The city of Markham, Ontario, claims to be Canada’s most diverse. Over the years, it has been hailed as a shining example of Canadian multiculturalism in action, embracing its diverse community. The city even approved a Diversity Action Plan in 2010 to “strengthen our commitment towards inclusion and [celebrate] our diversity.”
But this recognition of its visible minority majority hasn’t stopped the municipality from employing a man who has expressed white nationalist views as a lifeguard in pools across the city’s network of community centres.
Emil Sosnin has worked as a city lifeguard since September 2018. An article published in the Toronto Star in February of this year named him as one of several elected executives within the nascent People’s Party of Canada whose social media accounts had posted antisemitic, Islamophobic, and other racist content.
In one example, Sosnin’s account posted the “14 words” — a neo-Nazi slogan coined by David Lane, founding member of the terrorist organization The Order. Another post in a secret alt-right Facebook group read, “When I have kids, they will not play with n----rs” (final word redacted by Ricochet).
Other posts talk about race theory and white genocide conspiracy theories. One bluntly states, “>Being a white nationalist >Racemixing Pick one.”
Lifeguard on duty
Sosnin’s online activity raises questions about his employment with the city of Markham.
When the municipality was asked to confirm whether Sosnin had a job with the city, Media Relations Coordinator Erynn Sally said by email that “the City of Markham does not release information on current, past or future employees.”
Shortly thereafter, Sosnin posted to his Facebook page that the city had brought him in for a meeting. The post indicates that the city not only told him that a journalist had made inquiries, but also shared information about the journalist. In his post, Sosnin claimed that an allegation had been made that he was a white supremacist, based only on his participation in a rally against Motion 103 — which called on the Canadian government to condemn Islamophobia — and he thanked the city for listening to his side of the story.
But the journalist didn’t know about Sosnin’s presence at the rally, and had made inquiries based on his role with the People’s Party of Canada and his social media posts and engagement with a white nationalist podcast.
Ricochet filed a freedom of information request with Markham covering communication between the city and Sosnin. An agency is required by law to respond within 30 calendar days, but the city took several additional weeks to respond. Meanwhile, Sosnin continued to work as a lifeguard.
When the freedom of information request was processed, it confirmed Sosnin’s employment with the city since September 2018 in various community pools.
A follow-up email asked the city for comment on employing a lifeguard who had made explicitly racist comments in Canada’s most diverse city.
“The City of Markham is proactive in ensuring that everyone is welcome here,” replied Sally. “Markham is Canada’s most diverse city, with about half of Markham's population coming from outside of Canada. Nearly 60 per cent of our residents speak a first language that is not English. More than 70 per cent of our residents identify themselves as visible minorities. Markham thrives and continues to lead because of our diversity and focus on inclusion.”
Sosnin did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
‘No place in public service’
Institutions and public bodies the world over have been caught employing, and often enabling, people who are directly connected to white supremacist groups or who have made online posts endorsing violent and racist sentiments.
In the past few years, investigations have focused on police officers, the military, emergency medical technicians and municipal workers within the United States and Canada. These are people whom the public relies upon for vital services.
“Public bodies like municipalities, the military, etc. need to respond with immediate and decisive action,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, in an email.
“Public bodies represent the common weal and should reflect core values of inclusion and equity. When these are contravened by people within the organizations it belies our commitment to those values. There is no place in public service for people who espouse hatred and hostility toward others.”
‘This is so risky’
“I think they should fire him. It's not responsible for the city of Markham to be continuing to use him as a worker here,” said a 15-year-old Markham resident who uses the Thornhill Community Centre, where Sosnin has had shifts. “I don’t want the city of Markham and these kinds of community facilities to be seen as an unsafe space for people.”
“I don’t think he should be working in a place where he’s encountering these kinds of people … where he’s interacting with people every single day, people of colour, Jews, every single religion and race,” she added. “This is so risky. He could easily make a bad decision to not go and help them just because of his own personal differences and preferences and his own mindset.”
Another Markham resident defended Sosnin’s right to free speech and employment with the city. “He has a right to say it — and I’m Jewish, but he has a right to say it,” said Gary Kogon, who was on his way to use the community centre facilities.
However, Sosnin’s right to employment might not be so clear-cut.
As a government employee, he does have constitutional protection for free speech, but the city “could take the position that the views he expressed privately are so extreme that to continue to employ him would be inconsistent with their obligations to the people as a whole,” said Clayton Ruby, a Toronto-based attorney specializing in constitutional law and civil rights.
“The government is bound to keep him on and not to penalize him for his speech exercise, [but] if he’s saying Muslims are second-rate people who are trying to kill us, you’re going to get fired, forget it, there’s no free speech on that,” said Ruby in a phone interview. “The city would be perfectly entitled to say, ‘You’re fired given your private views which you’ve publicized. [Minorities] would not feel comfortable seeking life-saving services from you, and you can’t do this job.’”
Ruby went on to say that the position Sosnin holds is also a relevant factor in deciding whether the city should continue to employ him, pointing out that people have to rely on him for their safety.
“For example, if he was a garbage man, I wouldn’t think there would be grounds for saying ‘your private views are offensive and you can’t collect our garbage,’ but the lifeguard is a very different situation.”
According to a Facebook group used by lifeguards to exchange shifts within Markham’s network, Sosnin was still working for the city as of last month and thus still tasked with overseeing the safety of the public. On social media, he has also indicated he is studying to become a paramedic. If so, once he graduates, his role and responsibilities as a lifesaver will expand, putting many more people’s lives in his hands.