The mayor of Yellowknife and the NWT’s Black Advocacy Coalition have criticized a city councillor who compared requiring proof of vaccination at municipal facilities to racial segregation.
During Monday’s public discussion between councillors and city staff, Niels Konge joined a majority of fellow council members in opposing such a requirement as he had concerns regarding fairness.
Konge then went a step further, comparing the requirement to some people not being allowed to sit at the front of buses, referencing the segregation of Black people through discriminatory laws in North America.
“I think we’re doing the same thing here,” he said.
Councillor Shauna Morgan was the only person to criticize Konge’s remarks during the meeting, saying they made her feel “nauseous.”
“I think that is a really inaccurate and inappropriate comparison to make and could be profoundly disrespectful to people in groups who have historically suffered from systemic oppression,” she said.
“The experiences and concerns of people currently who are choosing to be unvaccinated is very, very, very different from historical and current cases of systemic oppression and racism, and I think it would be really unfortunate for us to confuse the two.”
In a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday morning, Mayor Rebecca Alty joined Morgan by calling Konge’s comparison “completely unacceptable.”
The mayor wrote that while people may have differing opinions on public health measures, “discussions must remain respectful and productive.”
“People may disagree about whether the measures are effective, but the intent of the policy is the health and safety of residents,” she wrote. “The same cannot be said for racist policies, and the severity and harm of racist policies and segregation is not comparable.”
‘Inaccurate, misinformed and tone deaf’
“Black people were systematically excluded and denied equal access to opportunities and services based on their race. The comparison between a century of racial segregation and a vaccine policy that would temporarily exclude unvaccinated individuals from community facilities is inaccurate, misinformed, and tone deaf,” the statement reads.
“It is unacceptable for an individual serving a community that consists of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized groups to be repeatedly misinformed of their histories.”
The coalition called on Konge to immediately apologize to the Black community and educate himself on issues racialized communities face before making further remarks.
Konge could not be immediately reached by phone on Tuesday. Messages were left for him by email and text.
Monday’s remarks came a month after Konge compared the struggles of small businesses during pandemic restrictions to the Sixties Scoop, responding to a Sixties Scoop survivor who addressed a meeting of councillors.
Following Konge’s remarks in that case, Mayor Alty swiftly noted the two were not comparable. The councillor subsequently apologized for what he accepted was a “horrible comparison.”
Complaint process outlined in code of conduct
In an interview with Cabin Radio on Monday, city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said cultural safety training is mandatory for city staff and councillors are invited to participate. That training, however, has been affected by Covid-19 restrictions.
Konge has been a city councillor since 2012.
“Political leaders, they bring their experience and they bring their expertise and their perspective, and they are selected and voted into office by the public,” said Bassi-Kellett. “Being a political leader is a challenging role and sometimes people will make comments on the fly during political discourse that perhaps they shouldn’t.”
The city manager said members of the public who wish to file a complaint regarding a councillor’s conduct can do so by contacting Yellowknife’s integrity commissioner, an office at arm’s length from the city. On Monday afternoon, Bassi-Kellett was not aware of any complaint regarding Konge’s remarks having been filed.
The code of conduct for Yellowknife councillors is set out in a city bylaw covering topics like respectful interactions, conflict of interest, and confidential information.
The integrity commissioner reviews complaints and determines whether to investigate. If a councillor is found to have broken the code of conduct, they can face censure or removal from meetings.