‘Ottawa’ How One Chocolate Shop Sparked a Firestorm of small-town Politics in Carleton Place
When Manitoulin Chocolate Works quietly announced it was opening in Perth, there was no public outcry.
There were no NIMBY lawn signs, no fierce council debate, no allegations of conflict of interest, no threats of lawsuits.
And there were absolutely no deep, enduring divisions formed in the community over the presence of an artisan chocolate shop.
As strange as it may sound, that was the very reception the McKeen family of Manitoulin Island received two years earlier, when they tried to bring the same chocolatier to the community of Carleton Place, just down the road.
Unknown to Louise and Keith McKeen, divisions that had formed among the town’s politicians and some of its most powerful figures would come bubbling to the surface in a very public battle — one that exposed long-sown seeds of discontent around Carleton Place town hall, turning neighbour against neighbour, prompting allegations of conflict of interest, and pitting once-powerful allies against Mayor Louis Antonakos.
These are turbulent times down at Carleton Place town hall, where an ethics watchdog report to the Council of Carleton Place released in February noted a “toxic relationship” between Mayor Antonakos and a council colleague was “damaging to the town.”
The report addressed a complaint filed against Mayor Antonakos and three complaints filed against a councillor alleging they contravened the Council Code of Conduct. The report found a frayed relationship, but no merit in the complaint against the mayor and it was summarily dismissed. No sanctions were imposed against either the councillor or the mayor.
The mayor has not publicly addressed that ruling since the report from Integrity Commissioner Robert J. Swayze, who was active in Carleton Place during 2016. The report led the local paper to publish an editorial calling for improved communication from the mayor’s office, and prompting a committee motion urging council to resolve the issue of the mayor’s silence in the face of the controversy.
On March 7, Antonakos shot back in council chambers in an impassioned 25-minute address, confronting his opponents, denying he had “willfully refused or ignored the media,” and slamming negative media coverage as either “flawed” or “fabricated.”
Following the speech, which left several council colleagues visibly stunned, all six councillors voted to appoint Deputy Mayor Jerry Flynn as council spokesman.
Several prominent Carleton Place residents, Flynn among them, allege the integrity commissioner’s findings merely scratched the surface of the deep divisions that have formed between Antonakos and his fellow councillors, and between the mayor and several local institutions and members of the business community.
Flynn alleged the rift between Antonakos and Coun. Doug Black, which was revealed in the integrity commissioner report, was the latest in a line of “personal vendettas.”
Swayze issued no sanctions against the mayor or councillor, but the watchdog delivered a firm slap on the wrist, telling both elected officials they “are elected to do a job professionally and the name calling by both of them needs to stop,” and warning their “toxic relationship” was “damaging to the town.”
One of the complaints alleged the mayor “wrote letters to the (local) hospital board and spoke publicly, contrary to the will of council, resulting in a serious deterioration of the relationship between the board and council.” A separate complaint stated that Coun. Black “disclosed confidential matters discussed in closed session council meetings” to the media and a former member of council.
When those leaks were first made public, Mayor Antonakos is reported to have sent an email to each of his fellow councillors — which later made its way into the local paper — calling the leak a serious “breach of trust” and calling on the leaker to resign.
On Feb. 23, a fresh complaint was filed with the ethics watchdog alleging the mayor violated those same code-of-conduct rules by disclosing confidential council matters to groups of property developers while then-councillor Antonakos was embroiled in a bitter 2014 election fight.
Antonakos has dismissed the complaint as a “publicity stunt” by a “disgruntled developer.”
The chocolate shop may have seemed like the unlikeliest of wedge issues, but it was an episode numerous prominent town figures and community sources, interviewed over a months-long investigation by the Citizen, say is emblematic of council’s current dysfunction.
It would all boil over in the summer of 2015.
Louise and Keith McKeen said they “fell in love” with the Carleton Place community, the town of 10,000 with its picturesque setting along the Mississippi River and proximity to the capital, when they set out searching for a second location for their family-run chocolatier.
The McKeens, hailing from Manitoulin Island’s tiny Kagawong community — where the town sign declares it “Ontario’s Prettiest Village” — wanted to open a second store for their daughter, Heather, to operate with sister Brenda.
