A former white-supremacist group leader is working for Hamilton, what can the city do?
Marc Lemire says he rejects the Heritage Front and he's not a neo-Nazi
Safe workplace laws, privacy protection and employee rights will all come into play as Hamilton's human relations department investigates the city's employment of the former head of a white supremacist group in its IT department.
A number of safety and privacy concerns have been raised by former and current politicians and community members over the city's employment of Marc Lemire, the former leader of the white supremacist Heritage Front.
The outcry has prompted the city to launch an investigation. Stuart Rudner, an employment lawyer and mediator, says the situation is complex and raises many questions.
The simple answer of firing Lemire, as some on social media are demanding, isn't really so simple.
As part of its evaluation, Rudner says the city will have to consider what information Lemire has access to, whether he's still involved in white-supremacist activities and if it can maintain a safe workplace for all employees if he's still part of its workforce.
"Even though there might be a knee-jerk reaction to just get rid of this guy, if there's really no reason to have any concern, I don't think that would be justifiable cause for dismissal," said the lawyer. "And frankly I'm not sure it would be fair to him if he really has changed his ways."
City promises "measured approach"
There has been no public allegation of wrongdoing by Lemire in his work for the city.
In an email to CBC News, Lemire said he rejects the Heritage Front and he's neither a white supremacist nor a neo-Nazi.
It's not clear what data and emails he had access to in his IT role, and the city won't say.
Lora Fontana, head of the city's human resources department said "possible misconduct" is taken seriously, adding if the investigation "substantiates a policy violation, appropriate action will be taken."
She also suggested the situation needed to be handled carefully, hinting at its complexity.
"It is important that we take a measured approach to the investigation to ensure we gain a deeper understanding of the situation, determine the facts, and remain respectful of all concerns and parties throughout the process," she wrote in an email.
Impact of off-duty conduct
Off-duty conduct can warrant discipline, including dismissal, especially if it hurts an employer's reputation, according to the Rudner.
But if it's true Lemire has rejected his involvement in such an offensive group it makes the situation more complicated.
"In this case you're going to have to weigh the fact that he seems to have rehabilitated," explained Rudner. "So it may be very hard to show you had just cause to fire him."
If there's any risk that he's going to have access to personal information and ... caused anyone to be in danger, then that's a very significant factor.- Stuart Rudner, employment lawyer
But, he added, Lemire's employment could still be an issue when it comes to whether or not colleagues, councillors and the public will feel safe working with him given his past.
Rudner has written a book "three inches thick" about the questions that must be considered to determine just cause for dismissal.
He said the city's investigation should look at what Lemire is doing now, whether he really has distanced himself from white supremacy, or if there have been any concerns raised about the misuse of confidential information.
The process will also have to give Lemire a chance to respond to concerns and allegations before any decision is made.
IT role raises safety and security concerns
Working in IT potentially gives Lemire access to all sorts of sensitive data, said Rudner, which raises questions about safety for other city employees.
The lawyer suggested one possible outcome is moving Lemire to a different department where there won't be as many security worries, but noted the city might not be able to do that unilaterally and he may have to agree to any change in role.
Still, his current position is something Rudner describes as a "real concern."
"If there's any risk that he's going to have access to personal information and abused that or caused anyone to be in danger, then that's a very significant factor."
Multiple sources have confirmed Lemire's employment to CBC News, and Vice Canada reported it Wednesday.
Mayor says he was unaware of Lemire's background
Matthew Green, who was Hamilton's first black councillor from 2014 to 2018, said he felt betrayed and threatened to learn of the city's employment of Lemire.
Green and other community members want to know how much the city knew about his past when it hired him.
Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger tweeted Friday that he was "totally unaware" Lemire was working for the city.
Thank for your thoughts! I was totally unaware of this employee and his background! It is very concerning and It will now be thoroughly investigated by the city manager and Hr staff and we will await the outcome! No room for hate &discrimination in our city! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/hamiltonforall?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#hamiltonforall</a>—@FredEisenberger
Describing Lemire's background as "very concerning," Eisenberger said there's no room for hate in Hamilton and promised a thorough investigation.
Lemire said in a statement to CBC Hamilton that he's not a white supremacist or neo-Nazi, and that he "has not been involved in politics for many years."
He is involvement in white surpremacist activities began in the early 1990s. He took over leadership of Heritage Front from its neo-Nazi founder in the late 90s, and ran it until its demise in 2005. He started a website called The Freedom Site in 1996 where he styled himself as a free speech crusader. It was last updated in 2015.
Lemire said the website now acts as an archive for his battle against section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
He has also been closely connected to white nationalist Paul Fromm, who recently moved to Hamilton and ran for mayor last year.
"The Heritage Front stuff dates back to when I was a teenager," Lemire said, linking to an article where he said he's not a Nazi or white supremacist.
"I reject the Heritage Front for what it was, as I have stated consistently for over 11 years."
But, as Vice reported, an archived web page from the Heritage Front's website from 2001 shows Lemire distributing flyers saying "immigration can kill" in Hamilton. A post on Lemire's own webpage from that same year also describes him as the "head honcho" of the organization.
"It's a thankless job, but I guess somebody has to do it," wrote Heritage Front founder Gerry Lincoln.
with files from Samantha Craggs and Dan Taekema