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Rob Shaw: Score-settling on the minds of some as Selina Robinson turfed from cabinet

Premier calls former post-secondary minister’s dismissive remarks no small ‘screw-up’
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Selina Robinson was dismissed from her cabinet position Monday following remarks last week in which she described Israel as being Israel was founded on a “crappy piece of land" in Palestine.

By the time Premier David Eby removed Selina Robinson from his cabinet Monday, his embattled post-secondary minister was facing criticism from numerous organized groups — some of which he reached out to for talks, others he concluded were using the situation to exercise old grudges against his government.

At the forefront was the National Council of Canadian Muslims, which Eby praised for its willingness to open a difficult dialogue over the weekend about the hurt caused by Robinson’s comments that Israel was founded on a “crappy piece of land.” 

“We had the most meetings with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, discussions about how to move forward,” Eby said Monday.

“My specific ask, and the reason for the majority of those meetings, was for their assistance in supporting the work that Selina needs to do with the Muslim community in British Columbia to facilitate meetings with mosques and other leadership going forward.”

The idea of anti-Islamophobia training came from those talks, brokered by the premier. 

Robinson agreed. A statement was ready Sunday night, but failed to go out. 

By the time her second apology actually landed Monday morning, protesters were already gathering outside a BC NDP caucus meeting at a hotel in Surrey chanting “Selina, Selina, you can’t hide, you committed genocide.”

At the front of the protest group, shouting at security and police, was Harsha Walia, the former executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, who lost her job in 2021 after her extremist statements were criticized by none other than then attorney general David Eby.

Walia has since become a fierce critic of Eby and the NDP government, regularly denouncing him on a variety of issues, through a variety of protests, before showing up at the caucus meeting on Monday (though, she was not listed as the organizer).

Meanwhile, online, another long-standing BC NDP critic, Anjali Appadurai, had gone viral on Sunday for distributing a letter from 18 Muslim leaders banning NDP MLAs and candidates from entering their mosques and sacred spaces as long as Robinson remained in cabinet.

Appadurai ran against Eby in the 2020 BC NDP leadership race, but said she was “treated unjustly” by the party when she was disqualified for violating membership sign-up rules. Since then, she too has been a merciless critic of the NDP.

Appadurai had an impressive group of climate organizers around her during the NDP leadership race, and some of them were also active online in organizing and promoting petitions against Robinson, including Avi Lewis, Atiya Jaffar and even Naomi Klein.

Inside the NDP and around the premier, Walia, Appadurai and their supporters weren’t considered groups that were actually interested in an apology — just using Robinson’s predicament to settle old political scores. 

Yet the activists also mobilized thousands of people, many of whom expressed articulate and meaningful concerns about the impact of Robinson’s hurtful words.

“There was a group of protesters and their agenda is clear — they want to divide, they want to split British Columbians apart,” said Eby. 

“And that is the complete opposite of what I want our government to do, and what Selina's work is going to be going forward is to bring people together.”

Three other movements coalesced around the issue, calling for Robinson’s removal on slightly different grounds.

Allies of former BC Green deputy leader Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi mounted a campaign online that argued Robinson should be fired because Gandhi was fired last November when he liked a tweet comparing Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor known as the “Angel of Death” who performed horrific experiments on Jewish prisoners during the Second World War.

Robinson was one of the first people to openly criticize Gandhi for his social media activity, calling it “absolutely outrageous.” Gandhi supporters rallied to settle that score.

Meanwhile, Green MLA Adam Olsen put forward a thoughtful, articulate and powerfulcondemnation of Robinson’s words within an Indigenous context, comparing her language to that used by colonial settlers who stole the land of First Nations peoples in Canada.

His concerns were echoed by some other Indigenous leaders, and Eby said he’d reached out to those groups as well over the weekend.

There were also people upset at Robinson for her perceived involvement in intervening in the firing of Langara College instructor Natalie Knight, who called the initial Hamas attack of Oct. 7 that killed almost 1,200 people, “amazing” and “brilliant.”

Robinson publicly criticized the college for reinstating Knight, but denied she influenced its leadership. A contingent of the post-secondary academic and student communities called for her resignation partly on those grounds, in addition to her land comment.

“I've heard the allegations about Selina being involved in the firing process of this professor, that's not correct,” Eby said Monday.

“That decision was made independently by the institution. My concerns that have led to Serena stepping down as minister relate to how her comments increased division in our province and the work that she needs to do to bring people back together.”

On the opposite side of the issue, two prominent Jewish organizations were left outraged, not only by Eby’s decision to remove Robinson from cabinet, but by the “chilling message that Jewish leaders are held to a different standard than non-Jewish ones,” said Nico Slobinsky, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

His centre accepted Eby’s apology last month when staff in the premier’s office screwed up a social media post observing International Holocaust Day, and has also forgiven NDP MLAs in the past for making anti-Semitic comment, said Slobinsky. But Robinson was not given that same opportunity for forgiveness when she made a mistake.

“It is shameful that Premier David Eby has bowed to pressure from a loud minority whose campaign to discredit MLA Robinson was centred in anti-Jewish bias and lacked the offer of grace they demand when others falter,” said Ezra Shanken, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.

In the end, there were more than half a dozen disparate groups involved in and around the Robinson issue. Some made a lot of noise, but were entirely dismissed by the premier in his decision-making due to obvious unrelated grudges. Others spent the weekend talking to the premier about the hurt caused.

When it became clear it would take significant work to rebuild trust in the community, it also became untenable for a government two weeks shy of delivering its marquee pre-election budget to allow the controversy to continue.

“The perspective that I have here is that Selina has a remarkable track record as a politician representing her community, representing the Jewish community, and that she screwed up,” said Eby. 

“That screw-up was not a small one. It was a big one. And she's caused a lot of hurt, but that she's willing to engage with communities to address it. 

“She's apologized unreservedly. She is willing to go out and do that work. And I want to give her a chance to do that work.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com