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Selina Robinson steps down as minister amid growing NDP backlash

Selina Robinson is resigning from her cabinet position following her remarks about the origins of Israel.

B.C. Premier David Eby announced Monday afternoon the resignation of Minister of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills Selina Robinson.

Robinson had referred to the region of Palestine prior to the 1948 establishment of Israel as a “crappy piece of land with nothing on it,” at an online panel with B’nai Brith Canada on Jan. 30, sparking backlash largely from anti-Israel protest groups, Islamic organizations and some BC NDP members.

“She screwed up” and “that screw-up was not a small one, it was a big one,” said Eby following an about-face on Robinson’s status as minister since accepting Robinson’s public apology via social media platform X on Friday and maintaining her in cabinet.

But over the weekend, criticism of Robinson grew. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called Robinson’s comments “deeply hurtful” and said he had spoken to Eby about them, stopping short of calling for her resignation.

However, a faction of the BC NDP was more forceful.

Anjali Appadurai, who contested Eby for the BC NDP leadership in 2022 until being controversially disqualified by the party’s executive council for conducting third-party membership drives, said an apology cannot fix Robinson’s “racist views.”

On Feb. 3, Appadurai shared a letter from a coalition of Islamic groups and Muslim student associations calling Robinson’s words “blatant bigotry” while banning any NDP MLAs or candidates from its “sacred spaces” until “restitutive action” is taken, including Robinson’s removal from her cabinet role.

That evening, a BC NDP fundraiser was cancelled in Surrey after protesters announced their intention to picket the event.

By Monday morning, Robinson issued a second apology and stated she would undergo “anti-Islamophobia training.”

But that still did not stop protesters, who then picketed the BC NDP cabinet retreat at the Sheraton Hotel in Surrey. Protesters also aimed to disrupt a housing funding announcement by Eby at 11:30 a.m. in Coquitlam. Protesters and critics questioned Robinson’s ability to follow through on the government’s First Nations reconciliation and anti-racism work.

Eby cancelled the Coquitlam event and held a 1:30 p.m. press conference under a secure location at Canada Place in downtown Vancouver, where Robinson’s resignation was announced.

Eby did not say what exactly was the reason for his change of heart, only saying: “There were a number of conversations with First Nations leadership, the Muslim community and it became apparent through those conversations — and we were doing this work separately — that the depth of the harm caused by those comments and the significance of the work that needs to be done was beyond what she (Robinson) would be able to do while also working as the minister of advanced education.”

Eby said Robinson will spend a “significant amount of time” with people who were hurt by her comments. 

When asked who he spoke to, Eby cited the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

“We appreciate the engagement with his office and the decision to take action. Ms. Robinson has made a string of deeply offensive and ignorant remarks about Palestinian history,” the council stated after Eby’s announcement Monday.

When asked why he kept Robinson in caucus, Eby said: “For Selina, we have an individual who is apologizing unreservedly. She is willing to go into the communities that were hurt.”

Eby said Robinson has an otherwise “remarkable record” as a politician and Jewish leader and her resignation will be painful for the Jewish community; Robinson provided a voice for Jewish people to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians in and out of government, he said.

Until her term ends, Robinson will revert to a base salary of $115,045.93 and forego her 57,522.97 additional salary as minister. Eby said the government has measures in place to ensure fluid leadership until a new minister is chosen.

Eby also added that the protesters “want to divide” and “they want to split British Columbians.”

Robinson's resignation 'inevitable,' says political scientist 

It was one particular protest, on Oct. 28 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, that ultimately connects to Monday’s resignation. That is when Langara College English instructor Natalie Knight publicly called the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack "amazing" and "brilliant."

Robinson had previously been very vocal on social media against Knight and had been speaking at the B’nai Brith panel about the need to educate younger people about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in her role as post-secondary education minister.

On Feb. 1, Robinson faced allegations from the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC that she personally intervened in the employment status of Knight, who had been placed on leave since commenting on the attacks. (Knight was reinstated by a free speech committee but then terminated last month after continuing to protest Israel.)

The federation had taken aim at comments Robinson made at the B’nai Brith panel regarding her role as minister vis-à-vis Knight’s tenure; however, Robinson’s additional comments on the history of Palestine became more amplified.

University of B.C. political scientist Stewart Prest called Robinson’s resignation “inevitable” after witnessing the “unsustainable” mounting backlash.

Prest said the backlash was largely coming from within the party, noting no opposition leaders — BC United Kevin Falcon, Conservative John Rustad and Green Sonia Furstenau — called for Robinson’s resignation.

Eby said Monday he had not spoken to any opposition party leaders about Robinson.

Prest said keeping Robinson in caucus is the party’s way, under Eby, “to be definitive while still walking a tight rope” between the socialist-leaning left side of the party and the centrist portion that has courted Liberal Party of Canada voters.

And in doing so Prest noted the BC NDP is not likely to be able to score any political points should an opposition politician make a similar mistake.

“This government (under Eby) continues to be willing to respond, and to respond more vigorously, when the situation calls for it. It is as the NDP was under (former premier) John Horgan; it’s not a government that doubles down when things are going against it. It clearly learns from its mistakes and changes course when it needs to and that’s the mark of a pragmatic government and generally speaking those governments tend to do better over the long term.”

After the resignation, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs announced "profound" disappointment in the resignation.

“Today, as the Jewish community in B.C. is confronted by an alarming increase in anti-Semitism and by frequent pro-Hamas protests calling for the Jews of Israel to be eradicated, the loss of MLA Robinson is especially distressing as we no longer have our strongest advocate — who understands the challenges and sensitivities of the Jewish community — at the table," said Nico Slobinsky, the centre's vice-president of the Pacific Region.

“The community is both offended and hurt by what has happened to a great ally and British Columbian, and it has seriously undermined the confidence of the Jewish community in the Government of British Columbia. Given this obvious double standard and loss of Jewish representation in cabinet, Premier David Eby must share what steps he is going to take to repair the relationship and restore the community’s trust in him and his government.”

Slobinsky noted it was only last week Jewish groups forgave the Eby government for a communications blunder that saw government social media messages call to "stand with the Muslim community" on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca