Response to the accusations of harassment levelled against Engage Barrie Organization...
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
...and its members by a still-sitting City Councillor
As an organization that focuses on Council accountability, we will first note that Councillor Harris is still bound by the City’s Code of Conduct until her term ends on November 15. This targeting of Engage Barrie members and characterization of them as “harassers” is a pattern of hers that is in direct violation of that Code of Conduct, as she should know from those previous instances – one of which was published by Barrie Today in 2020: https://www.barrietoday.com/local-news/toxic-social-media-overshadowing-legitimate-criticism-says-citizen-2073159
Also, to be clear, the political satire account “The Biased Scribe” is in no way affiliated with Engage Barrie Organization, and the claim that Engage Barrie “[has] its Chair create an incognito account that ruthlessly harasses people” is completely false and slanderous. We do not follow, endorse, or support that account in any way. Furthermore, as anyone can clearly see from their Twitter account The Biased Scribe began in 2019 – while Engage Barrie was already a loose collective of people interested in municipal politics, it did not become an incorporated entity, let alone have a Chair, until June of 2021. Our minutes are available to the public, and at no time has any direction been given by the Board or its membership regarding that account.
As for Councillor Harris’s allegations towards Engage Barrie Organization: As is posted publicly on our website, Engage Barrie Organization was incorporated for the purposes of:
Building an engaged, equitable and empowered local democracy
Encouraging public involvement in Barrie politics
Advocating for accountability and transparency in local government
In our work on that third pillar especially, Engage Barrie has certainly criticized some of Councillor Natalie Harris’s votes and actions in Council — and held others up as positive examples — as we do for all members of Council. We keep track of voting patterns, and we make note of instances where it is our opinion that the City’s Code of Conduct or other relevant legislation has been breached. Holding Council accountable and helping the public understand the mechanisms of local government are two of our key foundations.
Holding our government representatives accountable for their votes and actions as our government representatives is not harassment — it is one form of public engagement with our elected officials, which is essential to a healthy democracy.
One of Engage Barrie Organization’s founding principles is “Creating Safe Spaces”, and we have a vigorous anti-harassment policy. No public official (or member of the public) should ever have to deal with violence, threats, intimidation or invasion of privacy, and we would never engage in nor condone such behaviour. That Mayor Lehman has had to have a security detail, as he stated in Council last Wednesday night, is abhorrent and unacceptable to us (and would be for any member of Council), as is the targeted abuse and harassment that many public leaders, especially women, visible minorities, and openly LGBTQ+ representatives have been subjected to.
One of our group’s top priorities even before Engage was incorporated was to increase diversity on Council, and we tried hard to encourage more people from under-represented groups to run in our “If you don’t run, who wins?” Campaign. The number one concern we heard from people we approached was targeted harassment of public officials towards any of these under-represented groups. We know the damage such abuse and harassment can cause to democracy.
To be clear: Engage Barrie Organization unequivocally denounces abuse or harassment of anyone, including elected officials.
However, we do object to being labelled as harassers, or having individual members of the public being labelled as harassers, for simply holding our elected officials accountable. Especially in the context of the “Stopping Abuse and Harassment of Local Leaders Act, 2022” which was discussed on Wednesday, the City’s own workplace harassment case (which was one of the 3 cases MPP Blais spoke of when announcing his rationale for the bill), her own votes and behaviour around the workplace harassment case, and our Mayor’s very real fear for his and his family’s safety, it is a watering down of the meaning of the word, and is an egregious false equivalency, which seems designed more for silencing dissent and criticism than for protecting anyone’s safety.
Engage Barrie Organization has never engaged in any harassment of Councillor Harris, nor of any of her colleagues. Any commentary or correspondence to or referencing her or any other public representatives have all been around votes and other actions as an elected leader, and how they affect the City and its people.
(Yes, a little over a year ago, one former member did use our Twitter account in ways that violated our policies – though not in reference to Councillor Harris. Their posts were removed, we tightened up our social media access and policies, and accepted their resignation. All this to say and show that we are sincere and strict with our safe spaces and anti-harassment values.)
Engage Barrie Organization advocates for accountability and transparency and following the City’s Code of Conduct — and we hold our organization to the same standards. Our website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts are all publicly accessible, and can easily be searched to verify what Engage Barrie has or has not said to or about Councillor Harris, or any other member of Council or City Committees.
Doing that search ourselves, the only negative “to” interactions we can find with Councillor Harris are the following:
March 28, 2022, Twitter, re: workplace harassment case
Councillor Harris tweeted at us during a Council meeting, to declare how and why she voted in the first General Committee meeting dealing with the workplace harassment case, and claiming she’d voted against changing the Code of Conduct. To which Engage replied (after Council was over):
“It is disappointing that you chose to take to Twitter in the middle of the Anti-Racism Task Force’s update to Council, instead of paying attention to what they had to present, as a City Councillor and representative of your Ward. They had many good things to learn from.
Also disappointing that you are attempting to refute what can easily be verified by watching the meeting from October 20. The wording of Deputy Mayor Ward’s amendment can be seen at youtu.be/qau2WjQaDbI?t=…, followed by the voting on the amendment.
