British Columbia

B.C. minister under fire for comments about Middle East before creation of Israeli state

Premier David Eby says he has accepted Selina Robinson's apology but expects her to try and regain the trust of British Columbians after she referred to the region where Israel was established as a "crappy piece of land."

Selina Robinson apologizes after referring to region where Israel was established as 'crappy piece of land'

B.C. minister under fire for comments about Middle East before creation of Israeli state

6 months ago
Duration 2:37
B.C. Minister of Post-Secondary Education Selina Robinson is facing mounting pressure to resign over a recent remark about Israel that experts say perpetuates harmful colonial narratives that ignore the history of people in the region.

B.C. Minister of Post-Secondary Education Selina Robinson is facing mounting pressure to resign over her comments related to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, including a recent remark about Israel that critics say perpetuates harmful colonial narratives that ignore the history of Palestinian people in the region.

Speaking as part of a panel of Jewish public officials on Tuesday, Robinson answered a question in part by saying there is an "entire generation" of young adults who do not know about the Holocaust or understand that the region on which the state of Israel was created decades ago was previously "a crappy piece of land with nothing on it."

"There were several hundred thousand people but, other than that, it didn't produce an economy. It couldn't grow things. It didn't have anything on it," she said during a public Zoom call hosted by B'nai Brith, an independent Jewish human rights organization.

WATCH | Robinson refers to area where Israel was created as 'crappy piece of land': 

B.C. minister says before Israel was established, the region was a 'crappy piece of land with nothing on it'

6 months ago
Duration 2:27
Minister of Post-Secondary Education Selina Robinson made the remarks Jan. 30 at a public panel organized and posted by B’nai Brith Canada. She has since apologized.

Robinson later posted an apology online.

"I want to apologize for my disrespectful comment referring to the origins of Israel on a 'crappy piece of land.' I was referring to the fact that the land has limited natural resources," read a post on Robinson's account on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"I understand that this flippant comment has caused pain and that it diminishes the connection Palestinians also have to the land. I regret what I said and I apologize without reservation."

Critics say remarks like Robinson's dismiss people who lived in the area for thousands of years before the creation of Israel in 1948, including Palestinians, Muslims, Christians and Jews. 

"I was surprised and flabbergasted by the comments because they are both incredibly ahistoric and inaccurate by every measure of knowledge," said Adel Iskandar, an associate professor of global communication at Simon Fraser University.

"What the minister is describing is out of touch with reality, with history and with every understanding of both the land and its history and its people."

The modern state of Israel was created in 1948 out of land that was previously British-administered Palestine.

The nation's establishment represented self-determination for Jewish people after the persecution of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were systematically murdered from 1933 to the end of the Second World War in 1945. But the creation of Israel is deemed the "catastrophe" — or Nakba — for Palestinians whose society, culture and identity were destroyed as they were driven from their homeland to make way for incoming Jewish immigrants.

WATCH | Eby says Robinson must improve her behaviour: 

B.C. premier says minister 'has some work to do' after Middle East comments

6 months ago
Duration 2:17
David Eby said he has accepted the apology of, and expressed his disappointment with, Selina Robinson over remarks she made about the Middle East. At a Jan. 30 public panel, she referred to the region prior to the establishment of the state of Israel as a 'crappy piece of land with nothing on it'.
 

Among critics of Robinson's comments were members of the federal NDP, to which the provincial New Democrats are linked.

Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, said on X that Robinson had shown "an appalling disregard for the horrific violence being inflicted on Palestinians."

"Their homeland wasn't 'a crappy piece of land with nothing on it,'" he wrote. "People lived on it. Families lived on it. Villages flourished. They loved this land."

An Israeli tank manoeuvres amid a backdrop of ruins.
An Israeli tank manoeuvres amid a backdrop of ruins, along the border with northern Gaza, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas on Jan. 30. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

MP Matthew Green called for a "reassessment" of Robinson's place in the B.C. cabinet over her "inaccurate ... deeply derogatory and insensitive remarks."

"I urge Premier David Eby to consider the implications of these comments," wrote Green, who represents Hamilton–Centre.

In a statement issued Friday morning, B.C. Premier David Eby thanked Robinson for the apology while calling her comments "wrong and unacceptable."

"It has caused deep hurt and distress to Palestinians, Muslims and many others," the statement read.

At a Friday press conference on an unrelated matter, Eby did not directly answer questions about whether he had considered firing Robinson, or if she had offered her resignation.

But, he said, he believes Robinson has "crossed a line" with her remarks and she has assured him she will be reaching out directly to members of impacted communities to make reparations.

