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Vancouver mayor created 'discriminatory work environment' in denying new mom remote attendance

Integrity commissioner recommends letter of reprimand for Ken Sim over controversy involving park commissioner Laura Christensen.
Park commissioner Laura Christensen was a member of ABC Vancouver until Mayor Ken Sim announced he wanted to abolish the elected park board. Christensen now sits as an independent on the board.

Mayor Ken Sim created a “discriminatory work environment” when he did not give a park commissioner — who had recently given birth — an opportunity to remotely attend a private meeting to announce his intention to abolish the elected park board.

That is the conclusion of Lisa Southern, the city’s integrity commissioner, who was tasked with investigating a complaint from a citizen related to a Dec. 5 in-person meeting in the mayor’s office that excluded Laura Christensen.

“Mayor Sim’s actions created a distinction based on commissioner Christensen’s sex and family status, and this had an adverse impact on her,” Southern wrote in her report, a copy of which was obtained by Glacier Media in advance of its release.

“He knew commissioner Christensen had a newborn. Previously, her situation had been accommodated by allowing her to attend meetings remotely because attending in person in the later stages of pregnancy, or with a newborn were challenging.”

However, Southern continued, despite this past practice, Sim did not make “reasonable efforts” to ensure Christensen knew the importance of the meeting and that “there could be consequences for her if she did not attend.”

“He also did not make reasonable efforts to ensure she knew the meeting could not be attended remotely as she had been permitted to do on previous occasions, or could not be attended remotely without her first signing an [non-disclosure agreement],” she said.

Abolish elected park board

Sim held the meeting to inform his own ABC Vancouver party’s commissioners that he wanted to abolish the seven-member elected board. Six of the seven commissioners, including Christensen, belonged to the mayor’s party.

Christensen, who had given birth four weeks previous and was on maternity leave, planned to have fellow ABC commissioner Scott Jensen link her into the meeting once he arrived at city hall, according to Southern’s report.

Jensen was told he was not allowed to call Christensen or discuss the content of the meeting. Those present were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements before Sim publicly announced his intention the next day at a news conference to abolish the board.

Southern ruled that Sim breached two sections of the code of conduct — essentially, a rule book for council to follow while in office — and recommended council impose the following sanctions:

• A letter of reprimand from council addressed to Sim.

• A request from council that Sim issue a letter of apology to Christensen.

• The publication of both letters.

• Further training for council on human rights’ obligations and training for the mayor’s employees on the same.

Mayor Ken Sim at a news conference earlier this year to announce new members of a transition team to have parks and recreation brought under the control of city council. Photo Mike Howell

Mayor apologizes

Reached Thursday, Christensen said Sim called her Wednesday night to apologize. She said she was not aware Southern had completed her report until the mayor informed her during the phone call.

“It was a bit of a canned response,” Christensen said. “I think he was just trying to get ahead of [Southern’s findings] and that when the media reports came out, he could say he apologized.”

She pointed out that Sim has known for more than two months how she felt about being excluded from the Dec. 5 meeting, but that he never made an effort to reach out and apologize.

“So the fact that it has taken an integrity commissioner report for him to pick up the phone after [more than two months] and apologize, I think that speaks to how he really feels,” said Christensen, who along with Jensen and Brennan Bastyovanszky now sit as independents on the park board.

All three former ABC commissioners have previously told Glacier Media that they were never informed by the party during their successful election campaign in 2022 that Sim, if elected, would seek to abolish the park board.

They also made that clear in speaking to Sim and councillors at a public meeting in December.

Christensen said she does not know the citizen who launched the complaint against the mayor. Glacier Media has chosen not to publish the citizen’s name, knowing that it could be redacted in the public release of the report.

The citizen was linked to a court petition in the past council term to remove then-Green Party councillor Michael Wiebe from office over conflict-of-interest allegations, which were eventually dismissed.

Non-disclosure agreement

Sim told Southern in a written response during the investigation that all communications to the ABC commissioners emphasized the Dec. 5 meeting was in-person only — the reason being that non-disclosure agreements were to be signed.

Sim said Christensen did not tell him, his executive assistant, his chief of staff or his senior advisor that she could not attend the meeting in person. Had she done so, Sim continued, “a [non-disclosure agreement] would have been made available to her by someone driving it out to her.”

He contended Christensen “fully was aware of the meeting and chose to neither inform nor seek accommodation for the meeting”— a comment disputed by Christensen both in the report and in an interview with Glacier Media.

“The only thing that I received was a calendar invitation from the mayor’s office staff,” she said Thursday. “I didn't receive any other communications other than that. The mayor said that they left me a voicemail. I don't have voicemail set up on my park board phone, so I never got that voicemail.”

Asked about what the controversy says about moms serving as politicians, Christensen said her case highlights how women continue to be treated in the workplace and in politics.

“I was excluded for not bringing my baby to work,” she said. “No matter what you do, you're going to be criticized. Women need to work, we have value in the workplace and in politics. There's still an overwhelming amount of discrimination and implicit bias in most workplaces — and especially in politics.”

Glacier Media contacted the mayor’s communications staff and Sim’s chief of staff via email Thursday for comment, but had not received a reply before this story was posted. (See update at bottom of story).

'Discriminatory impact'

In her report, Southern cautioned her decision should not be interpreted that there was deliberate or intentional discrimination on the part of Sim. There was no evidence, she said, “that the exclusions found in this investigation that gave rise to a breach were done on purpose or by design by mayor Sim.”

To the contrary, she continued, Sim has demonstrated consistently his commitment to inclusion, diversity and human rights, and has attended all educational sessions hosted by her office on these topics.

“However, it is well established in human rights law that intent is not required for a finding of discrimination,” Southern said.

“Whether someone meant to discriminate, intended to offend, or deliberately set out to exclude is not the question that is examined. Rather, the focus is on discriminatory impact, not discriminatory intent. My findings here are based on the discriminatory impact of the actions in question.”

Southern’s report is expected to be posted Friday to the city’s website.

Update: The mayor’s office emailed this statement Friday morning on behalf of Sim:

“I acknowledge the findings presented by the Office of the Integrity Commissioner. While the report concludes that there was no deliberate or intentional bias, it emphasizes the importance of considering the impact of actions, regardless of intent.

As a person of colour, and a member of a multicultural family, I have always been deeply committed to inclusion, diversity, and human rights. I have always enthusiastically participated in all educational sessions hosted by the Office of the Integrity Commissioner on these crucial topics.

 In response to the recommendations, I have already reached out to park board commissioner Laura Christensen to offer my sincere apology, demonstrating my commitment to addressing concerns raised.”

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