Rob Hamilton resigns as Barrie BIA chair following use of racial slur, derogatory comments about the homeless, addicted and mentally ill

City council adopts integrity commissioner's report

Barrie City Council adopted a report by the integrity commissioner on Monday that Rob Hamilton be removed as chairman of the Downtown Barrie Business Improvement Area (BIA) over comments he made during a BIA meeting last September, in which he used the term Mau Maus to describe the behaviour of some people downtown including the homeless, mentally ill and those with addictions.

Hours before the meeting, Hamilton submitted his resignation as chair of the BIA.

In an email to Barrie 360 Monday afternoon, BIA executive director Kelly McKenna confirmed Hamilton had resigned.

The city’s integrity commissioner recommended the former Barrie mayor be removed as chair over what Suzanne Craig said in her report were “derogatory comments when he (Hamilton) suggested that certain individuals who suffered from mental illness, substance addiction and homelessness, were not worthy citizens.”

In a recorded September 2020 meeting of the BIA, Craig noted in her report that Hamilton objected to a comment by another board member that everyone is a “worthy citizen of Barrie.”

Hamilton interrupted the speaker.

“That’s not true. They’re not a productive, contributing citizen,” said the chair.

“The perception of our downtown is not a comfortable place…people are running around like a bunch of Mau Maus,” added Hamilton.

As part of the investigation, Hamilton responded to Craig and said he was unaware of the historical origins of his phrase and he had not intended it to be derogatory.

“However, I do understand how it was received in that way and the harmful impact that has had regardless of my intent and I regret using the term. I also fully regret my statement that suggested individuals with addictions issues in our downtown are unworthy citizens. I believe that every human being regardless of where they live or their personal circumstances are worthy of respect and deserve to have access to the support they need, including those in our downtown core with addiction issues. I apologize for the disrespect I have shown Barrie citizens with those remarks,” Hamilton said in a letter to the integrity commissioner.

In her findings, Craig gave Hamilton no wiggle room.

“I find that the Respondent’s use of the term Mau Mau was inappropriate, offensive, insulting or derogatory. While the Respondent states that he was unaware of its historical origins and he did not intend to be derogatory, his statements were received as offensive and derogatory, regardless of his intent. I note that the Respondent has apologized for and regrets having used the term. I further find that the Respondent made derogatory comments when he suggested that certain individuals who suffered from mental illness, substance addiction and homelessness, were not worthy citizens.”

While Craig acknowledged the apology from Hamilton, she said it did not absolve him from having fallen short of his ethical obligations under the Code of Conduct.

Craig also recommended that if Hamilton were to remain as a board member, he would have to attend training on addiction as a mental illness and human rights training.

Councillor Sergio Morales, who is a member of the BIA board, wanted to know why Craig didn’t make a recommendation to suspend Hamilton as chair while he pursued training and have a condition of reinstatement upon successful completion of the training.

“If the goal is restorative and not just punitive, or looking to see someone penalized for destructive comments, I would have just kind of assumed that a suspension while taking that training might have been appropriate,” said Morales.

Craig said when she made her decision, she took into account the weight of Hamilton’s words.

“You have a beautiful and significant city, which is your city of Barrie,” explained Craig. “At the centre of your city, you have the downtown BIA, and at the helm of that very important BIA, you have an individual’s statements that take a breaststroke of offence to a wide swath of your population, because he didn’t know what they meant.”

“I did not recommend a suspension because my role is to ensure that the code of conduct is ensuring that members who are elected or appointed are held accountable.”

The integrity commissioner began her investigation last month after a complaint was filed about Hamilton’s comments at last September’s BIA meeting. Craig did not identify the complainant in her report.

While Morales agreed with Craig’s findings, he said he was frustrated with the situation council finds itself in.

“There is not a doubt in my mind anymore that the Office of the Integrity Commissioner is being hijacked by specific people who want to bring damage to people they disagree with politically.”

Morales did not excuse Hamilton’s comments but pointed out that language evolves and the former BIA chair did not try to justify his comments.

“I look at my own personal discussions,” said Morales. “I think even last year I said to somebody that let’s powwow on this idea. I was educated that’s no longer an acceptable term.”

Craig said she would reject any suggestion that other members of council have said things that were harsher and that she didn’t find there was this need for penalties.

“To those who suggest a lack of equity in my recommended penalties and sanctions with this particular investigation and past investigations – I don’t give anyone a pass.”

Councillor Mike McCann said it was time to look at the BIA board and how it functions, something Councillor Jim Harris agreed with.

“I think we might be up to nine resignations in less than two and a half years,” said Harris, who is a member of the BIA board. “Does that require some sort of investigation, consideration and evaluation – I would think so.”

One of the most powerful comments of the evening came from Councillor Natalie Harris, who has been public about her battle with addiction.

“I wanted to share a photo I found of my sickest time in 2015, just prior to being admitted to Homewood for PTSD and addiction, and a photo of me with the prime minister a few short years later,” said Harris. “I was one of the lucky ones. I had people who believed in me and helped me to find treatment.”

“I was very close to being a Barrie citizen living in the streets. My next drug would have been heroin. Every other disease is given societal permission for recovery. It’s time addiction was treated the same respectful way.”