10/31/2017 12:32 EDT | Updated 11/01/2017 19:43 EDT

Halifax councillor apologizes for using 'inappropriate' racially charged word

HALIFAX — A Halifax councillor is apologizing for using a racially charged word, the most recent snarl in a string of controversial remarks to roil regional council.

Coun. Matt Whitman used the word "Negro" in an interview last week, prompting public outcry and at least one official complaint to the municipality.

On Tuesday, after a social media donnybrook with a fellow councillor, he apologized for engaging in "inappropriate dialogue," saying he never meant to "insult, hurt, demean or otherwise disparage anyone."

"Over the past week, I have been involved in social media dialogue with a fellow council colleague, which developed into an extensive, emotional and sometimes heated exchange," he told council. "I'm sorry if I offended anyone."

At issue was a Twitter debate over the term "marijuana." Fellow Coun. Shawn Cleary said he would no longer use the well-known synonym for cannabis because of its racist history demonizing marginalized communities, namely Mexicans.

"I had a problem with him saying that the word marijuana is racist because of Mexicans," Whitman told CTV Atlantic. "The word marijuana may be racist because of Caucasians, Negroes, or some other race, but not because of a nationality."

The lone African-Nova Scotian member of council, Coun. Lindell Smith, asked Whitman to refrain from using the word "Negroes."

"It’s not appropriate, and we are not in 1950," Smith said, explaining that people of colour or African-Nova Scotian were more appropriate terms.

Mayor Mike Savage said he was "surprised" by Whitman's choice of words.

"I don't think it's a term you use now. There are other words that you use," he said. "It was a poor choice of words, no question."

While Savage said he doesn't think the word was meant maliciously, he said "you have to be responsible for your choice of words."

A municipal administrative order outlines ethical and personal code of conduct guidelines for councillors, and the mayor said any complaints against Whitman would go to council for consideration.

A city spokesman said there are four "recent outstanding councillor code of conduct complaints" being processed through the clerk's office, but he could not say who the complaints are against.

Halifax resident Jenny Gammon said she has filed a complaint against Whitman, the councillor in her largely suburban district northwest of downtown.

"This is one in a long line of incidents," she said. "I fear there won't be any change in behaviour unless it's forced."

Whitman apologized last March for a video he posted online that used racially insensitive language. In the video, Whitman yelled "Chinese fire drill!" as he and a friend scrambled from a car.

Halifax councillors have been discussing other racially charged language in recent months.

Private emails between municipal leaders obtained by the CBC last month showed behind-the-scenes disagreements over dealing with controversy related to commemorating the city's founder.

A statue of Edward Cornwallis was shrouded with a tarp ahead of an Aboriginal-led protest last July, prompting Coun. David Hendsbee to suggest the tarp should have been "red" instead of black and asked for a "peace pipe."

Fellow councillor Waye Mason accused his colleague of racism.

"When you use race or ethnic based words that way, it is racist," Mason said in an email. "You should seek cultural competency training."

Days before, The Coast, a weekly alternative paper, reported that Hendsbee called Indigenous protesters  "hotheads on the warpath."

However, he took to Twitter to apologize for the using of the word "warpath."

"Hopefully 'cooler heads' will prevail whereby everyone's heritage is acknowledged and respected," Hendsbee said in a tweet.