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Mayor of Whitehorse rejects motion to support Palestine

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There was great tension at the city council meeting in Whitehorse on Monday.

Last week, City Councilwoman Michelle Friesen announced that she would introduce a motion in support of the Palestinians.

The motion would have called on Mayor Laura Cabott to write a letter on behalf of the city to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister expressing solidarity with the Palestinians and support for a permanent ceasefire.

The discussion was quickly adjourned after Councillor Kirk Cameron raised a point of order.

“The job of a local government is to provide good government for its community within its jurisdiction,” Cameron said. “In my opinion, no matter how much I stretch my imagination, that doesn't begin to describe an absolutely pathetic war on the other side of the planet.”

Cameron said the statement would cause divisions and breach the council's code of conduct.

Residents support motion

Outside the council chamber, law enforcement officers in full uniform were stationed.

During the meeting, some Whitehorse residents who wanted to discuss the city's temporary, paid recycling program brought up the motion instead.

Robin Reid-Fraser began with remarks on recycling but concluded with a discussion of the ceasefire proposal and the recent Israeli attacks on Palestinian refugees in Rafah.

“In closing, I would like to express my belief that ending genocide requires efforts from all of us until that genocide ends,” Reid-Fraser said. “I sincerely hope that the Council will advance the debate on a ceasefire.”

Cabott immediately intervened, banging a hammer on the table and demanding that the microphone be turned off. Two other speakers were also interrupted when they turned their comments to the situation in Gaza.

Cabott did not address the motion and the point of order until the end of the meeting.

“My decision is that the point of order was well received, which essentially means that as Chair I accept Councillor Cameron's point of order,” she said. “The reasons for this are a couple of points.”

First, there was the city's municipal code, which states that a council's jurisdiction is limited to the community it represents. The second was a section requiring the council to make decisions that are “in the best interests of the community as a whole.”

Protesters march through downtown Whitehorse on November 4, 2023. Protesters march through downtown Whitehorse on November 4, 2023.

Protesters march through downtown Whitehorse on November 4, 2023.

Protesters in Whitehorse march through downtown on Nov. 4, 2023. (Caitrin Pilkington/CBC)

Friesen filed for an appeal, but was overruled. All councillors except Mellisa Murray sided with the mayor.

Yukon NDP Leader Kate White was present at the meeting to support the motion and expressed her disappointment with the city's decision on social media.

“Citizens are concerned about the ongoing genocide in Palestine,” she wrote. “Why don't you debate the motion, give your opinion and then vote against it? Why are you preventing the motion from even getting to this point? What are you afraid of?”

“We are here to support all interests”

Cabott later explained her motives in an interview with CBC.

“The focus of this council is on community issues as it relates to our citizens here,” she said. “I don't think it would be helpful or appropriate to single out one group of people over another group of people or another religion or culture.”

“We are here to represent all interests, all people, all residents, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. In my view, this motion was [intended] to start separating people from each other.”

Cabott began Monday's meeting with proclamations recognizing the upcoming National Indigenous History Month, Filipino Heritage Month and International Pride Month in June. The Whitehorse City Council's proclamations aim to highlight a number of concerns, including diversity and multicultural awareness.

A protesting family on November 4 in Whitehorse. A protesting family on November 4 in Whitehorse.

A protesting family on November 4 in Whitehorse.

A family protests for Palestine in Whitehorse on November 4, 2023. (Caitrin Pilkington/CBC)

When asked by CBC whether she would consider a proclamation dedicated to the Palestinians, Cabott said the Palestinian cause had already been addressed in a proclamation she issued in April.

“Last month I issued a proclamation recognizing Jewish Heritage Month and on the same day a proclamation recognizing other cultures and peoples from Asia, which more broadly includes the peoples of the Middle East and by extension the Palestinians,” Cabott said.

Cabott said she is aware that Whitehorse's Palestinian population is suffering from the violence in Gaza and that she has heard of the strong opposition some Whitehorse residents feel to the war, but the city is not planning to take any further steps to address the issue.

She said she met with local Jewish and Muslim leaders in October, “when this all started.”

In the same month, Whitehorse officially declared Chortkiv, Ukraine, its sister city.

At that time, City Councilor Kirk Cameron spoke in favor of this motion.

“We have an incredible impact around the world with our statements on justice and human rights,” he said. “For us to stand up to this community and show our solidarity, loyalty and support, I think that says a lot.”