Five days after he shared a post about the ‘other side of residential schools’ on his personal Facebook page, Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb apologized during a regular council meeting held Tuesday, Nov. 2.
Cobb was responding to an open letter from Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars requesting the city clarify its position on the impacts of residential schools after Cobb shared a post on social media purporting there is another ‘side of residential schools.’
“I have never supported the concept of residential schools as I learned of the heartbreak inflicted on many First Nations communities,” Cobb read from a prepared statement. He went on to say in hindsight when he shared the post he never intended to offend or make light of residential schools and was ‘seriously sorry.’
Cobb did, however, go on to say Chief Sellars’ letter was a ‘personal attack’ on himself and ‘this type of dialogue does not strengthen any relationship that we have been trying to build.’
After the mayor spoke, each member of council had an opportunity to speak and, in varying degrees, all disagreed with the mayor’s actions. They all, however, stopped short of asking for his resignation, something several surrounding First Nations leaders and city residents have been demanding.
“Posts such as these are shameful and destructive and only fuel the pain to those who are still suffering from the legacy of the residential school system,” said Coun. Scott Nelson, adding the post shared by the mayor was not the view of council. “It’s wrong, it’s false, it’s misleading and it’s miscalculating.”
Coun. Sheila Boehm asked for forgiveness on behalf of all council.
“I look forward to further trying to reconcile and work with our First Nations in the whole area,” she said.
Coun. Jason Ryll condemned Cobb and said he was disappointed that the work council and staff have done toward reconciliation had been undone by the ‘quick click of a share.’
“I am equally disappointed that this is another misstep in a pattern of behaviour that is either hurtful, misplaced or inconsiderate of those who you are trying to represent,” Ryll said.
Ryll said he was not going to ask Cobb to resign, but ‘to do better.’
Coun. Marnie Brenner said she was hopeful the two communities could work alongside in the future, in ‘a place of trust and accountability.’
Coun. Craig Smith showed the most emotion as he read from his prepared statement.
He said he stands in solidarity with his Indigenous friends and colleagues in their truth and denounces all the comments spoken, written and forwarded by the mayor.
“If things to do not change, I am not sure if I can continue to be part of this mayor and council that does not understand reconciliation,” Smith said. “My hope is that we can find a path of healing and restore the damage that has been done to the relationship with our Indigenous partners so that we can move forward in a good way.”
Lastly Coun. Ivan Bonnell said he distanced himself from the mayor’s comments, type of behaviour and attitude.
“This has set everything back, I believe, two years,” he said.
Former Esk’etemc Chief Charlene Belleau, who had requested to appear as a delegation, attended the meeting on behalf of WLFN.
After hearing from mayor and council she took to the podium, saying she wished they had allowed her to speak first.
Fighting back tears she told them as she was driving toward city hall she was crying and asked herself where her pain was coming from.
“I feel hurt. I feel violated as a matriarch coming from our communities that have fought hard for our women and our children,” she said. “I cried because I have grandchildren that deserve better.”
She reminded council that Orange Shirt Day began in Williams Lake with Phyllis Webstad, and for the past 32 years all First Nations have fought hard to be heard and put their residential school stories on the record.
“Our people were sexually abused, not once, not twice, not 20 times .. there are really horrific stories. We will no longer be silenced today or ever again.”
The first national conference on residential schools was held in Williams Lake in 1985, and the Catholic clergy, including Bishop Hubert O’Connor, were held accountable for crimes against First Nations children at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, for babies that were born and given away, Belleau said.
Calling for the mayor’s resignation, she also suggested council take legal steps to thoroughly investigate the incident of the mayor sharing the social media post.
About 30 members of the public attended the meeting and half a dozen held up papers with the words ‘resign,’ on them.
After the meeting, Coun. Bonnell told the Tribune while council was vocal in its condemnation of the mayor’s actions, it has no legal grounds to call for his resignation and is not considering asking him to resign.
Bonnell said the only thing they could do was remove the mayor from one committee, which would be the Cariboo Regional District.
“That would be the only recourse we would have as discipline,” Bonnell added. “His conduct would have to violate some municipal rule or ordinance or the community charter. Politically making a gaffe that offends communities, well that is something you have to wear yourself.”
Outside city hall following the discussion, many voiced their disappointment in the meeting.
“I am so disappointed,” said Denise Duchene. “I felt like there was no courage by the councillors to stand up. And the one thing I appreciate from Walt Cobb, Mayor Walt Cobb, is that he does tell you what he thinks and he’s told us very clearly what he thinks through reposting that (social media post) and I think he needs to resign.”