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Mayor 'appalled' by downtown banner that references historical murder

But Downtown Guelph Business Association says banners depict events that shaped Guelph, both good and bad
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Mayor Cam Guthrie is asking that this banner at the corner of Norfolk and Cork streets, one of 151 on lamposts around Downtown Guelph, be removed. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday

Mayor Cam Guthrie says one of the historical banners recently placed on light poles in Downtown Guelph is offensive and he wants it removed immediately.

The banner depicts mug shots of Guelph's infamous Wood brothers and contains the following historical fact: "1986: The Woods brothers are convicted for their involvement in the murder of Karen Thomson."

The Mayor took to Twitter criticizing the banner as "insensitive, ill-conceived and should be removed."

It is one of 151 banners the Downtown Guelph Business Association recently installed on light poles on Norfolk Road, Wyndham and Quebec streets. The controversial banner is on the southeast corner of the Cork St./Norfolk Rd. intersection.

They depict a significant historical event from each of the past 150 years as part of helping celebrate Canada's 150th birthday.

In a follow up interview Guthrie was even more critical.

"Public displays that remind residents of vicious murders and violence against women is unacceptable," said the Mayor.

"This is a recent heinous crime which still impacts the family and friends who reside in Guelph. It has no place on banners celebrating our city history in conjunction with Canada's 150th."

Guthrie said he is "appalled" by the banner and has heard from "many" citizens who are also upset, including members of the victim's family.

The banners cost roughly $25,000 and were paid for through city funding through the DGBA.

Board Executive Director Marty Williams defended the banner and said the intent is not to glorify the Wood brothers, but to depict a significant event in Guelph's history.

"There are things that we can be proud of and things that we can be disappointed in," Williams said.

"As we've been saying all along, this is a story, this is not 150 great things that happened in Guelph or we wouldn't have put up a banner on the demolition of the opera house either."

Williams said it's important to remind ourselves that these things can happen in a town like Guelph.

"I hope that it's been explained that we're not in any way celebrating these criminals that we put up on this banner, we're just reminding ourselves of our own history," Williams said.

"It's ultimately a story about a group of brothers who were terrorizing the town, eventually murdered somebody, but they were caught and they were convicted and they were deported (to Scotland)," he said.

The banners were selected by local historian and Guelph Heritage member Tony Berto in conjunction with the Downtown Guelph Business Association.

Berto defended the banner on Facebook.

"We're not commemorating anything. We're recording events that shaped Guelph, regardless of how 'happy' they are," Berto wrote.

"These brothers definitely shaped Guelph and made the downtown a very scary place in the late 70s/early 80s. We can't just list a bunch of nice things that happened in our town," he said.

"To rewrite history in such a way is a form of propaganda that buries truth," he said, adding that the banner celebrates the brothers' arrest and "justice being served."

Social media has been both critical and supportive, but mostly critical.

"At the end of the day, the family of the murder victim don't want this banner and we as fellow citizens of Guelph should care about that. That is the Guelph I live in," wrote Beth Farquharson.

"There is a VERY big difference between a history book and a public promotional space!" said Michael Bennett.

Others argued its role as historically significant.

"It's part of history. Not all history is happy," Melanie DeJong said.

In response to the argument that history includes good and bad, Guthrie said the banner is "insensitive, and that's not what Guelph is about.

"This is a moment to publicly tell Guelph's story while celebrating Canada's 150th. When presented with such an opportunity it's important to focus on what makes our city great, not to glorify a horrific crime when the victim's family still resides in Guelph," he said.

"I am hopeful that the downtown board will do the right thing and remove the display."

The banners are scheduled to remain in place until October.