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P.E.I. councillor accused of posting anti-Indigenous sign seeking judicial review

The sign posted by Councillor John Robertson, which is posted saying "Truth: Mass Graves Hoax, Reconciliation: Redeem Sir John A's Integrity." (Courtesy: Gregory Miller) The sign posted by Councillor John Robertson, which is posted saying "Truth: Mass Graves Hoax, Reconciliation: Redeem Sir John A's Integrity." (Courtesy: Gregory Miller)
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CHARLOTTETOWN -

A village councillor in Prince Edward Island is asking a court to quash sanctions imposed on him after he displayed a sign on his property referring to a "mass grave hoax" in relation to evidence of unmarked graves at former residential schools.

In documents filed last week with the P.E.I. Supreme Court, Murray Harbour Coun. John Robertson claims fellow councillors exceeded their authority and violated his rights on Nov. 18, 2023, when they decided he had breached the council's code of conduct.

The councillors then decided to impose a $500 fine and suspend him from his municipal post for six months. Robertson, elected in November 2022, was also removed as chair of the maintenance committee and ordered to write an apology to the mayor, council and the Indigenous community.

The councillor's application for judicial review, dated Feb. 16, says those sanctions were unreasonable because they failed to account for his fundamental rights to freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Robertson argues that he shouldn't be punished for stating personal opinions that have nothing to do with his role as an elected member of council.

Between late September and early October last year, coinciding with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the councillor displayed a sign on his property with the message, "Truth: mass grave hoax" and "Reconciliation: Redeem Sir John A.'s integrity."

Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, is considered an architect of the residential school system because he championed policies of assimilation and violence toward Indigenous people.

In May 2021, the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that ground-penetrating radar had revealed the possible remains of as many as 215 children around the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia's interior. Since then, many other First Nations across Canada have searched for unmarked graves at school sites in their territories.

"The subject of Mr. Robertson's impugned statements included questioning the reliability of news reports of a political nature and providing an opinion respecting a political figure and did not relate to any function undertaken by Mr. Robertson as a member of council," the application says, arguing the other councillors employed an "overboard interpretation" of the code of conduct.

The document says Robertson has resisted requests to resign, "asserting that the expression of his personal opinions on political topics were not properly the subject of the council's oversight." Terry White, mayor of Murray Harbour, population 282, could not be reached for comment Friday.

At one point, the council hired a third-party investigator who concluded Robertson's signs breached the code of conduct, but the investigator did not make any recommendations about sanctions, the application says. As well, the document asserts that council did not provide reasons for its actions.

On Dec. 20, provincial Communities Minister Rob Lantz said Robertson had until the end of that month to comply with the sanctions. But when that deadline passed, Lantz announced a two-week extension on Jan. 2, saying Robertson had just returned to Canada and was unaware of the ultimatum.

That deadline also came and went. On Jan. 24, Lantz confirmed he had asked a law firm to conduct an inquiry into the matter, mainly because he had received advice from government lawyers saying it was the prudent thing to do, given that the province had never before dealt with this kind of case.

At the time, Lantz said the councillor had failed to show up for council meetings or respond to council's findings. "He's shown contempt for his colleagues on council, and contempt for the process," Lantz said in an interview last month.

Under the province's Municipal Government Act, only the minister has the power to dismiss a councillor.

Robertson has received calls for his resignation from P.E.I. Sen. Brian Francis, Abegweit First Nation Chief Roderick Gould Jr., as well as the Murray Harbour mayor and other councillors.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2024.

For more Prince Edward Island news visit our dedicated provincial page.

Correction

This story has been clarified to include the wording of the sign in the first paragraph.

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