Tara Filteau was appointed to the Innisfil Library Board a year and a half ago for a term of office that would end with the next municipal election.
But she tendered her resignation halfway through the term – but not because of any conflict or controversy. It was because she had a life-changing realization stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Filteau, a community advocate, explains: “I always felt that I was not someone who was racist, but it was only recently that I discovered what anti-racism is.”
That’s defined as “identifying, challenging, and changing the values, structures and behaviours that perpetuate systemic racism,” according to the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat.
As a member of a board that describes one if its goals as the support of a “more diverse and inclusive community,” she felt her involvement was not achieving that aim.
“When I look at our board, it represents our community, but it does not look like our community,” Filteau says.
It’s not that she’s accusing the board of racism; it’s simply that all current members are white, and as a white woman, she says, “I can’t understand what it is to be Black, or a person of colour.”
So she stepped down, encouraging persons of colour and racialized residents to apply for the vacant position.
Filteau attended the Black Lives Matter rally in Barrie in June, accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter.
“I was extremely moved,” she says.
Her daughter, too, had the opportunity to listen to the various stories and experiences.
Coming back to Innisfil, “I really just thought about how I could do better. How I could make a difference in my family, in my business, and my community,” she says.
Filteau made changes to her business practices, before deciding to step down from the board. She discussed her decision and her reasons with the library CEO and board chair, before going public, and since has encouraged “as many qualified candidates as possible” who are persons of colour to apply.
Controversy arose when she also suggested that white residents not apply, to clear the way for the vacancy to be filled by a visible minority.
Filteau says she was prepared for some “pushback.” But she wasn’t expecting the extreme responses she received, some from strangers but others from former colleagues and volunteers. “I’m in awe, with the amount of hatred I’ve been receiving,” she says.
She has also received support.
“I’d really like to stay focused on the positive,” Filteau says, insisting she’s not proposing “affirmative action,” just that the vacancy she has created with her resignation from the nine-member board go to a person of colour, to provide balance and insight in support of a “more diverse and inclusive community.”
There are different kinds of diversity, says board chair Monica Goodfellow, noting that the application process has always attempted to be sensitive to a range of needs – inviting representation from every corner of Innisfil, and from “equity groups” that include ethnic organizations and Simcoe/Innisfil Pride.
“Diversity comes in many shapes and forms,” Goodfellow says, pointing out that “it’s against a lot of human rights codes” to make distinctions based on creed or colour. “Everyone is encouraged to apply.”
She notes that the application process is designed to be objective. “We’re looking at people as objectively as possible, to find the best fit,” Goodfellow says. “The process in the past has been very objective, and will continue to be.”
The final decision lies with council; the library board’s role has been to reach out, taking an “advocacy role” to encourage diversity.
“I think the member (who resigned) had honorable intentions,” says Goodfellow. “I think we should always be thinking about barriers,” whether physical or social – but she wants the community to know the library board is always “here for the residents of Innisfil, no matter who they are.”
The Innisfil Library Board consists of two councillors, and seven residents appointed by council.
It meets 10 times a year, plus special meetings, to establish policy, determine strategic goals, keep up with new standards and legislation, develop an annual budget, and plan, establish and participate in public events. The Board also “understands the community needs and ensures the library is in alignment.”
Applicants need to be residents over the age of 18, and cannot be an employee of the library or the Town of Innisfil.
“There’s a process,” says town clerk Patty Thoma.
The vacancy created by Filteau’s resignation has already been advertised, and interested applicants are encouraged to apply.
In assessing applications, experience and expertise are important, she says.
“If you have someone who doesn’t have any experience, it’s difficult,” Thoma notes, especially now, when the applicant will be coming in half-way through a term of office.
The board needs people who are forward-thinking, knowledgeable and interested, but who also have expertise in legal, finance, fundraising or advocacy.
“Something that makes them stand out,” says Thoma.
Special expertise is highlighted, before the applications are sent to council for a decision, but not racial background.
“We would have no idea on the ethnic background,” Thoma says. “It’s illegal to ask that.”
That doesn’t mean that an applicant couldn’t include their experience as a Black or racialized member of the community as part of their specialized experience, something positive they could bring to the table, Thoma acknowledges.
After all of the debate and all the reaction, Filteau says: “People are entitled to their opinion, but I stand by my decision 110 per cent.”
And how does her nine-year-old daughter feel about her decision?
“She’s really proud of her mom.”