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Police chief’s criticism of N.L. women’s exec threatens democracy: activists

File - The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) police headquaters in St John's Newfoundland. The Canadian Press Images/Lee Brown

Activists in St. John’s, N.L., are raising concerns about limits on dissent in the province amid revelations that the city’s police chief signed a letter denouncing the leader of a feminist organization because she had criticized the force.

The letter, signed by several organizations including the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, was sent to the board chairperson of the St. John’s Status of Women Council last fall. It said Jenny Wright, the council’s executive director, was creating division in the community through her activism and public comments.

A recent report by local news outlet The Independent cited correspondence between Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Joe Boland and a Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women official, suggesting the police chief was involved in co-ordinating the letter about Wright.

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Boland, addressing the report for the first time on Wednesday, said he chose to contact Wright’s employer after she posted on Twitter about a story involving an officer who was charged with violating a protection order.

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“The police continue to talk about ‘community’ policing but fail to address their own violence,” one of Wright’s posts from last year read. “… for the love of all that’s holy, UNDERSTAND why positions of power like police are so attractive to abusers.”

In a press conference Wednesday, Boland denied he intended to push Wright out of her position. “No one asked for a resignation,” he said. “What we wanted was for the relationship to be repaired.” Boland said officers asked him to respond to Wright’s comments.

“It was that tweet that caused me concern because … it spoke about our police officers as persons that were abusers,” Boland said. “I decided to call her boss and ask for a meeting.”

 

 

Jenny Wright poses in this undated handout photo. Activists in St. John’s, N.L., say a police chief’s signature on a letter denouncing the activism of Jenny Wright, former executive of a women’s rights group, threatens democracy and advocacy in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Graham Kennedy

Wright, who now works in Halifax, said by phone that the letter was one factor in her decision to leave her post in March.

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She also noted that the letter was anonymously leaked to media a month after she resigned, leaving her sensing an effort to tarnish her reputation as well as silence her. “There was a real kind of desire to scorch the ground after me,” she said Thursday.

She said the incident sets a worrying precedent that those who criticize powerful people are being monitored and could face retaliation from police.

“Why does the chief of police think that a tweet that I make on social media gives him the power to contact my employer?” Wright asked. “What kind of message does that reinforce to activists and community groups?”

The story has prompted criticism from community groups, including the status of women council and non-profit Indigenous support organization First Light, calling the chief and other officials’ actions a threat to democracy.

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“Maintaining a healthy democracy requires that all government officials – but in particular members of the police – respect and support the freedom of all citizens to express their views without fear of retaliation or reprisal,” First Light’s statement read.

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The organization called upon the provincial ministers of justice and the status of women to “hold accountable anyone who stifles critical voices on women’s issues,” and to commit to civilian oversight of police services. The St. John’s Status of Women Council supported First Light’s call for civilian oversight of police.

The organization said members met with Carol Anne Haley, the provincial minister responsible for the status of women “who heard our concerns and committed to building a stronger working relationship.” It said members hope to meet with Boland to begin rebuilding trust with the force.

Wright welcomed the solidarity and “powerful” statements from other community groups and individuals.

She said she’s hopeful that the culture of activism can change in Newfoundland and Labrador, but provincial ministers and Boland may have to address the harm caused before the incident stops breeding mistrust.

“They can continue to throw me under the bus, but people really are smarter than that,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2019.

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