The exact wording of Deputy Mayor Ward’s amendment was:
“Notwithstanding the deadline set out for taking action on complaints in the Council Code of Conduct, the Integrity Commissioner be asked to investigate the allegations set out in confidential Staff Report HRS-002-20”
There is no mention whatsoever about changing the Code of Conduct in that amendment. The amendment was to ask the Integrity Commissioner to investigate the allegations set out in the Staff Report.
And, as can also be seen in the video, you voted against that amendment.
We could understand if you were confused then and regretted your vote later. But with the evidence presented in the video and written wording of the amendment, why would you attest the vote was for something else?
The amendment’s wording was clear. The votes were clear.”
All of which were statements of fact, backed up by the video evidence quoted.
December 21, 2020, Twitter, also re: workplace harassment case
This time as well, Councillor Harris initiated the exchange, again regarding the workplace harassment matter, with a quote from the City’s press release: “At no time did Council vote to suspend, block, or slow down an investigation of this matter.” To which Engage replied:
“As there was never any motion put forward in Council “to suspend, block or slow down an investigation of this matter”, then it seems rather obvious that nobody could have possibly voted for such a thing.
This was a very odd sentence to include in the press release in the first place – not to mention quote to us here. Especially as so many Engage Barrie women had asked you several very pointed questions and raised several very serious issues.
On Oct. 20, however, you and four of your fellow Councillors did directly vote AGAINST a motion to call upon the Integrity Commissioner to investigate the (substantiated) allegations in the case, as well as a motion to get a legal opinion on alternative responses.
A publicly verifiable fact, neither addressed nor erased by that sentence you quoted.
Reference: youtu.be/qau2WjQaDbI — see 3:11-5:13 and 5:18-8:04 (viewers may note the visibly obvious timing of texts being sent and received and by whom during these times as well)
You and your four fellow Councillors may not have had the opportunity to vote TO block these actions, but your vote AGAINST them did, in fact, effectively block and/or slow down these two proposed investigations.
As Engage Barrie posted on Facebook last night, the City press release (as well as the entire process) regarding this Workplace Harassment case was extremely disappointing, as is this response now from you.
Both seem more about protecting yourselves than expressing any remorse towards the victim – let alone committing to any sort of accountability for the City’s failure to protect her, or its failure to have her complaint processed efficiently, compassionately, or satisfyingly.”
March 2, 2021, Twitter, re: “Heart Barrie” sign (which many have identified as intricately connected to the workplace harassment case)
This is the only instance we can find where Engage initiated an interaction with Councillor Harris, when she told another individual that no taxpayer money was being spent on the “Heart Barrie” sign, to which Engage responded:
“Saying taxpayer dollars will not fund this project is completely false. @cityofbarrie $ is being spent on this project RIGHT NOW, as staff investigates & prepares reports – which, as stated last night, is going to require the work of several departments and paid staff hours.”
And while we did initiate contact, it was again with facts, not harassment.
This is not the first time that Ms. Harris has taken to the media to paint members of the public holding her accountable and questioning her voting patterns as “harassers”.
In early 2020, Holly McDaniel – who later spearheaded our Supervised Consumption Saves Lives campaign – found herself the subject of such accusations when she asked Councillor Harris how she reconciled her vote against the original Supervised Consumption Site proposal with her personal advocacy for those struggling with addiction. Councillor Harris used both social and local media to label her a “troll”, blocked anyone who had merely “liked” Ms. McDaniel’s question, and her followers subsequently engaged in harassment of Ms. McDaniel. Another of our members had to go to the Integrity Commissioner when Councillor Harris used social media to publicly declare them a harasser for asking questions on her record on harm reduction issues. That complaint was resolved informally, with a caution given and an apology requested. The Integrity Commissioner’s published response to the first incident included the statement
“If an inquiry is respectful and not communicated in a harassing or abusive way and made for the purpose of obtaining information or addressing a query, those are all legitimate reasons for communicating.”
Incidents such as these were some of the initial reasons why the people who would eventually create Engage Barrie came together in the first place – they were fed up with the voices of the public being ignored, shamed, smeared and silenced by those who had been elected to listen to and represent our voices.
Seeking accountability from our government representatives is not harassment. Speaking truth to power is not harassment.
As the Integrity Commissioner has already cautioned Councillor Harris, at least twice: a Councillor calling members of the public “harassers” for simply asking for answers and accountability is a violation of the City’s Code of Conduct. That this label is being thrown at members of the public in the context of being asked to account for her votes and actions regarding a substantiated harassment complaint against a City Councillor (who is now running in the electoral race she vacated) makes her vilification of the residents she was elected to represent all the more concerning.
It is, unfortunately, no surprise that Councillor Harris has taken to resuming this behaviour mere days after her final Council meeting as an elected official, when — even though she is still officially bound by the City’s Code of Conduct until the end of her term — she can no longer face any repercussions or accountability from the Integrity Commissioner for her repetition of these breaches of the Code.
Engage Barrie Organization and its members will not be bullied or intimidated out of holding our elected officials accountable.