Councillor breached code of conduct with comment on Sherbrooke drag event
Councillor writes apology to business, but lawyer says council has few other options
A municipal councillor has broken the code of conduct for the Municipality of the District of St. Mary's with his comment about a local drag event, leading to calls for better support of the LGBTQ community.
Last week, Coun. Everett Baker commented on an advertisement for a "dinner n' drag" event at Beanie's Bistro in Sherbrooke, N.S., saying "sorry, won't be entering your establishment anymore." The post about the event was made in a closed community group for the Sherbrooke area.
In an emergency meeting last Thursday, council said Baker's social media post "was deemed harmful to the reputation of the municipality" and violated the municipality's code of conduct.
Jake Chisholm co-organized the dinner n' drag event.
"Of course it's like a stab in the gut, especially when it comes from a municipal elected official," he said.
Chisholm, who is gay, said he worries comments like Baker's can have a negative impact on queer youth in rural areas like Sherbrooke and St. Mary's. The Eastern Shore municipality has a population of about 2,200 people.
"There's a lot of anger there, there's a lot of hurt and there's a lot of shock as well, too, because you would think after all this time ... we wouldn't really have to do too much of this anymore," Chisholm said.
At first, Beanie's owner, Tammie Vautour, said she thought nothing of the comment because she was prepared that not everyone would love the idea. But when Vautour found out Baker was a sitting councillor talking negatively about her business, she viewed it differently.
"To have an influence against a business, to have an influence not only against me, but the people I employ, the other businesses that supply my restaurant … I expect better from council," Vautour said.
The post got a lot of attention, and Vautour sent a complaint to Warden Greg Wier.
During the emergency meeting, councillors dealt with the matter in camera, but returned to share the outcome publicly. In light of Baker agreeing to write an apology letter to Beanie's, the warden said during the meeting that councillors decided no further sanctions were needed.
"I wasn't part of this conversation. I had no voice in this," Vautour said.
Baker's apology letter, which was dated last Friday, was delivered to Beanie's by another council member, Vautour said.
From the first line, which references only "owners" of Beanie's — Vautour is the sole owner — she said she felt the apology was not genuine.
Owner says apology was 'disrespectful'
Baker wrote that he sincerely apologized "for any and all offence" he might have caused, and there was "absolutely no offence intended." He also would "never condone racism bigotry [or] homophobia," Baker wrote.
"It was strictly a statement that I would have made to any establishment that I didn't intend to enter again," Baker said, but added that he realizes it "would naturally look as though it was meant to be hateful."
Vautour and Chisholm said they find it hard to believe Baker's comment was based on anything other than the drag event.
"It was clearly forced. It was clearly not sincere. It was disrespectful, I feel intentionally," Vautour said about the apology.
"If you really felt that the food wasn't good, or your coffee was bland, you normally talk about that while you're in the restaurant," Chisholm said.
Chisholm wrote a letter to St. Mary's calling for Baker's resignation, which he said would be honourable and give the councillor an opportunity to grow.
CBC contacted Baker for comment, but did not receive a response.
Council has few options for action: lawyer
St. Mary's council did pass a motion saying they support any business conducting lawful events, including Beanie's specifically, and "does not support discrimination according to sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression."
Municipal lawyer Peter Rogers spoke during the meeting about the limited powers council has. Rogers said current legislation allows them to announce a breach has been made, or temporarily remove a representative from non-mandatory committees. But, Rogers said council decided against that move as it would negatively affect Baker's residents.
Although the province has urged municipalities to create codes of conduct, they have not yet "provided the tools to sanction council members who are found in violation of those codes," Rogers said.
The province said in an email Tuesday there is a working group developing recommendations for regulations around these codes of conduct, how to handle complaints, and potential sanctions. The province said last summer that the working group hoped to be done by the end of 2022.
Both Chisholm and Vautour said they want more from St. Mary's, especially a commitment to sensitivity and diversity training. Chisholm said he's also requesting St. Mary's follow other municipalities' leads by proclaiming June as Pride month and flying the Pride flag during that time.
Warden Wier said in an email Tuesday that council is "always open to training opportunities to educate councillors." When asked about specific steps council might take to support the LGBTQ community, Wier said they address concerns from all residents and will ensure diversity will continue to be important.
"The motion of support for events like the Dinner N Drag is a strong affirmation of council's position of support for members of LGBTQ+ communities," Wier said.
Support from community
Since Baker's comment there's also been an outpouring of kind words and people coming into the restaurant, Vautour said, and both performances of the August drag show have sold out.
"People that I know maybe would never attend the show, or maybe even never agree with the show certainly supported me in what I'm doing and that was an amazing thing to see," Vautour said.
"That's what it should all be. We don't all have to agree, but we all need to care a little about each other and support each other."
Chisholm said he has plans to bring another show featuring music, drag and comedy to Sherbrooke in the near future, and is brainstorming other events to help LGBTQ residents have fun and feel more at home.
When it comes to Baker, Chisholm said he's offered to have a private conversation with the councillor to help him "gain perspective." So far Baker has not contacted him, but Chisholm said "the invitation for him is always there."