MP Fletcher’s talk stirs campus storm

Cabinet minister rejects apology demand

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OTTAWA -- Some University of Manitoba student leaders want an apology from Manitoba cabinet minister Steven Fletcher over comments he made last month at a campus forum.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/04/2009 (4862 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Some University of Manitoba student leaders want an apology from Manitoba cabinet minister Steven Fletcher over comments he made last month at a campus forum.

But Fletcher and the event’s organizers say no apology is warranted.

The event was hosted by the University of Manitoba Campus Conservatives on March 19 and billed as a chance to hear from Fletcher in his role as the minister of state for democratic reform.

CNS THE OTTAWA CITIZEN PAT MCGRATH / CANWEST NEWS SERVICE ARCHIVES Steven Fletcher: Tory values

David Safruk, a politics major and incoming arts student council representative on the University of Manitoba Students Union, said the talk had very little to do with democratic reform.

"It turned out to be like he was in the midst of the campaign trail," said Safruk, who wrote a comment piece about the event in the U of M student newspaper, The Manitoban. "I believe it was much too partisan."

Safruk said Fletcher spent most of the talk berating left-leaning student politicians, The Manitoban and the Canadian Federation of Students, referring to the newspaper as a "socialist rag" and repeatedly calling the CFS "loony."

"Mr. Fletcher owes the University of Manitoba, CFS and The Manitoban an apology," Safruk said.

But Campus Conservatives co-founder Stephen McCreary said nobody was upset about the forum until Safruk’s misleading piece ran in the paper. McCreary said Safruk’s piece suggests the event was tense and confrontational, and it was not. "It really painted a false picture," McCreary said.

McCreary said at no time did Fletcher make any inappropriate insults about student union leaders or the newspaper.

"I don’t think any apology is necessary," McCreary said.

He said he can understand some students were disappointed Fletcher didn’t spend more time talking about democratic reform, because that is how the forum was marketed on posters around campus. He spoke for 45 minutes, McCreary said.

But he said students who attended were engaged, Fletcher took questions from the crowd for more than an hour and the mood was light-hearted.

Fletcher said he was invited to speak at an event hosted by student Conservatives and he went with the intention to discuss how Conservative principles benefit students.

"I think Conservative values are student values," Fletcher said. "I was there to speak about the Conservative party and the role Conservatives play on campus. I wasn’t asked to be there in a general way."

Fletcher said at no time did he call anyone specifically a "loony". "I said people on the far left are sometimes loony."

He said he is very aware the student union has members from all political backgrounds, pointing out he was a Conservative when he was president of UMSU from 1997 to 2001.

Fletcher and The Manitoban have a history of animosity. When he was UMSU president, he was accused of attempting to infringe on the paper’s independence by terminating its autonomous funding arrangement with UMSU. The dispute was eventually settled but made national headlines at the time.

Winnipeg Liberal MP Anita Neville said this is Fletcher making an overt attempt to subvert the democratic rights of students.

"If you are the minister of democratic reform, you should have some respect for the democratic process and for views that are different than your own," Neville said.

Current UMSU president Jonny Sopotiuk says he is shocked that an elected official and a cabinet minister would use a forum on campus to try to undermine elected student officials.

"For an elected MP to go to the level of name- calling is childish," Sopotiuk said.

Sopotiuk and Safruk both think Fletcher’s comments are part of a larger-scale attempt by the federal Conservatives to get more Conservative students elected in student politics.

Last month, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association was found to be holding workshops on how to take over student councils and campus public-interest research groups. McCreary said there is nothing like that occurring in Manitoba.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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