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The need for a Citizen Code of Conduct

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

There are plenty of workplace rules and codes of conduct that govern civic employees. Increasingly such codes are being mandated by provinces to apply to the conduct of local government elected officials. One municipality in Ontario has now adopted a Code of Conduct for the people.

City of Elliot Lake Chief Administrative Officer Daniel Gagnon explains the need for such a code in the following way:

Over the years, various situations have arisen where a member of the public has become either belligerent, threatening or otherwise inappropriate causing a concern for the health and safety of staff and/or the general public.
In some egregious cases, trespass orders are required to prohibit the presence of a member of the public from attending an otherwise public facility or outdoor space.
The city has a Workplace Violence and Harassment Policy that governs some of this behaviour but there was a lack of a policy to more clearly communicate the terms and conditions for when action is needed to address problematic behaviour by the public.
Also the Health and Safety guidelines did not cover what could be characterized as human rights concerns where a member of the public could be subjecting staff or other members of the public to discriminatory language or behaviour.

The policy includes examples and the processes in place for staff in dealing with incidents from minor to major cases requiring a trespass order.

While the reasons for the rise of toxic culture and incivility are many and require a long term systems approach to address (see Understanding the Root Causes of Toxic Culture), this Code of Conduct for Citizens is a way to educate around respectful conduct in the public square and protect public servants today from some of the worst abuses.

Elliot Lake Councillor Sandy Finamore supports CAO Gagnon's approach and says:

I think this is an important step. I think abuse is abuse. And I don't think that our staff should ever be subject to abuse.
I've witnessed at various events with people seeking to not like decisions that are made or whatever's going on that they feel they have the right to take that out on the staff that are working and I don't think that's okay. I think the community needs to know that we expect a decorum of behaviour.

Council voted five to one to accept the CAO's report and the draft code (pg. 22-25) at this Monday's public meeting.

The challenges faced in Elliot Lake are not unique to the City. Local governments everywhere in North America and the world are trying to find ways to promote greater civility, civil discourse and shared understanding. In some cases the toxicity is erupting in violence, in others, criminal harassment from the public is costing hundreds of thousands in public tax dollars in increased security, legal support and lost productivity.

Toxicity in the public square ultimately undermines our democracy and the ability for governments to work collaboratively and effectively with the public to solve the many complex problems communities face from the infrastructure deficit to climate change and now the costly uncertainty of the pandemic.

A longer term path towards civility includes efforts to enhance the skills of both citizens and civic leaders in civil discourse, social emotional regulation, secular ethics and the centrality and importance of human well being and compassion in a healthy society.

A notable global effort to improve the quality of citizen engagement is called Citizen Discourse where organizations and individuals voluntarily sign a Compassion Contract which commits them to:

  • Be respectful.

  • Listen to understand.

  • Act with good intentions.

  • Support ideas with evidence and experience.

  • Disagree without being disagreeable.

  • Critique the idea, not the person.

  • Invite wonder.

Last year, the City of Durango, Colorado together with the business community and other community partners launched the Civility Pledge, committing participants to “model civil behaviour and tone, and to promote respect for diversity”.

Local schools, universities and local governments are also using the book SAVE YOUR CITY: How Toxic Culture Kills Community & What To Do About It (citizen edition) as a guide to action with numerous steps outlined for both local governments and citizens.

An exclusive edition of Save Your City for local governments is published by Municipal World and includes a workbook. For more on ways municipalities can overcome toxic culture, see video below:


Uncertain and turbulent times call for ethical and resilient civic leadership. In this 10 week interactive university certificate program, learn to cultivate the values and leadership skills required to increase personal, social and environmental well-being.

By covering a range of skills from self-regulation, relating to others ethically and with compassion to engaging with complex systems, this training builds towards compassionate integrity: the ability to lead in accordance with one's values with a recognition of our common humanity, fostering trust and social cohesion―the key to resilient workplaces and communities.


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