They spent years scouting real estate in town. They toured prospective sites, hired architects, contractors and consultants and, in October 2014, they found what they called “the perfect location.”
It was an old church hall on Edmund Street, overlooking the river, a stone’s throw from downtown.
The only catch was the St. James Anglican Church property had long ago been zoned as residential, but both prospective buyer and seller figured they could present a solid case to get it rezoned.
What they didn’t anticipate was the groundswell of opposition, which equally vocal supporters in town described as a “fear campaign.”
Some critics planted lawn signs and stoked anxieties over the fictional delivery trucks they said would soon come barrelling down the quiet residential street, bound for the shop that had curiously grown, in some minds, into a large-scale chocolate “factory.”
The McKeens and others involved in the failed sale expressed their frustration in dealing with town officials, saying decisions were frequently deferred while staff were “vague” about what was missing from the proposal, and expressed their confusion over the apparent inflated scale of the chocolate shop by the time it ultimately came to a vote.
Whenever the issue hit the agenda at town council, those on both sides of the debate would jam into the public gallery, and, when it came to a final vote on a hot August day in 2015, emotions were running high.
Mayor Antonakos called a special afternoon session with only one item on the agenda: the application to rezone the church property, the final roadblock in the sale of the old Elliot Hall to Manitoulin Chocolate Works.
In the gallery that day was former mayor Paul Dulmage. The former mayor would later write an open letter to council and the Mayor Antonakos over what he saw as a flawed process, and publicly alleging a conflict of interest against Antonakos on the grounds that the mayor who “previously had negotiations (with the McKeens) for use of his land and (property) voted against the redevelopment (of Elliot Hall into the Manitoulin Chocolate Works shop.)”
Dulmage first questioned why, with such public interest in the matter, no public consultations were forwarded to council.
Staff had provided a report recommending the town deny the permit. Staff concluded the plan “indicates a scale of operations that will adversely impact the residential character of the neighbourhood,” requiring 17 parking spaces, though the McKeens said it is unclear how staff arrived at that figure. Kagawong — a hamlet with a population of fewer than 500 — had no trouble accommodating the flagship Manitoulin Chocolate Works shop.
Supporters noted the adjoining church parking lot could comfortably accommodate the shop’s needs, any time outside of Sunday sermon.
But some of the neighbours and property owners in the vicinity of the church were among those in the public gallery who applauded the staff assertion.
The proposal died on the floor by a 5-2 count.
The vote killed the sale and squashed the project, leaving the McKeens dismayed.
“We are heartbroken that some of the local residents felt so strongly against us joining your town that they would spread rumours about our intent to disrupt the neighbourhood,” the McKeens said in an open letter to the townsfolk, published in the Carleton Place Canadian Gazette.
“It was an eye-opener for my daughters to see the way adults act when opinion is swayed with selfishness and fear of the unknown,” the letter said.
But the tensions that boiled over during the chocolate-shop episode ran much deeper than a simple debate over the shop’s proposed scale of operations.
In an open letter of his own, and later in an interview with the Citizen, past mayor Dulmage blasted Antonakos for failing to live up to his primary election plank of economic development — saying the town’s economic climate for small businesses at the time had “never been worse” — and made the far more serious allegation the mayor cast his own vote amid a conflict of interest.
According to Dulmage, then-councillor Antonakos had been among the first property developers courting the McKeen family as potential tenants when Manitoulin Chocolate Works was first considering moving to town back in 2013, an account the McKeens confirmed.
Antonakos had offered the McKeens a vacant property he owned, the old Olympia Restaurant, as a temporary home for the chocolate shop while awaiting council approval for a new proposed riverfront development.
“I think we can make (the Olympia building) the perfect temporary location for you until the new building will be ready,” reads a March 2013 email, which includes proposed rental and purchase rates, sent to the McKeens from a business associate negotiating the deal on behalf of Antonakos. “Louis even has someone that would be a nice fit to take some space in there as well.”
But that proposal was denied by the previous council, with then-councillor Antonakos abstaining in declaring a pecuniary interest in the vote, and the deal fell through.
Dulmage, and others, took issue with Mayor Antonakos casting his vote against the sale of the church, despite his failed business dealings two years earlier with the same potential tenants.
