City considers policy on recognizing genocide while community groups are told to wait

Sept. 26, 2017

A report to address which genocides will be recognized at city hall came to Executive Committee on Tuesday, bringing to light an incident this past spring when a Rwandan group was told they couldn’t raise their flag at City Hall to commemorate the 1994 genocide because the policy was under review.

Caleb Mabano was told by city staff in April this year that the Rwandan Community Abroad group would not be able to raise the Rwandan flag this year, as they have in the past few years, as the issue of recognition of genocide was under review.

“I usually send out an email [to the city] a day or two, a week before [April 7, the day when the genocide is recognized] just to make sure we have the flag ready, and the equipment that will be ready for that day,” Mabano, president of Rwandan Community Abroad, told reporters after the committee meeting. “I was basically told to wait a little bit, and why don’t they look into it… this is why I’m here today.”

Mabano said his group had been coming every year to raise the flag, and was surprised when this year they were told they couldn’t, because the policy wasn’t complete.

Mayor John Tory did not seem happy about how the events transpired in his own questioning to the clerk. “We could have allowed it one more year – that was an option that was open to us?”

“Correct,” Ulli S. Watkiss, Toronto’s city clerk, said to the committee.

“So a decision was taken by public servants, and it is what it is, but I just wanted to clarify that is an approach we could have taken, which is, I think, what you were getting at and would’ve allowed this year’s ceremony to take place,” Tory said.

Councillor Jim Karygiannis wants council to apologize. “I think staff should have allowed them to continue, but maybe their hands were tied or whatever happened, but we certainly did not recognize the community that wanted to raise their flag… we put them in that position. We – as the request came from the deputy mayor – put them in that position, and therefore I think we as council  – I don’t think, I demand that we as council apologize to this community.”

Karygiannis has brought two members’ motions to city council in the past to recognize genocide: the first was a motion in 2015 to recognize the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and the second was a motion in 2016 on the Pontian genocide, which he brought to the House of Commons when he was an MP. The councillor said over email that the policy is not retroactive but only moving forward.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong said these types of requests are the reason he brought forward the motion to council for the policy. “From time to time we’re asked to make decisions about declaring something a genocide or a massacre, and those are serious issues and they’re serious words with serious implications, and we’re making uninformed decisions… I proposed that we come up with a framework where we can intelligently investigate and learn about these things,” Minnan-Wong said.

“And so the proposal was to basically say, if the federal government recognizes a genocide or a massacre or similar event, that the City of Toronto would automatically recognize it as well. The federal government is equipped with – some of these things happened over a century ago, they have historians, they have people in consular offices around the world, they have a foreign affairs office. They’re equipped to deal with these things. We [at the City of Toronto] are not.”

The new policy developed by city staff that came before the mayor’s Executive Committee on Tuesday, Commemorating World Events: Report on Recognizing Genocides and Massacres, states: “This standardized approach is similar to other Council-approved City policies, such as the Public Art and Monuments Donation Policy and the City’s Flag Policy, which follow federal direction on matters related to global affairs.”

However, based on the Government of Canada’s website, it doesn’t look like there is a list that is clear about what the federal government recognizes and what it doesn’t. Examples in the city report include observance of events related to the Holocaust Memorial Day Act, the Ukrainian Famine and Genocide (“Holodomor”) Memorial Day Act, the Armenian genocide recognition resolution, the Rwandan genocide resolution and the Srebrenica genocide resolution.

Signal Toronto asked city staff if there were other groups told they couldn’t raise their flag between the motion in January and today as a result of the pending policy, and what exactly will be included in the federal direction.

Barbara Sullivan, the city’s chief protocol officer, wrote to Signal Toronto in an email, saying there was one other request and that group was also told “that recognition of genocides or massacres was currently under review as requested by city council, and that flag raisings to recognize such would not be facilitated until a direction has been provided.”

Examples of events and activities that will be governed by this report include: Commemorative Tree and Bench Program, Flag Raising, Greetings from the Mayor Program, Half-Masting Policy, Individual and Corporate Naming Rights Proclamations, Property Naming Policy, Public Arts and Monuments Policy, and Street Naming Policy.

The policy recommends that April be named “Genocide Remembrance, Condemnation and Prevention” month.

Mabano not only came to speak but also submitted a letter to Executive Committee requesting that the terms “genocide” and “massacre” be distinguished from one another in the city’s policy. “Genocide is intentional, systematic, planned and executed against a given race and yes, it is preventable, whereas massacres and violent acts can be random and spontaneous, therefore referring to them as somehow the same or to be treated the same undermines the magnitude of genocide,” Mabano wrote in the letter to committee.

The policy currently does not distinguish between “genocide” and “massacre.”