Director Coty Lanktree uses the incident and its aftermath as the point of entry for a more far-ranging examination of Hamilton's toxic political culture.
By Ryan McGreal
Published November 09, 2015
If The Push, the new documentary by Cody Lanktree of HamiltonSeen, was merely about the incident between Ancaster Councillor Lloyd Ferguson and independent journalist Joey Coleman, it would be an arresting human interest story without wider implication. But Lanktree has bigger fish to fry, and he uses the incident as the point of entry for a more far-ranging examination of Hamilton's toxic political culture.
This two-hour documentary unpacks the incident and its ongoing aftermath through interviews with Coleman, communications strategist Laura Babcock, management consultant Graham Crawford, CHCH reporter Donna Skelly, former Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark and others.
The most explosive moments in the film come from Clark, who was present during the altercation and helped broker Ferguson's apology the next day. His description of Ferguson's words and conduct paints a particularly disturbing picture.
The film premiered at the Zoetic Theatre at 2:00 PM on Sunday, November 8, 2015 as part of the Hamilton Film Festival.
On February 26, 2014, a press conference was going to be held after a long and contentious Council meeting over the lease for the new Tim Horton Stadium. At around 10:45 PM, in the public lobby of the City Council Chamber, then-Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark was talking with City Communications Manager Mike Kirkopoulos. Coleman was standing not far off, carrying his recording equipment to set it up at the press conference.
Ancaster Councillor Lloyd Ferguson came into the lobby and made a beeline to Kirkopoulos, speaking to him in anger. He then turned, saw Coleman and marched over, telling Coleman he was having a private conversation and telling Coleman to move away. Then Ferguson grabbed Coleman's arm and pushed him backward.
Incidentally, February 26, 2014 was Pink Shirt Day, a national day of awareness against bullying. As is the case with so many events in Hamilton, you cannot make this stuff up.
That altercation in the Council Chamber lobby is the kernel of a saga which is still unfolding today, a debacle-in-slow-motion that has wide and disturbing implications for how power is apportioned, used and abused in this city.
The mainstream shorthand for what happened has settled into an oversimplified and misleading narrative that misses nearly all the nuance in this complex story. In addition, the various legal, business and political pressures in effect strongly nudge reporters and commentators into a 'safe zone' of language that downplays the sheer absurdity of the experience.
For example, Ferguson is said to have "laid hands on" Coleman, making him sound more like a faith healer than a bully.
As more time has passed, subsequent retellings and summarizations of what happened have progressively wiped away all the details and nuances of the incident, boiling it down to a minor altercation that everyone needs to just get over, already.
But as The Push documents in exhaustive detail, the aftermath of the incident has revealed a persistent refusal among Hamilton's centres of power to hold Ferguson to any kind of meaningful account for what he did.
In fact, quite the opposite has happened: City Hall has closed ranks around their own and painted the victim - Coleman - as the real problem, blaming him for what happened and using the incident to shut him out of his role as a citizen journalist recording public meetings for everyone to access.
The next day, Ferguson read a prepared statement of apology to Coleman both privately and at a public General Issues Committee meeting, and Coleman accepted the apology.
But Hamilton has a strict Zero Tolerance for Violence policy, and Hamiltonians began to ask if Ferguson would be held to the same standard of accountability.
In fact, Council is not subject to the Zero Tolerance policy that applies to other City staff. Instead, Council is subject to the Council Code of Conduct, which is enforced by the Integrity Commissioner.
But Ferguson is not merely a City Councillor. He was also the chair of the Police Services Board and the Accountability and Transparency Sub-Committee.
Calls quickly came for Ferguson to step down from these powerful roles in light of his alleged assault in order to protect the integrity of those institutions, but Ferguson refused and the rest of Council allowed the incident to pass over in silence instead of voting to censure their colleague.
Likewise, the Police Services Board discussed the matter in camera and decided not to take any action, and at the same time the Hamilton Police Service decided not to investigate the incident as a possible assault. This only added to the unpleasant perception that a person in a position of power was being shielded from accountability.
Three months after the incident, two people independently filed complaints to the Integrity Commissioner. It took nine months for the Commissioner, then Earl Basse, to submit his report to Council the following February. Ironically, Council received the report on February 25, 2015 - Pink Shirt Day again.
