Isitt blames bad timing for controversy over his call for military-cost review

The controversy surrounding Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt’s call to have the city seek compensation for policing military events such as Remembrance Day is probably more due to bad timing than anything else, Isitt said Friday.

“I do understand why some people would take offence, but I think that has more to do with the timing rather than council asking some hard questions about regional expenditures that are currently falling entirely on the taxpayers of Victoria and Esquimalt,” Isitt said.

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Isitt’s proposal came during councillor discussions Thursday on whether to make up to $135,300 available from its contingency fund to pay for the costs of policing Canada Day, non-profit-run community events and military events.

It was unfortunate those discussions were occurring on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Isitt said. “I think the timing was most unfortunate and it would have been better to have considered these police overruns for special events on pretty much any other day than the 75th anniversary of D-Day.”

But with a last-minute police request for $78,400 to help staff Canada Day, the timing of the discussion was out of council’s hands, he said.

Victoria director of finance Susanne Thompson said the police department had also advised it could not afford to absorb $135,300 worth of expenditures, including $78,400 for Canada Day, $41,700 for the first three officers provided at special events run by non-profits and an estimated $15,200 for policing military-related events.

Mayor Lisa Helps recommended council dig into contingency to cover the $135,300 shortfall.

Councillors agreed, contingent on some conditions, including Helps working with other local mayors to try to secure their financial support for policing events that serve the regional community.

Councillors also supported Isitt’s amendment that council direct staff to contact the Department of National Defence and the Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss recovering costs associated with military events in the Victoria.

Subsequent media reports focused on Isitt, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, calling on the federal government to pay for policing Remembrance Day, sparking a social media firestorm.

Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West took to Twitter to call it a “classless, shameful move.” Others noted Remembrance Day is not a military event, and called Isitt’s amendment “disgusting” and “disgraceful.”

Isitt said his comments were taken out of context.

“Over about 10 hours of meetings yesterday we devoted about one hour to discussing these over-runs and about 10 minutes discussing military events and it seems like it’s been spun by other media organizations as a bit of an affront to war veterans,” Isitt said.

He said in no way was his proposal meant to be disparaging to the military, military members or veterans.

“I didn’t propose that council not fund it. I proposed that at a staff level the city would engaged the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada officials to determine whether there was a willingness from those federal authorities to cover some of the costs that the city was incurring.”

Helps, meanwhile, said Isitt’s intentions were good. “He was trying to save Victoria taxpayers money,” she said, while noting that she did not support Isitt’s amendment.

“For me, policing of Remembrance Day and the Victoria Day Parade [classified by the city as a military event] are for me signals that the city has a small role to play in honouring people who have served and who are serving in the armed forces,” Helps said.

Coun. Laurel Collins, the NDP federal candidate in Victoria, who supported Isitt’s amendment, issued a statement saying she has nothing but respect for veterans and that she regretted not suggesting the vote be held on another day.

“I understand it was wrong to hold this vote on D-Day, and I take full responsibility for that. I’m truly sorry for the impact. It pains me to think about veterans being disrespected in any way,” Collins’ statement said.

“I want to be clear, I’m wholeheartedly committed to honouring the sacrifices of those who fought for our freedoms. I will never stand by and allow Remembrance Day to be defunded. I will always honour members of the Canadian Forces like my grandparents, who fought against fascism to ensure we have the democracy we have today,” Collins said

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, who co-chairs the police board, said she would not support asking the military to pay for policing for their ceremonies.

“The military are very special in Esquimalt and their ceremonies an honour to have in our community. Respect for them and their service is important,” Desjardins said in an email.

In an online statement posted Friday, Isitt lashed out at what he called “the nefarious ways” that “conservative political forces and their agents in the corporate media have chosen to distort Victoria city council’s benign request for assistance from the federal authorities into a supposed affront to war veterans.”

“We should not be surprised that neofascist, ‘alt-right’ formations such as the Proud Boys and more moderate conservative voices in the corporate media would prefer that citizens in Victoria and other communities focus on controversy — rather than on tackling the major challenges of our time: poverty and housing inaffordability; climate change and the ecological crisis; and the dangerous slide away from democratic participation and toward fearmongering and neo-fascist politics,” Isitt wrote.

Neither local military officials nor military spokespeople in Ottawa were prepared to comment on how DND would view a request for compensation for policing of military events.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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