Antonakos denied any conflict when asked pointedly about the issue at that August 2015 council session.
“I do not know how everyone else feels,” he said. “But, in my opinion, this is a conflict of interest.”
After the deal died, perhaps no one felt worse than Father David Andrew, the church rector who had negotiated the sale of the hall with the McKeens, and had worked tirelessly with the buyers, planners and town officials through each phase of the proposal.
But the acrimony was far from over.
A day after the vote, the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa received a letter from Carleton Place lawyer Craig Rogers, one of the members of the St. James congregation to oppose the sale of the church hall.
According to the letter, obtained by the Citizen, Rogers alleged Father David of defaming him in an email sent to a fellow congregation member, in which the rector criticized Rogers and Antonakos and made “false accusations that I have conducted illegal actions with the Mayor of Carleton Place.” None of the allegations in the notice letter has been proven in court.
“David Andrew has also called me publicly a GOD Damn LIAR in front of the Church Council,” according to Roger’s letter (with original emphasis).
Father David has said little about the fallout, citing a confidentiality agreement contained in the out-of-court settlement. Antonakos has not responded to a detailed list of questions sent to him requests for comment, and has not responded to any of the allegations contained in by the Citizen’s reporting.
Rogers said he was bound to confidentiality by the settlement, but defended his right to sue.
“If someone defames me, I can sue them, and they can resolve that by apologizing and (other) confidential terms,” said Rogers in an interview. “Because someone is involved in the church, they’re not above the law — we can’t have a society where people can make defamatory comments without consequences.”
The diocese issued a letter of apology on Aug. 20, 2015, but four days later it received a subsequent letter from Rogers, this time demanding $20,000 compensation.
“With all due respect, your demands are overstated and there is no basis for your claims for damages,” the diocese responded through its law firm in a letter dated Oct. 9, 2015.
The letter from the church noted it could just as easily countersue for defamation over an email allegedly sent by Rogers, calling Father David “cowardly and pathetic” and “dishonorable clergy.”
The claim was eventually settled and Father David, still fighting council’s denial of the deal, dropped his appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board when the McKeens lost their appetite for dealing with Carleton Place.
As the fallout continued, Father David resigned his post with the church.
Father David declined to speak publicly about the controversy that ensued, and would only say that his biggest regret was that the money raised from the sale of the seldom-used hall would have gone directly to benefit a charity the church runs for an orphanage in Haiti.
Elliot Hall continues to sit vacant, meanwhile, as does the old Olympia Restaurant.
Manitoulin Chocolate Works is opening soon in Perth, in an old heritage building overlooking the Tay River, a stone’s throw from downtown.
The chocolate shop saga turned several of the mayor’s high-profile supporters against him, including Paul Dulmage, who had worked closely with Antonakos throughout the 2014 election campaign before his relationship with the mayor soured.
Antonakos was asked for comment by the Citizen in October 2016, and a detailed list of questions was sent to him. Antonakos responded that any further discussions and communications should be handled by his legal representatives, but did not respond to the Citizen’s followup request for the contact information of the mayor’s legal representatives. Further requests for comment sent to
Antonakos in February and March remain unanswered.
Volundur (Wally) Thorbjornsson filed an integrity commissioner complaint of his own against Antonakos, alleging the mayor committed the same breaches of confidentiality that led the ethics watchdog to issue a stern warning to Coun. Black about his “casual approach to disclosing confidential matters.” The latest complaint was filed on Feb. 23 and was copied to the Ontario Ombudsman, Thorbjornsson said.
Antonakos, in his statement to council on March 7, expressed his confidence the integrity commissioner would dismiss the complaint, which the mayor alleged was a “publicity stunt” containing “malicious, abusive and insulting allegations” made by a “disgruntled developer (who) continues to attack myself, this council and our municipality.”
Thorbjornsson, once a friend, confidante and business associate of Antonakos, helped negotiate the original chocolate shop deal with the McKeens in 2013.
“(Antonakos) was obviously disappointed that they didn’t become his tenants, so that’s his way of thinking: ‘If you’re not on my team, you’re not going to be playing the game,’” alleged Thorbjornsson in an interview with the Citizen.