The report itself was a shambles. In addition to taking nine months rather than 60 days to complete it, Basse only interviewed Ferguson. He did not interview Coleman or any of the other witnesses to the incident.
He provided no analysis, offered no methodology for how to decide on a conclusion, and spent a large part of the report speculating about possible collusion between the complainants, repeating Ferguson's contention that Coleman was trying to eavesdrop on a private conversation, and criticizing Coleman for asking the City to retain the surveillance video of the incident.
Andre Marin, then the Ontario Ombudsman, took to social media to excoriate the report, giving it an F grade and noting that his department would use it as a model of how not to write an integrity report.
Ombudsman Andre Marin's F grade on the Basse report (Image Credit: Andre Marin)
Basse concluded that Ferguson violated the Code of Conduct but that it had been a long and hard day, and in any case Ferguson had already apologized so there was no need for any further action.
Ferguson said that he was "vindicated" by the report, which, as The Push notes, is a very strange thing to say for someone who feels sorry about doing something wrong.
Council voted to receive the report, a decision which officially enters the report into the public record. Only two Councillors raised objections: Ward 3 Councillor Matthew Green and then-Ward 7 Councillor Scott Duvall. Council imposed no sanctions on Ferguson.
Coleman's presence at City Hall had always been a thorn in the side of some councillors and staff. His commitment to record every public Council, Committee and Sub-Committee meeting was a new development for the City and he encountered constant friction.
Joey Coleman with equipment
After the incident, things got worse quickly. Some staffers actually tried to have Coleman banned from City Hall under the City's Zero Tolerance for Violence policy because he yelled and swore when Ferguson grabbed and shoved him.
Coleman began to face a steady barrage of harassment at City Hall, including being kicked out of the media room, being refused entry to public committee meetings to record them and even being accused of "hacking" the Committee Agenda website because he used its publicly accessible RSS feed to follow when staff posted new meeting agendas and other documents.
As Crawford put it in the documentary, Coleman "was pressured out of City Hall" in the aftermath of the incident.
Or as Clark put it, "Where [Coleman] irritated people is he brought a camera into [pauses] public meetings. And I say it with a smirk because I find it so comical that civil servants or elected officials would be offended by someone wanting to tape a public meeting, whether audibly or visually."
There is a surveillance video of the incident, which Integrity Commissioner Basse and a few other people have seen but which has not been released publicly. This video would make what happened quite clear, and Coleman wants the video to be release so everyone can see for themselves what happened.
Similarly, the other identifiable witnesses to the incident - Clark, Kirkopoulos and Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr - have all consented to its release. But one person identified in the video is trying to block it.
The legal silliness around identifying who that person is constitutes just one of the factors making it difficult for this story to get a fair airing. Meanwhile, the case is under appeal with the Ontario Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
One of the challenges in telling this story properly is that every piece of it unfolds fractally into a whole constellation of new details that shape the context and framework around what happened.
For just one example, we find out that when Basse abruptly quit as Windsor's Integrity Commissioner in 2010, he left six open files on complaints against Council members unresolved.
The story is crammed with such delicious ironies, and the movie airs them playfully, eliciting a steady stream of applause, laughter, cheers and cries of "Shame!" from the engaged audience.
But we must ask: when Council voted to appoint Basse, did they know this? Did they choose him precisely because he had a record of taking a long time to draw cozy softball conclusions? Or did they simply not bother to do their due diligence?
How far does Hanlon's Razor take us when trying to determine how this incident could cascade in so many directions?
This question, with its implications for finding the right balance of detail and relevance, presents a quandary for Lanktree and the documentary.
To give the story the full space it arguably deserves, you end up making a two-hour movie, which starts to feel too long by the end.
But if you edit too aggressively, you end up with a dumbed-down accounting of events that misses most of the absurd layers of irony and hypocrisy.
(This tension around wanting to do justice to a story that has been whitewashed in the mainstream news media is also why the review you're reading is over 1,700 words, despite my chopping out still more of the first draft!)
For each piece of the puzzle, the documentarian must ask: does this part matter enough to include it and push out the run time? Does it advance the broader themes the movie explores or does it fall more on the inside-baseball end of the spectrum?
Without tossing out this comprehensive cut, I'd love to see a more streamlined one-hour version and compare the two to see how much is lost from the picture against how much is gained in terms of broadening the film's reach.
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