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Plagiarism, criminal convictions hound Ste Anne mayoral hopefuls

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 09/28/2018 11:30 AM

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Controversy is swirling around a four-way mayor’s race underway in the Town of Ste Anne, where one candidate is reckoning with a decision to plagiarize campaign literature while a second has yet to publicly reassure voters about a decade-old criminal conviction sustained during a previous stint in office.

Michael Bernier, Donald Simard, and Gerald St Laurent are challenging incumbent Richard Pelletier in the community of roughly 2,200 residents.

Simard has held a council seat before, serving three terms as a councillor from 2002 to 2014.

His second term was marred by two separate court proceedings.

In October 2009, Simard pleaded guilty to assaulting two teenage boys in December 2007 during a game of strip poker at his residence.

A Crown prosecutor said Simard propositioned one of the partially clothed boys while playing cards, and later put a hand under their blankets after they fell asleep, fleeing when they awoke.

The charge was downgraded from sexual assault, with the presiding judge sweeping aside a defence attorney’s assertion the incident was an alcohol-fuelled "prank" deserving of a conditional discharge.

Simard received an 18-month probation order but was commended for writing apologies to the victims and deemed a low risk to re-offend.

In an April 2008 trial, Simard, then 35, was acquitted of impaired driving and refusing a breath test in September 2007. A provincial court judge concluded Simard’s right to legal counsel was violated by the arresting officer, but didn’t doubt the councillor’s impairment on the night in question.

The Carillon also reported a conviction for driving over 0.08 in 1996, when Simard wasn’t a councillor.

Manitoba court records dating back to 2001 indicate no other entries in his criminal record.

On Tuesday, Simard agreed to a scheduled phone interview with The Carillon, but didn’t respond Wednesday to repeated attempts to reach him at the agreed upon time.

He will face competition on the campaign trail from Michael Bernier, a 59-year-old sports agent and former chair of the Ste Anne Community Development Corporation who moved to Manitoba from Montreal in 1989.

Bernier cited his past presidencies with Winnipeg football and hockey clubs as experience that would serve him well as mayor.

Calling transparency an important value, Bernier said if elected he would arrange quarterly "town hall meetings" to share updates on municipal projects and finances.

But a flyer Bernier placed in 750 Ste Anne mailboxes earlier this month alarmed two local men, who noticed nearly all of the flyer’s English text appeared to be copied, uncredited, from three different online sources.

Bernier’s greeting adheres closely to a 2014 candidacy announcement, published in the Los Angeles Times, from Elise Stearns-Niesen, a city council hopeful in Burbank, Calif.

Much of Bernier’s following three paragraphs on "responsiveness," "alignment," and "collaboration" match portions of mission and vision statements published on the municipal website of Hartford, Conn., a city of 123,000.

Bernier’s own mission and vision statements are nearly identical to those of the Town of Wasaga Beach, a lakeside community of 21,000 near Barrie, Ont.

In all three cases, Bernier’s text is tailored for a Ste Anne audience, for instance substituting "Town Council" for "City Council."

He downplayed the significance of the similarities in a phone interview Monday, calling the flyer "a notice to people of how the government should work."

"I did some research through the internet. I tried to find some towns—and I did, and I kind of matched them up, small towns that were similar to Ste Anne—and that’s basically where the content came from."

Asked why he didn’t credit the sources used, Bernier expressed regret.

"It’s something that I didn’t think of at the time, and maybe I should have…lesson learned."

Town of Ste Anne resident J.J. Schneider, who received the flyer, said his suspicion was raised when he noticed the flyer referenced higher education in a town that has no college or university.

"If someone cannot write their mailer to the residents of the town, how are they in a position to make decisions as a mayor for the town for the next four years?" Schneider said.

RM of Ste Anne resident Kyle Nixdorf said he pointed out the apparent plagiarism to Bernier on Facebook.

Nixdorf said he asked Bernier to clarify the flyer’s sources, but Bernier deleted his post instead.

Bernier explained he didn’t continue the online conversation when he learned Nixdorf wasn’t a Town of Ste Anne resident.

Nixdorf said he was only trying to ensure his fellow voters were fully informed about a document Bernier has appealed to as foundational for his campaign.

Bernier, however, anticipated the "small minority" who objected to his flyer wouldn’t hamper his door knocking efforts.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Municipal Relations said plagiarizing campaign material isn’t an offence under acts governing municipal elections, with enforcement left up to the content’s original author.

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