While the chocolate shop episode was a tipping point, according to Thorbjornsson, it was only the tip of the iceberg once he turned on Antonakos. His allegations would go back to the campaign that brought Antonakos to the mayorship in the first place.
In his official complaint, dated Feb. 23, Thorbjornsson alleged the mayor stepped into shady ethical territory during the election campaign — an unusually fierce campaign that saw Antonakos narrowly win, by a 262-vote margin, as the tide turned in the final weeks against incumbent Wendy LeBlanc.
Thorbjornsson alleged in an interview with the Citizen that he and Antonakos would meet regularly during the campaign at an office in an industrial park on the town’s edge, where then-councillor Antonakos would roll in every other Wednesday following the previous night’s council session.
Thorbjornsson alleged in an interview the then-councillor Antonakos would arrive with secretly recorded in-camera sessions of council meetings, allegedly using the intel as “bartering chips” in trade for election support, and in what Thorbjornsson alleged was a “smear campaign” against LeBlanc.
One member of that council, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had some suspicions about the Antonakos’ alleged conduct during those confidential 2014 sessions, but said, “We just thought Louis was playing with his phone.”
This council, which has been debating the frequency of its closed sessions, recently passed a motion banning the use of cellphones during in-camera sessions.
Thorbjornsson alleged in an interview that Antonakos would play back the recordings to influential property developers and business leaders, leaking confidential council conversations, including how councillors may be leaning on decisions.
“(At those meetings) there were often people who related to the specific topic that was being discussed in the in-camera sessions,” Thorbjornsson alleged in an interview. “He was very helpful in sharing whatever information was going through in-camera sessions and used that information as bartering chips to get people to help him on his campaign.”
In his official complaint, Thorbjornsson called it a “gross misuse” of in-camera privileges, and admitted his own complicity was “improper.”
When asked in an interview if he thought his conduct crossed ethical lines, Thorbjornsson laughed, “What’s ethical in politics?”
Dulmage, the town’s former mayor, acknowledged he attended several “inappropriate” meetings in 2014 with Antonakos and Thorbjornsson after he was approached to support the Antonakos campaign, though he would not verify specific details of Thorbjornsson’s official complaint.
“There were a lot of meetings … I was certainly aware of, and in some cases sat in on them,” said Dulmage, who said he was initially a supporter of LeBlanc’s re-election bid.
“But we all switched allegiances,” said Dulmage, saying he and other and influential members of the business community believed they would benefit with Antonakos in the mayor’s chair.
Thorbjornsson said he and Antonakos recruited an inner circle of prominent “movers and shakers, community leaders and business leaders.”
“Wendy ran one of those rosy campaigns, whereas Louis’ campaign was very much focused and directed at her — on tearing down whatever she was building up,” he said. “It was designed and run as an attack campaign. … There was a lot of planning and a lot of work put into it, and for information on various topics,” Thorbjornsson alleged.
Thorbjornsson alleges the secret recordings were used to plot strategy on how “to take down” the incumbent LeBlanc.
Thorbjornsson, who had never held public office, claims he heard confidential council discussions on numerous topics, including a bid for a radio station, sensitive issues surrounding the hospital board and the contentious redevelopment of the downtown business core.
“We confronted Wendy on issues that were supposed to be confidential. It was very effective,” said Thorbjornsson, who also alleges Antonakos drafted pointed questions and “planted” allies to confront LeBlanc at campaign events, speeches and all-candidates debates.
“She was blindsided,” he said.
LeBlanc declined comment, saying she would prefer to move on from the campaign, returning to her former life as a local kindergarten teacher.
Thorbjornsson, who was named the town’s businessperson of the year in 2013, hosts a renowned annual strongman competition called Wally’s Classic, and quietly runs the Angel Foundation, a charity he launched with his wife to provide support for women and children in need.
He says he “could not do business” in this town since his friendship with the mayor disintegrated.
The story is a familiar one to deputy mayor Jerry Flynn, who ran in tandem on the Antonakos ticket in 2014, but said his own distaste for conflicts on council led him to lash out publicly at the mayor following the Feb. 14 release of the integrity commissioner’s critical report.
