Hamilton committee member leaves meeting over his Trump hat

Once upon a time, red hats with white letters were harmless. Now, a red cap bearing the words "Make America Great Again" is enough to make someone declare a conflict of interest, and leave a meeting at Hamilton city hall.

David Serwatuk says he doesn't care who won the U.S. election. Others who do called the hat out of line

The slogan "Make America Great Again" has become of a fixture of the Trump campaign. Here, President-elect Trump puts on his signature "Make America Great Again" hat in Sacramento, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

Once upon a time, red hats with white letters were harmless.

Now they come loaded with meaning, even if, as Dave Serwatuk says, he has no idea how controversial that meaning can be.   

'It's a clear symbol when it comes to targeting identifiable groups, torture, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and ableism.'- Matthew Green, city councillor

Serwatuk, a member of Hamilton's quasi-judicial committee of adjustment, brought a red Trump hat bearing the words "Make America Great Again" to a committee session Thursday.

When pointed out to him, he quickly excused himself, declared a conflict of interest, and left the meeting.

During the meeting of the committee that decides on minor planning disputes, he placed it on the table in front of him.

The hat remained throughout the meeting — on the table, in full view but facing him. At times, he set it on his knee.

That drew protest from a Beasley Neighbourhood Association representative. Beasley is a multicultural community, said Joey Coleman, who was speaking on a planning issue. And the hat — or any political display — is inappropriate.

"You're a quasi-judicial official at the present time," Coleman said. "You are here in that role."

That's when Serwatuk declared a conflict and left the room.

He said afterward that he wasn't trying to make a statement. He also insisted that he didn't care who won the U.S. presidential election.

David Serwatuk kept a "Make America great again" hat on the table throughout a Hamilton committee of adjustment meeting. When someone complained, he removed it. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

His brother gave him the hat as a gift shortly before the meeting, he said. He arrived at city hall and didn't know where else to put it, so he put it on the table.

I'm not sure what his point would be.- Helen Doliveira, resident who spoke at the committee of adjustment meeting

Serwatuk said he's unaware of the tension displaying such a hat would cause, or any of the recent issues around it. 

That would make him one of the few.

Last week, Hamilton judge Bernd Zabel caused uproar when he wore the hat into a courtroom — a place where judges must be politically impartial.

Four people have filed complaints with the Ontario Judicial Council. Matthew Green, a Ward 3 city councillor, wants Zabel to step down. The judge apologized earlier this week, calling his actions a "misguided attempt to mark a moment in history by humour."

The hat had loaded meaning even before Trump won the election on Nov. 8 too, capping off a campaign that included verbal barbs against immigrants, Muslims and racial minorities. 

In September, a woman received hundreds of threats after she was filmed telling a Mount Royal University student to take off his Trump hat. Some implored her to kill herself, while others threatened sexual assault and death.

'A clear symbol'

It was "people saying they can't wait to kill me, they can't wait to have me not on the planet and terrible insults about people of colour and anyone of different sexual orientation," Zoe Slusar told CBC News then. "It's shocking."

I'm a Canadian citizen and all I care about is Canada.- David Serwatuk

Since Trump's win, tensions have mounted. There have been reports of racist incidents across the U.S. and Canada, including Hamilton.

With feelings so raw, Green said, a hat is not just a hat. And it shouldn't be at a committee of adjustment meeting.

It's "a clear symbol," Green said, "when it comes to targeting identifiable groups, torture, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and ableism.

"For all those reasons — and for people that are part of those identifiable groups who view that hat as a symbol of their targeted violence, which we've seen in these recent weeks — it's a very inappropriate move."

The mayor agrees. In a tweet sent late Thursday afternoon, Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger called the move "unacceptable" and promised to address the issue. 

'It seems inappropriate'

Helen Doliveira presented before the committee of adjustment on Thursday. She didn't even notice Serwatuk's hat. When informed of it, she was perplexed.

"It seems inappropriate," Doliveira said. "I'm not sure what his point would be."

Serwatuk said he didn't think it would upset anyone.

"I didn't wear it," he said. "I didn't flaunt it. I didn't promote it. I never showed it to anyone."

Trump, and the U.S. election, "doesn't have anything to do with me," he said. "I'm a Canadian citizen and all I care about is Canada."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC