British Columbia·Analysis

The only thing surprising about Ben Isitt's Remembrance Day comments is that anybody is surprised

For many in the rest of the country, Isitt's amendment quickly became a major issue, for the obvious reason of asking the military to pay for an event that honours the contributions of those in the military.

Isitt is incredibly popular locally, but social media culture and Victoria political culture are different

A woman claps as Royal Canadian Navy members walk along Government Street during Remembrance Day ceremonies in Victoria in 2016. (/Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Thursday was a day of the week that ended with y, which meant it was time for Ben Isitt to do something controversial. 

"It would have been better to have done it on another day," said the Victoria councillor after outrage quickly built over his request asking the military to fund the cost of policing events like Remembrance Day and Victoria Day.

Isitt made the remarks on Thursday, the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

In the moment, Isitt's amendment seemed somewhat mundane and symbolic: it passed quickly in committee with little debate and little criticism, even from those who opposed it and will still need council's approval.

"That did not seem to be a major issue," said Coun. Geoff Young, one of three (including Mayor Lisa Helps) who voted against the amendment. 

"All it did was simply an effort to get other parties to contribute to the costs of policing these events," he added, noting that trying to get other groups to pay for policing costs during large outdoor events has been a longstanding issue in Victoria, regardless of the occasion.   

But in 2019, council news from mid-sized cities can travel fast. For many in the rest of the country, Isitt's amendment quickly became a major issue, for the obvious reason: asking the military to pay for an event that honours the contributions of those in the military

'There's been a bit of a pattern' 

Of course, as Isitt himself noted, this isn't his first rodeo where he's gotten tied up in his own lasso. 

"There's been a bit of a pattern," said Isitt, recounting the many times he's been in the news for his musings. 

"[People] basically take remarks from council meetings out of context, frame them as if they're sort of my biggest political priority, and then try to make hay out of it by mobilizing public opinion."

Leaving aside whether his remarks are really taken out of context, it's indisputably true that Isitt has been a lightning rod for a long time, prodding the rest of council to consider hot-button cultural issues that usually aren't debated within the realms of city halls.

Even before he said "there's an element of glorifying militarism" in a sports event centring around injured veterans that Victoria wanted to host, or he said Victoria should review whether it pays for Christmas decorations over concerns of "Christian symbolism," Isitt was talking about ridding the city of its horse-drawn carriages, voting in favour of removing the John A. Macdonald statue from city hall and being advertised for speeches hosted by the Communist Party of British Columbia

Then he ran for re-election and garnered the most votes of all 29 people running for council — just like he did four years earlier. 

Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt no longer wants the costs associated with commemorative military events 'downloaded' onto taxpayers. (Jason D'Souza/CBC)

West coast, left coast 

There was a time when Victoria reliably voted for right-wing parties at the provincial and federal levels. Those days are long in the past, but even today the city's political culture is in flux.

"There has been a shift," said Young, who has served on Victoria's council for 30 of the last 36 years, usually as the lone local politician, standing athwart history, yelling stop.

He's never been on the left side of the city's political spectrum. But the distance between him and the majority of council has grown larger. 

"They've moved further and faster than a lot of people, including me, are comfortable with," Young said.

"We've been pioneers in a lot of areas, in some cases probably perhaps seen as visionary. In other cases, seen as being wild-eyed ... that polarization does exist and it makes me a little uncomfortable."

In one sense, it doesn't really matter what online people in other parts of the country think: it will up to local voters to judge Isitt and the other councillors who approved the amendment.

And if the last election is any indication, the immediate outrage over Isitt's comments will likely fade into the background and become just another line in his political obituary, whenever that gets written. 

But the dynamics that promote more and more polarization — and allow local politicians to become temporary tent poles in online culture wars — likely won't fade as quickly. 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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