Yellowknife’s integrity commissioner has found that Councillor Niels Konge violated city council’s code of ethics when he compared the plight of small businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic to the Sixties Scoop, and drew parallels between a proof-of-vaccination policy and racial segregation.
In a report to city council – which was released on February 10 and subsequently shared with Cabin Radio – commissioner Sheldon Toner detailed his investigation into complaints from six residents over remarks Konge had made during council meetings on September 27 and November 1.
Toner agreed that Konge had breached the Council Code of Ethics By-Law for failing “to treat every person with dignity, understanding, and respect” and failing “to exercise his duties in a manner that promotes confidence.” The commissioner concluded, however, that Konge had violated two other sections of the code only in spirit. Those sections require members to not “use indecent, abusive, or insulting words or expressions,” and not speak in a discriminatory manner on grounds including race, colour, ancestry, or ethnic origin.
Three of the complainants, who are not named in the report, agreed to be interviewed by Toner as part of his investigation.
In the first instance, one woman made an informal complaint to the city after Konge compared the struggles of Yellowknife businesses under Covid-19 restrictions to the Sixties Scoop during a discussion about a proposed temporary day shelter in the city’s downtown. Konge apologized shortly after making the comments.
The woman, who is Indigenous and said she is the first member of her family to not attend residential school or be directly impacted by the Sixties Scoop, said she felt traumatized by Konge’s comments and contacted Mayor Rebecca Alty to express her concern.
The woman said she was satisfied when Alty told her that Konge was “engaged in self-reflection” and the city planned to make cultural awareness training available to councillors.
The woman decided to proceed with a formal complaint to the city’s integrity commissioner after Konge went on to compare a proof-of-vaccination policy to some people not being allowed to sit at the front of buses, referencing historical laws that discriminated against Black people. The woman said self-reflection and self-directed learning had not prevented the second incident and more action needed to be taken.
Complainants call for removal
The comments prompted five other people to file complaints with the integrity commissioner including a social worker, and a woman who said she was “sickened” by Konge’s remarks which she called inappropriate, unprofessional, and the epitome of white privilege. Both complainants called for Konge to be removed from council.
The NWT’s Black Advocacy Coalition BACupNorth, Councillor Shauna Morgan, and Mayor Alty also publicly condemned Konge’s remarks.
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett sent an email to all City of Yellowknife staff on November 2, after she said four staff members had come to her saying Konge’s comments should not have happened and were embarrassing.
“This comment was made by one individual. It is wrong. It is racist and it is not acceptable,” her email read. “For those of you adversely impacted by this comment, I am deeply sorry. It does not represent values that the City of Yellowknife upholds.”
Councillors defend Konge
During that meeting, Councillor Stacie Smith, who joined Konge in voting against the policy, defended his comments saying that “as an Indigenous person” she didn’t feel the comparison “that shook a city” was racist.
“Probably not the best analogy but what they were getting at was division, segregation. They said what many were thinking but few dare to say because of the backlash,” she said at the time. “This is the kind of passion you want.”
Councillor Cynthia Mufandaedza, who supported the policy, added that “calling each other racist has no place” in Yellowknife.
“We might differ in our opinion and how we express our opinions, but that does not make us racist,” she said.
In an interview with Toner, Konge acknowledged his comments were inappropriate and said he was willing to attend cultural awareness and anti-racism training.
In the first case, he said he wanted to convey “we are all in this together” and did not think his comment came across as malicious toward Sixties Scoop survivors. He said he was surprised by the public’s response to his remarks.
In the second instance, Konge said he wanted to express his concern that a proof-of-vaccination policy would unfairly prevent children under the age of 18 from entering city facilities, as they can’t freely choose to get vaccinated without parental influence. He said he had received around 140 emails from residents with two-thirds supporting his position.
Konge said he had tried to find a historical example to ensure city council would not make what he felt was a mistake in approving that policy, but was “not smart enough” to know that he should not have used racial segregation as a comparison. He said he never intended to hurt anyone personally.
‘Not a case of overt racism but one of racial insensitivity’
In determining whether Konge had violated council’s code of ethics, Toner said Konge’s comments weren’t directed at any individual, he did not discriminate against any of the complainants, and he apologized in both instances.
“The fact that he was surprised by the strong reaction to his comments confirms that his intention was not expressly racist,” he said.
Toner said, however, the comments “reflect insensitivity to historical wrongs inflicted on groups based on race and ethnic origin.” And complainants said they felt Konge’s second apology was disingenuous and inadequate.
City councillors will now have to determine what if any penalties Konge will face.
Toner said he could not give any recommendations but options include censure, removal from a meeting, or awareness and education. Under the Cities Towns and Villages Act there is no means to remove a member of council, which is reaffirmed under the Council Code of Ethics By-Law.
“This is not a case of overt racism but one of racial insensitivity,” Toner wrote. “Before imposing censure or removal from a meeting, I would expect council to have a robust debate with a discussion emphasizing the importance of allowing members to fearlessly exercise their democratic office.”
In a statement to Cabin Radio, Mayor Alty said council members will publicly discuss Toner’s report at the evening council meeting on February 28.
“I’m in the process of reviewing the report right now and I’ll be speaking to the issue at the council meeting,” Alty said. “I’ll be reserving my comments for that meeting, and won’t be commenting on it before council has a chance to discuss the issue on February 28.”
Konge declined to speak with Cabin Radio about Toner’s report.