.
(Wharton said he’s heard Sul’s concerns and met with her and various councillors since being given the municipal relations portfolio in August.)
Sul went to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission next, filing a complaint against the mayor, council and chief administrative officer in the RM of St. Andrews in February. She cited "discrimination, mental and verbal abuse (and) harassment" in her intake questionnaire.
"I will admit I have phoned your office a few times in the last three years and then hung up, as I have been too afraid to come forward," Sul said in a letter to the MHRC. "Being treated as I have been and continue to be, is now having an effect on my health — my hair is breaking off, I don’t sleep and my stomach is in knots when I have to attend meetings."
In an interview, Sul expressed frustration about feeling excluded from council meetings, being discouraged from talking to residents by fellow council members, and feeling threatened by one councillor, who denied any wrongdoing.
"I’m concerned about repercussions after (speaking to media), but you know what? If no one speaks up, nothing will change," Sul said.
Sul is a first-term councillor and the only woman on her six-person council, which residents often call an "old boys’ club," she said, noting such an atmosphere may discourage women from running.
St. Andrews Mayor George Pike wouldn’t comment on Sul’s allegations while they’re before the commission. Deputy mayor Laurie Hunt said he was surprised to hear of her complaint.
"This is all news to me, I thought we had had a very good cordial relationship in council. I’ve been on council for 16 years and I think this council is the most respectful of the ones I’ve been on. So this is a surprise to me," Hunt said.
Sul said a representative from the human rights commission told her by phone her complaint would be difficult to handle because she is an elected official and it’s an election year. The representative suggested she try to find more women to run for council next time, according to Sul.
The Manitoba Human Rights Commission cannot confirm or deny the existence of a complaint, but executive director Isha Khan said by email "whether or not it is an election year has no bearing on our ability to investigate a complaint."
"The actions of a municipal councillor or other elected representative may be subject to parliamentary privilege and preclude us from investigating an issue, but without the specific details, I am not able to comment further on this," Khan said.
Sul said she’s not sure whether she is going to run for council again come fall, but will pursue the complaint.
"I have to really think about it. I just love the residents, I want to make change. There has to be change," she said.
She would like to see an independent, arm’s-length body established to investigate harassment complaints. Municipalities are too small to investigate members of their own without conflicts of interest, perceived or real, she said.
The province last met with AMM in November to discuss various things, including bullying and harassment among councils, Wharton said.
The minister was previously a councillor in Winnipeg Beach and said he never experienced or witnessed the types of bad behaviour he’s hearing about now.
"Municipal councillors are the grassroots of their communities and I can respect that, because I was there. We have a lot of good dialogue and good discussion. As far as some of the incidents that are being reported today, I certainly hadn’t had any personal experience with that," Wharton said, adding anything such as threats "should be directed to the police right away."
• • •
Heather Erickson, a first-term councillor in the RM of Springfield, has battled breast cancer twice and is now fighting for citizens.
In an interview on her 77th birthday, Erickson said she believes politics are keeping her alive because her immune system "is being stimulated by the angst of all this challenge, let’s put it that way," she joked.
Erickson is adamant bullying and harassment among councils isn’t a gendered issue. She’s seen men and women demeaned, including herself for being "old-fashioned" and "environmentalist." But she’s not sure how much higher government could help.
"I’m not sure that the province can legislate conduct. I think conduct is something that individual municipalities should be addressing," Erickson said.
Brian Burick, a councillor with 30 years experience in the RM of Swan River/Swan Valley West, said his last four years on council have been the most challenging. He described an in-camera meeting in May 2016 as getting so bad, he had to leave.
"There was one councillor that was aggressive with another councillor. There was threats, yelling, accusations," he said. Two more councillors left after Burick, causing the meeting to lose quorum.
Councillors can’t discuss what happens during in-camera meetings because the gatherings involve sensitive issues such as finances and court cases. But that secrecy opens the door for worse behaviour than what happens before a public gallery, Burick said.
"I’m OK, I can handle it. But it’s just, I just wanted to (see) if the AMM could lobby the government… just so this doesn’t happen in the future. It discourages other people to run for council, you know?"
Burick suggested the province develop a code of conduct for all municipalities, rather than having them create their own piecemeal approaches. Breaching the code could incur heavy fines or suspensions from council, he said.
Right now, the only recourse council members have is censure, which is "basically a public hand-slap," said Cindy Kellendonk, a first-term councillor in the RM of Lac du Bonnet. Councils must reach a majority vote plus one to be able to censure someone’s words from a meeting’s written minutes.
Members of council can also lodge complaints with the Manitoba ombudsman, but Kellendonk called that option a "complete and utter waste of time."
"Because even if they do decide to look at it, it takes months before anything gets done and any recommendations they make, council doesn’t have to accept them. It’s up to the council to decide (what to do)," she said.
Manitoba ombudswoman Charlene Paquin confirmed her office can only provide recommendations to councils on how they should proceed. The ombudsman only investigates matters of administration as well, not conduct — unless conduct issues affect administrative matters.
"We do not have any authority to remove councillors or to impose other penalties," Paquin added by email.
"The problem with all of this is there’s absolutely no avenue for support," Kellendonk said. "They tell you to call municipal relations. (Municipal relations) tell us they won’t get involved at a municipal level. Municipalities have complete other autonomy and if council decides, if the majority of council decides, then the majority rules. Even if it’s wrong. Even if it goes against the law."
Irwin Steen, a councillor in the RM of Swan Valley West since 2017, said his first year on the job "has been a disturbing experience."
"I have been publicly (wrongly) accused, degraded and chastised by a fellow councillor," he said by email. "And basically, there is nothing I can do about it.
"The Municipal Act is very outdated and has not kept up with current affairs or situations. Social media is a huge problem, which has not been addressed. False facts... are uncontrollable and we do not have any regulations in place to defend our credibility. If changes are not made – who will step up to these leadership roles?"
Some current councillors, including the one who wrote the resolution aiming to stop bullying, are unsure how much more they’re willing to take.
Christian is debating whether to run for council again this fall.
"I’m frustrated to see men and women experience this, people that are trying to help their communities. I’m concerned for the future," she said.
Christian’s family ties in West St. Paul date to 1946. She is married, with five children, and doesn’t plan to move anytime soon.
"I wanted to step up and try and make a difference and I wanted our kids to see it’s important to be involved in the community," Christian said of her initial political run.
"And after what they’re seeing, I don’t know that our kids would want to get involved in this. I don’t know that I’d want them to be involved in politics."
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