2 St. Catharines anti-racism committee members resign after 'lack of support' from council

Two members of the St. Catharines anti-racism advisory committee have resigned, citing city council's "consistent lack of support."

Anti-racism committee resignations prompted member from LGBTQ committee to resign in solidarity

Two pictures of each person, side by side.
Vicki-Lynn Smith (left), the vice chair of St. Catharines' anti-racism advisory committee, and member Erica Williams, have resigned from the committee. (Submitted by Vicki-Lynn Smith and Erica Williams)

Two members of St. Catharines' anti-racism advisory committee have resigned, citing city council's "consistent lack of support."

Vicki-Lynn Smith, vice chair, and Erica Williams each sent a resignation letter to city council on Wednesday.

"This is not the compassionate city they like to portray it as," Smith told CBC Hamilton on Wednesday. "You talk the talk, but you don't walk it."

The letter dated Sept. 13 says council "displayed an unwillingness to respect our positions and our knowledge" and continuing to stay on the committee would "only lend legitimacy to your pretense and therefore we resign."

"Whether the issue was the need for police to wear body cameras or the need for council to take a stand against racist 'entertainers' being allowed to use city facilities to propagate their messages, council has demonstrated the lip-service lens through which they view this committee," reads the letter.

The letter said the committee has done hard work to try to fight racism in the city, but said the circumstances don't allow the committee to reach its full potential.

Smith is a fifth generation descendant of freedom seekers who settled in St. Catharines in the mid-1800s. She's also an executive member of Niagara Region Anti-Racism Association (NRARA).

Williams, meanwhile, runs Erica's Embrace — a non-profit which offers Black advocacy to people in Niagara, as well as providing local shelters with Black hair care and beauty products.

Jeff Dunham show was breaking point

Their resignation also prompted Liam Coward to resign from the city's LGBTQ2S+ advisory committee and its Equity and Inclusion advisory committee.

He posted on Twitter saying his resignation was in solidarity with Smith and Williams.

"I have often felt that the way these committees are treated by some staff and councillors amounts to tokenization and hollow allyship," he wrote in a letter.

This all comes after the city declined to ask the managers of the Meridian Centre to cancel Jeff Dunham's comedy show in November despite concerns from the city's anti-racism advisory committee.

Jeff Dunham is an American comedian best known for his ventriloquism, which has faced criticism for portraying characters that rely on racial stereotypes.

Smith told CBC Hamilton the conversation council had about the Dunham show was her breaking point.

The mayor and others said asking to cancel the Dunham show could lead to a slippery slope that could see books removed from libraries.

A man sits on a couch with five puppets.
Jeff Dunham is an American comedian and ventriloquist who rose to global stardom in the 2000s. (www.jeffdunham.com)

Coun. Bill Phillips said cancelling the "virtually sold out" show could upset a lot of people who bought tickets.

In the end, only Coun. Greg Miller and Coun. Karrie Porter supported trying to get the show stopped.

However, all of council support a motion that asks city staff to create guiding principles for future performances at all city facilities with input from equity seeking groups and or advisory committees.

Smith said it seems city council is more concerned about the people who can afford the shows, many of whom may not be people of colour.

She added she hopes people will protest the Dunham show set to take place on Nov. 20.

Resignations may impact quorum

Saleh Waziruddin, chair of the anti-racism advisory committee, said in an interview on Wednesday said he tried to convince Smith and Williams not to resign because he's hopeful city council may be more eager to listen after the fall election.

"It has a serious impact on the committee," he said, adding Smith was also the representative on the city's equity and inclusion committee.

Waziruddin said Smith and Williams were some of the most consistent members at committee meetings.

With their resignation, the committee now has eight members and must have five members to meet quorum.

"I'm hopeful we will keep getting quorum," Waziruddin said.

'Unfortunate but unsurprising'

Mayor Walter Sendzik didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Coun. Miller told CBC Hamilton in a statement the resignations are "unfortunate but unsurprising," saying the members of the committee are "justified in believing council isn't listening to them."

"Erica and Vicki-Lynn provided really valuable insight and policy ideas to the City at a time when we lack diversity in leaderships. Those contributions will be sorely missed," he wrote.

He said next term, city council will have to reckon with why they have an equity committee.

"We are asking for a lot of time, input and the sharing of sometimes painful lived experiences from members of these committees. If we are not going to listen when they speak to us or call on us to act, we are wasting their time," he said.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.