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Three weeks after Saint John’s new police chief angered people by saying he’d never witnessed racism in his career, the city’s council has approved a motion aimed at making discrimination a punishable offence.

The motion, which seeks to create a new city bylaw and calls for changes to provincial law and to the Criminal Code of Canada, is a response to Black Lives Matter rallies and questions about police bias that have split the New Brunswick city. Mayor Don Darling said that reaction since the motion was passed on Monday has also exposed an ugly underbelly of racism that still exists in Saint John.

“Do we have problems? Absolutely,” Mr. Darling said.

The debate over policing and race was inflamed last month by a comment from Saint John police Chief Stephan Drolet, who, when asked about racism during a radio interview, said “I’ve never seen it.” He acknowledged, however, that police agencies need to do things differently when it comes to handling calls involving racialized people. The questions were prompted by the deaths of two Indigenous people in New Brunswick in shootings involving other police forces in June.

“That comment outraged most people. If [the chief] hasn’t seen racism, it’s because he’s not equipped to see it,” said Timothy Christie, a university lecturer and former member of the Saint John Police Commission, who spoke to councillors before they voted unanimously in favour of the motion.

“If you’re in public life, it’s not good enough to say, ‘I’m not racist, and I haven’t seen it.‘ You need to be actively anti-racist.”

The Saint John police force declined to respond. A spokesperson said the chief was on vacation, and couldn’t elaborate on potential reforms planned within the force on issues of race.

The mayor sponsored the motion, which he said he hopes could create a new bylaw that gives the city the power to investigate and issue fines in cases of discrimination. The city‘s lawyer was asked to report by the end of August on how a potential bylaw could work, and whether the municipality has the ability to enact one.

The anti-racism motion prompted an angry backlash. Mr. Darling pointed to a since-deleted Facebook post by a Saint John Police Force officer, who dismissed it as “trendy.”

He said that’s proof the police force needs to be reformed.

“There’s a variety of reasons why people are pushing back, and some of it is ugly, and gross and disgusting,” the mayor said. “It speaks to why so many thousands of Canadians are drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘Gosh darn it, we need change.‘”

Mr. Christie said victims of discrimination should have options beyond filing a complaint with the province’s “toothless” human-rights tribunal – a process that can take years to be resolved and doesn’t have the power to punish offenders criminally.

It’s shameful the province has more laws to prevent fishing or hunting out of season than it does to protect people from racism, he said.

“An essential first step in rectifying systemic racism in New Brunswick is to make racial discrimination a punishable offence,” Mr. Christie said.

“If I catch a salmon illegally or if I kill a moose illegally in New Brunswick, I can be arrested for that, I can have my belongings searched, I can have my property seized, I can be fined, and I can also be imprisoned. ... But in clear cases of discrimination, there’s no legal recourse.”

The mayor said he hoped the city’s motion would be copied by municipalities across the country. Letters will be sent to other New Brunswick communities urging them to press for legislative change, he said.

Matthew Martin, a Saint John Black Lives Matter rally organizer, said the motion is a good first step. He’s encouraged many people are talking openly about racism in his city, but he’s also concerned about some of the bigotry that’s been exposed.

“The conversations that are happening here are, quite bluntly, bringing a lot of racists out,” he said. “It shows that our city has a lot of work to do. It’s time for this to be addressed.”

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