Inclusion includes the unvaccinated, claims Hamilton councillor

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Published March 22, 2023 at 3:23 pm

Ward 7 Coun. Esther Pauls tried to put COVID-19 vaccine refusal in the same conversation with Hamilton’s efforts to get more racialized women and people with disabilities applying for local boards.

At a general issues committee (GIC) meeting today, elected leaders in Hamilton received an information report from the city’s human resources and corporate services department entitled, “Attracting Diversity During the Recruitment Process.” The stated focus of the report is to build an EDI (equity, diversity, inclusion) framework to the city policy regarding appointing citizens to local boards, agencies, and committees.

Pauls swung the discussion around to the city’s oft-amended policy of requiring COVID-19 vaccination for new employees or committee volunteers. In January 2022, she was one of only two councillors (and the only one still in office) who voted against the initial policy that was intended to limit the spread of the airborne coronavirus and protect Hamiltonians. There have been more than 75,000 cases of COVID-19 in Hamilton, and 677 deaths related to the virus, over the last three years.

“Our policy says the City of Hamilton accepts applications from all members of the community,” Pauls said, reading from her mobile phone. “This language is quite misleading, since we require mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 as per the city’s mandatory vaccination policy (for new employees).

“Lemme ask… as such, from logic point of view, we should either scale back the rhetoric from a diversity point of view, DEI, at the start of the policy, given that we still have a mandatory vaccination policy, or we should drop the mandatory vaccination policy, and then and only then, can we genuinely brag about diversity, equity, and inclusion. On one end, we welcome all diversity of thought, and the other end we say ‘no, not all.’ So I wanna ask, can we take that out of our policy?”

Ward 6 Coun. Tom Jackson, who was chairing the meeting, pointed out the GIC was the wrong forum to contest an employment policy that was adopted at a city council meeting. Human resources executive director Lora Fontana also explained that the vaccination policy was probably best left until the next time Medical Officer of Health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson brings a report to a council committee. That is slated for May, Fontana said.

‘Because you have a beard on’

Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder Nann, who was seated next to Pauls and is a South Asian-Canadian, also reminded the room of the purpose for the information report. In 2018, the city found it had “room to improve” the applicant pool of women and people with disabilities for committees. For instance, 51.1 per cent of adults in Hamilton (as of the 2016 Census) were women, but they made up only 36.9% of applicants. Persons with disabilities were underrepresented by a factor of nearly of two — making up 15.2 per cent of applicants compared to 29.1% of the population (graphic, below).

“Equity is defined very clearly and understood under Canadian human rights law and Canadian equity law,” Nann said. “Each of those pieces of legislation in our country identified groups. Vaccine status is not recognized there. What was this report is intended to address is equity-deserving groups because we want to recognize systemic barriers that have prevented the engagement of Hamiltonians who want to serve honourably.”

In response, Pauls drew the analogy of leaving someone out of a group because they have facial hair. She stood up and gestured at several people a she spoke.

“That’s OK, and I respect that, and I’m always here to be corrected,” Pauls said. My question is, should we take the word ‘all’ out of the policy? Because not all are welcome. If I say all of you are welcome except you, you, and you, because you have a beard on, then it doesn’t make sense.”

Jackson then interjected, telling Pauls, “Councillor, you’re now into a rhetorical comment, that’s not for staff to comment on.”

Pauls later asked for a definition of inclusion. In response, talent and diversity director Jodi Koch explained the term refers “to the ability to participate in a meaningful way.”

Votes to receive an information report often pass unanimously. This time around, there was a 13-1 vote. Pauls voted against the inclusion of the report in the body of information that councillors use to make decisions.

Around 500 city employees refused vaccination at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which one of the layers of protection against COVID-19. They were able to return to work last fall, but the policy was retained for any new hirings.

The information report that was before the GIC today recommends a “focus on improving the applicant pool for Women and Persons with Disabilities by leveraging community organizations… and targeted recruitment advertising.” Examples of groups that could help the city strengthen the applicant pool for agencies, boards and committees, etc., include:

  • Afro-Canadian Action Congress
  • Canadian Hearing Services,
  • Canadian National Institute for the Blind — Hamilton
  • Development Services Ontario — Hamilton-Niagara Region
  • Goodwill Amity Employment Services
  • Native Women’s Circle
  • Muslim Association of Hamilton Women’s Group.
  • March of Dimes Canada (Hamilton)
  • Path Employment Services.
  • Somali Women of Hamilton
  • Women Abuse Working Group
  • Women for Women of India

Nann appeared to be the only councillor who was wearing a well-fitting mask over her nose and mouth. Ward 11 Coun. Mark Tadeson was attending the meeting virtually while recovering from a bout of COVID.

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