"We are in positions of authority, responsibility and power," he said. "That brings with it an expectation on the part of all British Columbians that when we take on these roles, we do not use them to belittle or dismiss anybody or any community.

"I expressed my disappointment to her about not meeting that standard. She's got some work to do."

Minister accused of political interference

Separate to her remarks on the panel, Robinson is also under fire over accusations she interfered with a personnel issue at Vancouver's Langara College late last year.

The dispute surrounded former instructor Natalie Knight, who was removed from her role in October after praising the Hamas-led invasion of Israel during an off-campus rally.

WATCH | A segment of Knight's speech that drew the most criticism: 

Langara instructor's speech draws rebuke, workplace investigation

9 months ago
Duration 0:34
Video posted to a YouTube channel and widely circulated on social media shows Langara College instructor Natalie Knight characterizing the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 as "amazing, brilliant."

The college reinstated Knight after its own investigation found her comments did not violate the law or any college policies, but then dismissed her soon after for behaving "contrary to the expectations laid out by the college."

The about-face came soon after Robinson tweeted her disappointment at Knight's reinstatement.

"I am disappointed this instructor [Knight] continues to have a public post-secondary platform to spew hatred and vitriol," the minister wrote. "I have met with @langaracollege to express my concerns for the Langara and broader communities. They agree everyone deserves to feel safe."

A building on the campus of Langara College
Langara College is pictured in an undated photo. (Google Streetview)

In its own statement, Langara said an employee who made "remarks at an off-campus event that did not and do not reflect the values of the college" no longer works there. It said the decision was not a result of the remarks themselves but of more recent "activities contrary to the expectations laid out by the college."

Langara has not clarified what those activities were nor whether Robinson's statement played any role in the dismissal.

But the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which represents staff at more than 125 universities and colleges across the country, said Robinson should step down.

"Political interference into the internal affairs of universities and colleges must never be countenanced as it undermines their independence and the academic freedom of faculty that is necessary to preserve, share and advance knowledge," CAUT executive director David Robinson wrote in a letter to the premier.

"By intervening publicly and directly with the college administration concerning Dr. Knight's expressed views, the minister has violated these fundamental principles."

A woman speaks into a microphone at a rally as protesters surround her.
Natalie Knight, pictured centre holding microphone, faced criticism and calls to be fired from her academic job after a speech she gave at a pro-Palestinian rally in late October. Knight defended her comments as legitimate speech in the face of Israeli actions against Palestinians. (United in Struggle)

A statement from Robinson's office on Friday said the allegations of political interference are "false" and that Robinson found out about the college's decision after the fact.

During the B'nai Brith panel on Tuesday, Robinson stood by her original remarks.

"I'm being called out by the faculty association because I expressed my disappointment at her reinstatement, but I also represent a constituency and they needed to see me upset," said Robinson, who is the MLA for Coquitlam–Maillardville, during the Zoom call.

"[Knight] was outrageous right after Oct. 7. She went out of her way to be vitriolic and celebrate the massacre that happened, but she called out — she got called out by me, she got called out by the Jewish community.

"Langara struggled, I will say, at the beginning but decided to put her on leave while they did an investigation into what options they had to deal with her horrendous outburst and her disrespect of her students, particularly her Jewish students on campus."

CBC News has made repeated attempts to contact Knight for comment.

Calls for B.C.'s Post-Secondary Education Minister Selina Robinson to resign have grown over the past day. We speak with Michael Conlon, Executive Director of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C. for their letter to Premier Eby.

Michael Conlon, executive director of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C., also said Robinson should step down, over both the Langara issue and her recent panel remarks.

"The bigger picture for us is that her very strong political views have tainted her objectivity as minister and she's behaved in a way that we believe is highly, highly inappropriate," Conlon said in an interview with CBC's The Early Edition. 

At Friday's press conference, Eby said the idea that Robinson had played a role in the decision to dismiss Knight "is not correct."

"The administration of the school made the decision to terminate that individual," he said before repeating his expectation that Robinson reach out to individuals and community leaders "to try and gain back the trust of British Columbians."

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to more precisely describe the area's population before 1948.
    Feb 06, 2024 10:14 AM PT

Corrections

  • This article originally referred to a conflict between Israel and Gaza and has been updated to refer to a conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
    Feb 02, 2024 4:43 PM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rhianna Schmunk

Senior Writer

Rhianna Schmunk is a senior writer for CBC News based in Vancouver. Over a decade in journalism, she has reported on subjects including criminal justice, civil litigation and climate change. You can send story tips to rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press