Flynn alleges the rift between Antonakos and Coun. Black — identified and admonished in the integrity commissioner ruling — merely touched the surface.
“I feel, as deputy mayor, I have an obligation to speak on behalf of a council who is suffering tremendously from the same threats, bullying, intimidation and total lack of respect that many other people are, including the subjects of personal vendettas that he has been carrying out since he first sat in the mayor’s chair,” Flynn alleged in a heated email to the media.
Flynn listed several other incidents where he believes the mayor has butted heads with his fellow councillors, and with prominent residents and institutions.
Four months into the new council’s mandate, in early 2015, all six councillors received an email from Antonakos, demanding to know who among them had leaked confidential information from a recent in-camera council session to a local developer. The allegation was about a permit application filed by the mayor’s former friend, Wally Thorbjornsson, who flatly denied receiving any confidential information about the permit application.
Flynn said he and fellow councillors were unnerved by the allegation.
“As soon as we got that email, all hell broke loose,” he said. “Louis called me into his office and asked if I said anything to Wally. … We were only four months into (the) mandate, and I was targeted as the leak. He was relentless, asking me if I’d leaked it, for months,” Flynn alleges.
“He came to my house and asked me. He just wanted me to say I had leaked the information and he
got the same answer every time,” Flynn said.
Then, in the fall of 2015, with many townsfolk still upset over the chocolate shop, there was another leak from an in-camera session, this time over the “serious deterioration” of council’s relationship with the hospital board, allegedly leaked by a councillor to a board member.
This time, the mayor’s email would make its way into the local paper, and as the fallout continued, would eventually lead to the official integrity commissioner complaints, and the ensuing investigation, which cost Carleton Place taxpayers $20,000.
“This recent breach of in-camera proceedings has now put into question the integrity of our council and our ability to conduct the business of our municipality,” the email reads, according to the paper.
“Due to the nature and complexity of this breach of trust, I would ask that each council member reflect on their role on this council.”
Antonakos asked “anyone who feels they are unable to continue to serve in the best interest of our community step forward and resign from this council as soon as possible.”
Antonakos, as councillor, had resigned his own hospital board seat over a dispute. He had campaigned in 2014 on reforming the board, and as mayor had enlisted local MPP Randy Hillier and lobbied Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins for support.
In a public presentation in November 2015, around the time council colleagues say they received the email about the leak, Antonakos told the hospital board, “The trust between residents of Carleton Place and the hospital is broken, with the community not convinced the hospital is in good hands,” according to a Gazette report.
Retired Carleton Place Hospital CEO Toni Surko declined comment, but Flynn said the mayor’s aggressive stance toward the hospital was well known. “(Antonakos) wanted the whole board disbanded, management disbanded, he wanted the Health Ministry to take over operation of the hospital,” Flynn said.
“That’s where we fell apart,” said Flynn. “Council will always function, one way or the other, but … we didn’t previously have this divided council that came right from the mayor.”
Thorbjornsson, who is now alleging the mayor had similar breaches of trust, contends he saw no small irony in the mayor’s call for heads to roll in the wake of the leak.
The ensuing public battle only escalated tensions between former friends Antonakos and Thorbjornsson. By this time, Thorbjornsson had taken up a role as vice-chair of the Downtown Carleton Place Business Group.
The BIA already had a rocky introduction to the mayor’s tenure.
First, BIA manager Cathie McOrmond was evicted from the town hall space she had occupied the previous 12 years, where the BIA had met, rent-free, for years.
McOrmond alleges her outspoken position as “a Wendy supporter” during the election put her at odds with Antonakos.
Her position was later eliminated by the BIA, and she launched a suit for wrongful dismissal. Citing a confidentiality agreement, she would not disclose terms of the settlement.
McOrmond claims, “There were a lot of community members who were intimidated. We’ve all been intimidated.”
“There was no record of me ever having any employment issues whatsoever. I was told I’d never get another job in this town from in camera meetings. Mayor Antonakos has in the past recorded in camera meetings and played back to his supporters, myself included,” Thorbjornsson alleges.
Antonakos fired back, invoking the BIA code of conduct to force Thorbjornsson to remove the posts, while asking the business group to remove Thorbjornsson from its executive.
