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Scandal grows around BC NDP minister Selina Robinson

With her recent public remarks, Robinson revealed both abysmal ignorance and a racist conception of an oppressed people

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

BC NDP MLA Selina Robinson speaks during a public Zoom call hosted by B’nai Brith on January 30, 2024. She referred to Gaza as a “crappy piece of land” in her remarks that were delivered among other Jewish politicians.

Writing about this series of interlocked scandals, so much has happened so rapidly to shift the point of gravity that it’s like juggling several balls while roller-skating. I’ll take it in order, without knowing as I begin what the situation will be by the time I end.

First, there was a rally on October 28 in downtown Vancouver, at the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was packed with hundreds of people, perhaps over a thousand, of all ages, some carrying signs, many wearing keffiyehs. Among the speakers was a young woman, Natalie Knight, an instructor at Vancouver’s Langara College, who referred to the October 7 Hamas raid as “amazing… brilliant.” A similar view was expressed by retired American military analyst Scott Ritter, who called the attack the “most successful military raid of this century.” Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh quoted an Israeli official’s admiration for the “dazzling ingenuity” of the Hamas tunnel system. On November 3, Knight defended her remarks at another rally.

But not everyone tolerates such words. The Jewish Federation of Vancouver (mislabeled by some news media as “the Jewish community”) promptly complained to Knight’s employer, insisting she be fired. The college subsequently suspended her with pay pending an investigation by its own Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression Advisory Committee.

Who is Natalie Knight? Originally American and of Indigenous background, she holds a doctorate from Simon Fraser University (her work won SFU’s Convocation Medal in 2019, with high praise from her professors). She sits on the editorial board of two local literary journals, one of them the well-known Capilano Review, and participates in left and community organizations. Her advisor praised her “community activism and institutional service,” and Knight herself as “one of the most accomplished scholars I have ever taught… one who will make an enormous contribution to public debates and urgent social issues.” And indeed she has, though not in the way her advisor probably imagined. Knight was hired by Langara College in Vancouver to teach English.

During the approximately three months of the investigation, various individuals and organizations wrote letters on Knight’s behalf, supporting freedom of speech and of political opinion. The same SFU professor who directed Knight’s graduate work, lauding her character and future, refused to write on her behalf, opining that she should apologize for those two words. SFU distanced itself from Knight, claiming she had no connection with the university except for that pesky medal. Langara’s investigation concluded that Knight had contravened no college rules, had not endangered anyone with her comments or incited anyone to violence; she was then reinstated. She announced the reinstatement to a congratulatory crowd at a rally on January 23 that began at the SkyTrain station near Langara, then proceeded to the campus. All’s well that ends well, apparently.

The following day, Knight was fired. The three-month investigation was ignored, the exoneration overturned. Why? Because a minister of the provincial NDP government intervened, meeting with Langara administrators to demand that Knight be fired. This was Selina Robinson, provincial minister of post-secondary education and future skills, who had contacted the Langara College administration to that effect.

But who is Robinson, and why would a provincial minister meddle in a college case that had been duly investigated and resolved? Robinson came to her current position from ministries of finance and then of housing. Herself an SFU graduate and a former family therapist, she is an MLA from Coquitlam-Maillardville, a suburb of Vancouver. She hikes and bikes; has family; and is an inveterate tweeter, so anyone who wants personal information can find it aplenty on her X profile. So why the intervention?

Because, it turns out, the minister was influenced by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which on January 24 expressed its disappointment at the reinstatement, along with the leader of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. They demanded that Knight be fired. CIJA, as many Canadian Dimension readers know, is essentially an arm of the Israeli propaganda machine, the hasbara (Hebrew for “explanation”) office, which spends millions of dollars at home and abroad to ensure that anyone anywhere who criticizes Israeli policies or sympathizes with Palestine, calls for a ceasefire, uses the word “apartheid” or “genocide” will be harassed, threatened, doxxed, or fired. How do we know about this connection? In her January 25 post on X, she included a copy of the CIJA statement about Knight (and, given her longtime close connection with other Zionist organizations, likely other, less publicized influences). But we can’t blame it all on CIJA, because Robinson has her own Zionist agenda. She considers herself a Jewish leader. She even “liked” a post criticizing Justin Trudeau for not being sufficiently pro-Israel (!) and she considers Knight to be “spewing hatred and vitriol” when she teaches.

But the minister provided even more reason for termination when she broadcast the video of a public Zoom panel she spoke on, hosted by B’nai Brith on January 30. There she claimed that the Jews had been “offered… 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.” Too bad no one educated this minister of education about the vibrant realities of ancient Palestinian culture, its olive groves, Jaffa oranges, architecture, fisheries, artists, psychoanalysts, universities, cuisine, lively cities and towns. So beside exceeding the bounds of her position, and beside interfering in the democratically-run internal affairs of a post-secondary institution, and beside capitulating to the demands of an external propaganda group, Robinson revealed both abysmal ignorance and a fundamentally racist and colonial conception of an oppressed people. She then posted a half-hearted, self-justifying “apology” for her comments about the land and people of Palestine, which nobody bought except Premier David Eby, who expressed appreciation for this non-apology.

On February 1, both the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC (FPSE) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) called for Robinson’s resignation, on the basis of her interference in Langara’s democratic internal procedures. With the comments made during the Zoom event hosted by B’nai Brith, it became easier for other organizations and individuals to intervene, even those reluctant to touch the Knight case for fear of being tainted by any association with someone who might have said something positive about Hamas. This includes various individual commentators as well as Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), a small but growing national organization which recently declared itself anti-Zionist and whose goals I support; their letter to Premier Eby insisted that Robinson be fired, but did not mention the scandalous influence of CIJA or the minister’s interference in college internal affairs. With a segment on the February 2 editing of CBC’s Early Edition, the situation went truly national.

At the time of writing, Robinson has not resigned; Eby has not called for her resignation; the president of Langara, Dr. Paula Burns—who was complicit in the entire affair from the beginning—remains in office, despite various calls for her resignation as well as Robinson’s; and Knight has not been re-reinstated. Stay tuned.

Dr. Sheila Delany is emerita professor of English at Simon Fraser University. She is a lifelong activist, writer, and widely published scholar.

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