MARATHON – Marathon mayor Rick Dumas violated the town’s code of conduct when he confronted a resident at their home over a social media post, an integrity commissioner report has found.
An investigation into the June 2 incident found Dumas acted unprofessionally when he made the visit to dispute a Facebook comment. The post suggested the town’s belated lowering of Ontario's flag following the discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops was an expression of racism.
The report from Expertise for Municipalities, the Town of Marathon’s integrity commissioner, concluded that accusation couldn’t be proven, but did substantiate a complaint from the resident (referred to as the "requestor") that Dumas acted inappropriately.
“When the Mayor attended the Requestor’s residence… the Mayor was very upset and spoke to the Requestor inappropriately to the point that the Mayor was heard yelling at the Requestor by a neighbour,” the report found.
That violates a code of conduct clause requiring elected officials to behave professionally with constituents, the report found.
The report did not recommend a penalty, instead advising mayor and council to undergo training on ethical behaviour and the code of conduct.
Town council is empowered to issue reprimands or suspend pay for violations, but endorsed the recommendation for mandatory training by the end of January 2022.
The issue arose at the end of May when the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. was announced.
Dumas reached out to the town’s CAO on Sunday, May 30 ensuring the Canadian flag would be lowered at town offices Monday morning. It didn’t occur to him to also lower the provincial flag, he said.
Ontario ordered flags to be lowered at provincial buildings on May 30, but the town hadn’t received a request to do so by Tuesday, June 1, the report said.
That’s when Dumas said comments “started to pop up” on social media criticizing the town for not lowering all its flags.
“Residents of Marathon and Biigtigong, the neighbouring First Nation were angry, saddened, and frustrated that phone calls were not being returned and that questions were not being addressed by the Town and more specifically, the Mayor or the CAO,” according to the integrity commissioner’s report.
The town also took heat for an un-lowered Canadian flag at a local cenotaph, though it belongs to a legion, not the municipality. Town employees contacted the legion to remedy that on June 1.
The town lowered the Ontario flag on June 2, after Dumas spoke with the chief of neighbouring Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, also known as Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation.
Dumas said he visited the homes of several residents who made online comments Wednesday to explain the situation. The comment that sparked the integrity complaint was made that day.
“There is no doubt that the flag had to be lowered,” the comment read. “Protests would have begun otherwise and rightly so. However the previous three-day refusal (because they didn’t HAVE to lower the provincial flag) is more than just sad. To me, it aligns with the definition of modern racism.”
Dumas pulled up to the resident’s house around 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, “unannounced, uninvited, angry [and] visibly agitated,” according to the requestor.
A neighbour who described otherwise “liking [Dumas] very much” said he was “very angry” and “shouting," according to the report.
Dumas accused the resident of “tarnishing relations with the First Nations community of Biigtigong that he’d been working so hard over the years to build."
“I definitely went with that passion to protect my council and administration from comments that were made on social media,” said Dumas in an interview. “There was a bit of a raised voice.”
He said he’ll rethink visiting residences without an invitation going forward. He also asked family and colleagues not to share social media posts with him, he added – he doesn’t personally use social media.
“A lot of [politicians] don’t participate in social media for that very [reason],” he said. “It’s hard to rebut every comment or stem issues that come up when people are just sitting back – I call them armchair quarterbacks – without getting involved, they make comments, and that’s frustrating at times.”
He said he regretted his behaviour but stopped short of issuing an apology to the complainant.
“I apologize to my council and administration, and I also recognize the impact it might have had on the individual… but I felt the tension was equally shared on both sides of the debate, so I did not apologize to the requestor,” he said.
Coun. Ray Lake said at an Oct. 25 meeting elected officials are held to a higher standard.
“[Dumas is] probably one of the only mayors I know who will read something on Facebook and actually go talk to you about it… We’ve said to him before, that’s probably not a good idea.”
“I would never fault the mayor for his passion or for his willingness to engage with his constituents. But… there is in this office a higher calling for how we speak to the folks we represent.”
The report concluded the allegation the mayor “engaged in a systemically racist way by failing to lower the provincial flag" was unsubstantiated.
“There is no evidence to support that failing to do this immediately was based on racism especially when they had taken other actions in recognition of the discovery of the graves," it reads.
Dumas himself said there was more smoke than fire in the complaint.
“I think it was just a moment in time where people were making comments. We had a wonderful parade the following week in Marathon, the chief and I walked [along with] a couple hundred people in recognition of Every Child Matters.”
Biigtigong Nishnaabeg since donated a flagpole that’s been installed outside Marathon’s municipal office, where the First Nation’s flag and an Every Child Matters flag now fly.