Knife-in-the-back gesture at Calgary city council prompts integrity complaint, seat change

A Calgary city councillor's back-stabbing hand gesture in the direction of a female colleague has prompted her to change seats and a fellow councillor to file a complaint to the integrity commissioner.

Councillor calls incident the latest in 'a pattern of behaviour — and, quite frankly, misogyny'

Knife gesture at Calgary city council

4 years ago
Coun. Ward Sutherland makes a gesture behind the back of Coun. Druh Farrell that prompted a complaint to the city's integrity commissioner. 0:20

A Calgary city councillor's back-stabbing hand gesture in the direction of a female colleague has prompted her to change seats and a fellow councillor to file a complaint to the integrity commissioner.

Coun. Ward Sutherland made the gesture during a public hearing last week, extending his arm and appearing to repeatedly make a knife-twisting motion with his hand toward Coun. Druh Farrell as she was speaking, her back turned to him.

Sutherland then appears to mimic the reaction of someone who is in pain.

He later denied the gesture was directed at Farrell, saying it was actually meant as a message to another colleague, Coun. Andre Chabot.

Chabot — who sits in that same direction and is out frame in the camera angle of council's in-house video broadcast — agreed with that assessment.

In a tweet, Chabot said the gesture was meant to express "that one of our colleagues had just stabbed me in the back."

He has declined to explain exactly what that means, describing it as a private matter.

Farrell said "the video speaks for itself" and is part of a bigger picture.

"He was almost touching me with the gesture and it fit in with other behaviour from that meeting, from that same individual," she said Monday.

"There is a pattern of behaviour that has led certain members of council to feel comfortable behaving in this manner — in council chambers, on camera. That's unacceptable."

The gesture went largely unnoticed in the moment, but Coun. Brian Pincott said it was brought to his attention the following day by a member of the public who was watching a live video broadcast of the lengthy council proceedings.

After watching the video for himself, Pincott filed a complaint with the city's integrity commissioner, a relatively new position that was created to act as a watchdog over the behaviour of council members.

Coun. Brian Pincott filed a complaint with the city's integrity commissioner, who acts as a watchdog for city council, after seeing the video. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Sutherland's immediate reaction to the accusation was to shoot back and describe the entire thing as a "non-issue."

"I don't even know why it's a complaint," he said in a Sunday interview with the Calgary Herald. "It's a joke."

But on Monday, Sutherland rose in council and struck a more conciliatory tone.

"I'd like to apologize to council," he said.

"Last week there was a film where I had a very animated side conversation with another councillor while council business was being conducted. I simply should have not done that and I simply will not do it again. So I apologize for doing that."

Coun. Ward Sutherland makes a gesture toward Coun. Druh Farrell while she's speaking and her back is turned during the council meeting of May 8, 2017. (Screenshot/City of Calgary)

Speaking to reporters Monday, Sutherland also took issue with Pincott's decision to go the news media with his view of the situation.

"To stretch it and make it political was very, very wrong," Sutherland said, taking particular exception to accusations of misogyny.

"It was Mother's Day yesterday. My mother's 86. She raised us. Single mom. Five kids. And I have two daughters. And I've got people saying I'm hating women, et cetera? That's when it becomes political."

Pincott, however, said the gesture is unbecoming of a city councillor and it ultimately doesn't matter whether it was directed at Farrell or meant as a private message to Chabot.

"Either way, it's an inappropriate gesture," Pincott said.

"It's inappropriate to, in council, mime pushing a knife into the back of someone."

Farrell sat in a new seat at Monday's council meeting after city staff rearranged the desks and nameplates around the council table.

She used to sit next to Sutherland, but now Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra sits between them.

Coun. Druh Farrell, centre, sits in a new seat at Monday's council meeting. She used to sit next to Coun. Ward Sutherland, second from the left. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

"I don't want to be distracted while I'm in council," she said of the seat change.

"We have serious business to do and this is incredibly unprofessional. And, regardless of what was meant by the gesture, I have work to do."

Pincott, who is not running for re-election in October's municipal election, said this is just the latest in a series of incidents that he believes creates a toxic workplace, particularly for women.

"I think it is reflective of a pattern of behaviour — and, quite frankly, misogyny — that we've seen over the course of this council," Pincott said.

"This is a council where we had to have sensitivity training about how we interact with people. This is a council where we've had members censured because of how they've treated female employees."

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Sutherland's gesture was "juvenile and derogatory" regardless of whether it was directed at Farrell or Chabot.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks to reporters about Coun. Ward Sutherland's gesturing during a council meeting. (Mike Spenrath/CBC)

"Even if you believe his story to be true, in the middle of a very important land-use decision on 1,000 new homes in the community of Dalhousie … we had councillors who weren't paying attention, who were joking about something else, who were texting one another, on the very day we had a discussion at council about respect in a public hearing," he said.

The mayor was referring to an earlier motion introduced by Chabot to ban the use of social media during council meetings, which Chabot said was distracting council members from the discussion at hand.

The motion was voted down.

'An ongoing issue'

The integrity commissioner position was created in part due to concerns over inappropriate behaviour by council members that surfaced in 2014.

That included several incidents that were never disclosed publicly, but which Nenshi described at the time as "comments of a sexual nature or bullying" that were part of a "systemic problem" within "the general environment in the office of the councillors."

Members of council later agreed to take "respectful workplace" training and, in addition to the integrity commissioner position, also hired an ethics advisor to help guide them.

Pincott said despite that, problems persist with respect to the workplace environment.

"This is an ongoing issue," he said.

With files from Scott Dippel