Coun. Black resigned his post as council liaison with the downtown business group in the midst of a tumultuous time, stating in his resignation letter, “Unfortunately myself and mayor Antonakos are at odds on a number of issues and I feel it is in the best interest of the BIA to remove myself and whatever controversy I can by doing so.”
One of the recent complaints dismissed by the integrity commissioner involved allegations the councillor discussed confidential details about “the Mayor’s wish to remove Councillor Black from the Business Improvement Area Board of directors and he offered to resign.”
Former BIA chair Rocky McDonald expressed his disappointment to the Gazette at the time, saying “a personal vendetta with one BIA board member has turned into an attack on the entire board, including Black who is a stand up, trusted member of the board.
It’s unfortunate this attack has clouded the relationship between the BIA and town.”
The BIA went without a council liaison for nearly a year before Coun. Theresa Fritz recently took on the role.
Council at first seemed content to move on from the episodes — the integrity commissioner report was quietly made public, without any discussion, at a Valentine’s Day Council session — but at town hall on March 7, a motion urging a resolution to the most recent town controversy, calling on the council to improve its media relations, may have only intensified the animosity.
Antonakos rose from his seat to respond to the motion — which alleged the mayor “continues to refuse to respond to the media about important issues facing the community” — and confronted his opponents, suggesting Coun. Brian Doucett violated the Municipal Act in bringing the motion forward, alleging deputy mayor Flynn was “running to a national newspaper” and making “defamatory, denigrating and unauthorized statements,” and dismissing recent media coverage as the product of a number of “erroneous and unsubstantiated claims made by the deputy mayor, two reporters and a disgruntled developer.”
The mayor has, meanwhile, made no public comment in direct response to Swayze’s ruling.
Coun. Doucett, who sponsored the media relations motion, said the mayor’s 25-minute statement “did not clearly address the issue. It offered no solution nor the hope of one.”
The McKeens, whose move to Perth has inadvertently reopened some old wounds in neighbouring Carleton Place, are content to move on.
“It seemed like we had quite a few supporters, but a few bad apples spoiled the stew and we’ve just had a really bad taste in our mouths, so we’re going ahead in Perth now,” said Keith McKeen, who remains puzzled over the opposition his family experienced from council and the community years ago.
“If you’ve ever been to Manitoulin Island and seen the scale of our shop — I mean, I’m looking down the street right now and there’s not a soul to be seen. This place closes up like a coffin after Christmas.”
It was for that very reason, said McKeen, that his eldest daughter, Heather, wanted to explore a second location that could help her young family with a year-round income.
“They started looking and Carleton Place came along and they loved it,” McKeen recalled.
He said his family first met with then-councillor Antonakos in 2013 to view the property he had proposed, but said after that meeting, “Heather had no interest in going in there.”
After discovering Elliot Hall, the family thought they had found the perfect location, and figured the rezoning application would present only a small hurdle, since they believed the church had long ago been incorrectly zoned.
“Clearly a church is not a residence. If there’s a grey area, you can bring it up in a zoning permit and changes can be made. Elliot Hall, is a block from commercial zoning — you can see town hall from the front door,” said McKeen.
“I figured we would bring it up to council, and we would buy the place and the church would win and we would win and Carleton Place, hopefully, would win.”
But soon, said McKeen, the rumour mill started churning.
“There first was this fear we would sell to a body shop or a pool hall if we failed. But Father David suggested a right of first refusal, so we included a condition that if we go belly-up in Carleton Place, then the church can have it right back for what we paid for it. Everybody was happy with that, but it didn’t satisfy council.”
Then the fear campaign kicked into high gear.
“There were people suggesting we were going to be another Hershey plant from Smiths Falls… and of course we’re here in little Kagawong, population 200 soaking wet. But I guess the rumour mill gets started, and in a small town, things get out of hand.”
“But in Perth, we’ve been welcomed with open arms — it’s not even on the same scale, that’s how far apart they are.”
“One lady came up to us and said, ‘I’m from Carleton Place, and I’m going to be one of your first customers, and you are so right to open here instead of Carleton Place.’ And this is a lady who lives there.”
“So, there must be something wrong in Carleton Place.”