Kingston City Council meeting disrupted by ‘ceasefire now’ protesters

Kingston City Hall alight at night. Photo by Iris van Loon.

Editor’s note: This article is Part 1 in a two-part series. Part 2, which speaks with some of the protesters involved, is available here.

The Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024 meeting of Kingston City Council took an unusual turn when protesters disrupted the evening’s proceedings, eventually forcing councillors to pause the meeting before making it a “virtual only” affair. 

Early on in Tuesday’s meeting, just after councillors had heard a delegation from Joseph Dowser of the Taxi Licensing Commission, chants erupted inside Council Chambers, and protesters began shaking tambourines and shouting “Ceasefire now!” Deputy Mayor Wendy Stephen, who was chairing the meeting in lieu of Mayor Bryan Paterson, tried to quiet the disruption before it got out of hand. 

Stephen addressed the protesters directly:  “You are welcome to be here, but if you’re going to make noise and interrupt Council, I’m going to have to call a recess. This is the one warning I can give, and then I have to call a recess,” she said, warning those in attendance of what was to come. The chants continued, however, and the deputy mayor was forced to call a recess, as Kingston Police attended City Hall. 

Stephen and City staff then worked together to come up with an alternative solution, and the decision was made to move councillors into a boardroom — the Councillors’ Library — at City Hall, with the rest of the meeting occurring virtually. Delegations who were present in Council Chambers and had not yet spoken were sent home and asked to return to the meeting online. At approximately 8 p.m., the Council meeting resumed and continued uninterrupted.

Speaking with Kingstonist two days after the meeting, Stephen said her initial reaction to the disruption was one of empathy.

“I believe that the people who were there that night were hurting and feeling frustrated and powerless. They wanted to do something to help their loved ones and to stop the violence,” she said. 

However, as acting chair of a City Council meeting, the current deputy mayor had to act quickly to maintain decorum.

“Second to [my] initial reaction was how to restore order and not escalate the situation,” she explained. “I tried to make it known that they were welcome to be with us in Council Chambers but not to disrupt our meeting. Unfortunately, they didn’t quiet down, so I called a recess so we could decide on next steps.”

Stephen added the process of transitioning the meeting to a virtual setting was “challenging,” but necessary.

“Transparency of our meetings is a really important part of the work we do for the community, so we had to find a way to continue on in a manner that was accessible to the public,” she said. “We had not yet finished with our delegations, so in addition to staff and Council pivoting online, that was another logistical consideration. Further, the room that Council wound up continuing the meeting in has never been used for livestreaming before, so there were some additional technological challenges.”

Stephen went on to thank City staff for their support: “The clerks and tech team handled it all very professionally and ultimately got us up and running.” 

Asked whether she had contact with any of the protesters on Tuesday night, Stephen said she “did approach” them, “but wasn’t able to engage anyone.” 

With protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Stephen pointed out the federal government “has already supported the [United Nations (UN)] Resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict.” That vote took place in December 2023 and was supported by Canada and 152 other nations at the UN General Assembly; however, it has not yet led to a formal ceasefire in the region. 

In January, Kingston City Council voted to approve a motion expressing the City’s “grief and regret at the loss of all innocent life in the Israel-Gaza conflict.” While the motion denounced acts of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism locally, councillors did not weigh in on the ceasefire debate. 

Given the nature of the conflict, and the federal government’s existing position, Stephen said a City Council motion calling for a ceasefire would have little effect on the situation. “While I empathize with the protesters’ dismay, a motion of Kingston City Council at this time will not have an impact on federal policy.” 

The deputy mayor added, “Municipal government is the closest to the people. We are the most accessible and, as city councillors, we are faced with a number of issues, some of which fall within our purview, some of which do not. The loss of life abroad and the deep hurt that members of our community are experiencing is unconscionable.” 

By the end of the over three hour meeting, Stephen was commended by several of her colleagues for her handling of the rather unusual evening. Kingscourt-Rideau Councillor Brandon Tozzo thanked her for doing an excellent job of chairing the meeting. “It was not, I think, what we expected at all,” he said, generating a fair bit of laughter within the room. He added, “It was long, but you handled it like a pro.”

Tozzo’s comments were echoed by Pittsburgh Councillor Ryan Boehme, who said, “Great, great job. Definitely a difficult meeting… This is definitely a tough one, and I know we’ve all got our hearts in the right places and trying to do the best for our constituents.”  

Overall, Stephen said the experience of chairing her first council meeting was a “positive” one.

“It was much more exciting and complicated than I was expecting, but I think it highlighted the collaborative professionalism and commitment of City staff and City councillors,” she concluded. 

Members of the public can view the full agenda from the meeting on the City of Kingston’s City Council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.

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