“There’s a pack mentality at city hall”: Councillor Stephen Holyday on why Etobicoke should keep its coat of arms
Chief Stacey LaForme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation has called the crest’s depiction of a shirtless Indigenous man offensive, and city staff have called for its removal
Long before Toronto stretched from Highway 427 to the Rouge River, Etobicoke was its own city, complete with a coat of arms made in 1977. That crest remains to this day, hanging over the chamber of the Etobicoke Civic Centre (their former city hall), adorning Olivia Chow’s chain of office, and popping up on letterheads and plaques here and there. It’s also under fire for its depiction of a shirtless man with a bow meant to represent the area’s Indigenous peoples, labelled “tradition,” and a fully clothed European with a rifle, labelled “progress.”
Back in 2019, chief Stacey LaForme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation blasted the crest as offensive, and after receiving yet more complaints that the imagery was racist, city staff resolved to take it down. But Stephen Holyday, councillor for Etobicoke Centre, caught wind of their plan and called for a debate on the crest’s removal, which ended up being delegated to the executive committee. The committee has not yet come to a decision on the matter. Here, councillor Holyday explains why he thinks the relic is worth saving, how he’d respond to Chief LaForme’s objections and what it’s like to keep losing votes at city council.
What do you like so much about this crest?
It’s part of Etobicoke’s identity. Despite our amalgamation with the City of Toronto in the ’90s, people still consider Etobicoke their home. This is about a piece of Etobicoke’s identity being washed away into the megacity.
Do I detect some nostalgia for pre-amalgamation Etobicoke?
That certainly exists among my constituents. It’s common for suburbanites to complain that downtown treats issues differently than the suburbs would. Our experience of the city is more akin to the 905 than the inner core. People are sensitive to change here, and they still take a great deal of pride in the name Etobicoke.
Civic pride is a good argument for having a crest, but this one has a depiction of a shirtless Indigenous man standing next to a fully clothed European. Isn’t that a stereotype?
I think there’s a very big difference between that image and, say, the former mascot of the Cleveland Indians. I’m no historian, but there are examples of artist’s depictions of people from the 1700s that are similar to the one on our crest. And it’s a real question whether those depictions are offensive or just historical in nature.
But can’t an artist, however well intentioned, still produce something offensive?
I think that’s in the eye of the beholder. The essence of politics is that you can have 100 people look at an image and come to 100 different opinions. You have to set aside the most extreme opinions and figure out what an image means to the vast majority of people.
The vast majority of people? We know that misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples has been rampant in art. How can that be the standard?
I think the committee will have to figure out the answer to that question.
Sure, but what do you think?
I’ve heard different opinions on it. But it’s a political question, that’s why it’s going before committee. I can’t decide these things as a single person.
There’s also the wording on the crest: “tradition” under the Indigenous person and “progress” under the European. Chief LaForme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation has called this “stereotypical thinking” since it frames First Nations as somehow opposed to progress.
The notion that each word is attributed to each figure is an opinion, not a fact. When I went into the archives and looked at early sketches for the coat of arms from 1977, the scroll didn’t have the words on it. So it’s hard to say whether the words relate to the images.
Chief LaForme leads the nation represented by that figure, and he’s called the crest offensive. Doesn’t he get the final say on this?
The leader of the nation is a very respected individual. But my point is that a conversation needs to be had. The coat of arms is a historical item. Are they going to take a blowtorch and melt it down from the mayor’s chain of office? Besides, I think this is a positive story. Even back in the ’70s, Etobicoke chose to recognize the importance of Indigenous history on this land. Perhaps this is an opportunity to put up some interpretive information and further advance the history of Indigenous peoples.
Canada’s telling of Indigenous history has been deeply flawed, to say the least. Even assuming that Etobicoke did its best in 1977, couldn’t we still conclude that an update is needed?
I don’t see a situation where the Etobicoke coat of arms would be redrafted, so if we scrapped the old one we would be left with nothing. The city no longer exists. And take other examples of the use of Indigenous culture in symbols today. I mean, right in front of city hall there’s a medicine wheel in the Toronto sign. Will people question that 46 years from now?
A critical difference with the medicine wheel is that it was added with the input of Indigenous people. In your research, have you found anything to suggest that Indigenous groups had input on the Etobicoke crest?
The documentation is very limited, so I can’t speculate. I do know that the imagery was approved through a public process and went through council. But I don’t know what issues were raised.
Say, as you’ve suggested, that some interpretive plaques go up next to the crest. Would you still welcome them if they said the emblem is offensive?
Absolutely. Fair questions have been raised.
You’ve noted that the crest is present in a bunch of places. What would be the cost to change or remove it?
I think the costs are probably modest, but it speaks to a larger question of how we determine if things are offensive. Look at the far end of the spectrum: there’s a conversation around renaming Dundas Street, which would have exorbitant costs. Is that being done based on facts, or is it just a political decision? This case is similar: council should learn a bit about heraldry, what the different parts symbolize. If they choose not to, then it speaks purely to a political decision. And I worry about that.
Don’t facts contribute to those “political” decisions? The Dundas Street renaming was supported by plenty of historical info dug up by city staff.
I was in that debate, and I was very uncomfortable with the information that came up. That decision relied on council’s interpretation of Henry Dundas’s intentions in delaying the abolition of slavery, and Dundas died several hundred years ago. Contrary opinions have emerged since, which also have facts behind them, and people are frustrated that council made a call without having all the information.
Is it possible for something to be part of our heritage yet not worth celebrating?
Those questions get answered over the course of time. The key is to have a healthy and meaningful public discussion about it.
At the most recent council meeting, you asked to hold a broader discussion about the crest, but council chose to refer it to the executive committee instead. What happens now?
That committee now has complete control over the issue. I don’t know if they’ll choose to allow a report from staff showing the history behind the crest. I can speak at the committee, but I don’t have a vote.
This isn’t the only issue lately where you’ve been the lonely vote on council. You’re often the sole person against things that get overwhelmingly approved or in favour of things council shoots down.
I regret that sometimes there’s a pack mentality when council goes through items. It’s important to apply critical thinking, pull on loose threads and raise important issues. Sometimes standing separately is a good way to highlight that items are imperfect.
One such item was Mayor Chow’s flagship affordable housing plan, which you voted against. How come?
I have continuously challenged what role the municipality should be playing in the types of services we deliver. This is an example of it getting into the business of building housing and providing subsidies to residents, which is a difficult thing to do when it relies solely on property taxes. On the floor of council, I asked where the city was going to find $500 million to $800 million per year to finance the new plan. I did not get an answer.
Mayor Chow has been petitioning the provincial and federal governments for either more funding or new ways to raise funds, like a Toronto sales tax. If she secured those tools, would you change your tune?
This is also about the role of municipal government. Call me a purist, but I think we should do the things that we’re responsible for first: clear the roads of snow, maintain infrastructure, care for the parks—all the services that are not the purview of the provincial or federal governments.
You don’t seem to be having much luck getting your fellow councillors on board with that. Which is odd—you’re an experienced councillor; you must know how to build consensus. Why put motions forward when you know they don’t have support?
It’s about holding other council members accountable. When I see them making decisions that are motivated by politics rather than facts, I vote against them. Quite often, I get accolades from people all over the city, who say I voted on the side they thought was right. Bringing common sense to the council floor is an important symbolic gesture.
I get the symbolism, but these are practical matters you’re voting on. Is it constructive to be the odd man out?
It’s important to show people that there isn’t careless agreement and groupthink. Why bother debating anything otherwise? I can’t see a single downside to challenging the status quo.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.