Manitoba’s deputy premier has apologized to all Manitobans for making a sexist remark to business leaders, but ignored calls to undergo sensitivity and sexual harassment training.
The official Opposition ramped up pressure on Economic Development, Investment and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen to do more than say sorry, after the Free Press revealed he cited a quote often attributed to the late U.K. prime minister Winston Churchill.
The Spruce Woods MLA said, "A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest," while speaking at the Business Council of Manitoba’s annual general meeting May 12.
Cullen, 59, was forced to apologize Monday, after the Free Press learned about the remark at the private event, held at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada in Winnipeg.
Premier Heather Stefanson’s deputy widened his apology Tuesday while NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine challenged him to explain how he plans to "undo the harm he has caused."
"I have apologized to the business council. I want to apologize as well to all members of the chamber, certainly all members of government for my comments that I did make," Cullen told the legislative assembly. "Certainly, I do want to apologize as well to all Manitobans for my comments. I recognize they were very regrettable. I appreciate the error in judgment and I will learn from my mistakes."
Fontaine called on Cullen to agree to sensitivity and sexual harassment training during a tense moment in which she paused twice while being heckled.
Cullen, who is married and has three sons, did not reply.
The minister’s comment shows "misogyny is alive and well in 2022," Fontaine said.
"Research supports that phrases such as the one uttered by the deputy premier are extremely harmful to women," said Fontaine. "This individual is a leader in our province and this kind of leadership is not what we want to show young men moving forward.
"The words uttered by the deputy premier embolden others to think that this acceptable and OK. Words uttered by the deputy premier contribute to a dangerous environment where sexual harassment and violence against women thrive."
Fontaine was jeered when she claimed Cullen’s remark is part of "a pattern of inappropriate behaviours from men in opposite here."
She cited former premier Brian Pallister, who was criticized for commenting on high heels worn by Johanna Hurme, then-chair of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, at a public event in December 2017.
Cullen did not take questions from reporters following question period. His press secretary said he was unavailable.
In a statement issued after Fontaine’s calls for training, Cullen said he has no further comment.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires came to Cullen’s defence, telling the house the Tories have accepted his "sincere, unequivocal and unconditional apology."
Squires, the minister responsible for status of women, said the incident should be a "teachable moment to look at our unconscious bias" and "check our language and use better discourse."
The Progressive Conservative caucus accepted the deputy premier’s apology without reservation, said Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard.
"All of us do, because we know him," she said.
After Cullen’s office sent an apology to a Free Press reporter Monday, Stefanson said the "matter has been dealt with."
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said his party accepts Cullen’s apology.
"There is always the question of whether somebody is apologizing because they’re sorry or because they were caught, but I do think that deputy premier Cullen is sincere in his apology and we can move forward," Lamont said.
Cullen’s remark didn’t sit well with some business council members.
At the meeting last week, several people raised concerns to the organization about his remark, said president and CEO Bram Strain.
They were concerned about "the nature of the comment, that it was a sexist comment and inappropriate comment," said Strain.
Nine of the council’s 90-plus members are women. Some were present for Cullen’s speech.
An apology from Cullen was sent to council members via email, said Strain.
"I believe it was a sincere apology," he said.
Advocates for women and gender-diverse people in politics and business said Cullen’s remark contributes to barriers and discourages Manitobans from pursuing leadership roles.
"For me, I feel it’s a slap across my face," said Barbara Bowes, former chair of the Manitoba Women’s Advisory Council. "It shows that the old-fashioned sexist attitude is buried deep in the psyche of men in general and men at (Cullen’s) age."
Bowes, a Free Press columnist and past president of Legacy Bowes Group, said the comment was "very degrading."
"He was trying to be funny, but he’s minimizing women," she said.
Kelly Saunders, an associate professor of political science at Brandon University, said Cullen’s comment suggests it’s OK to "commodify" women or talk about women’s appearances or clothing.
"That’s not OK. It also sends the message that women don’t belong in positions of authority, that they don’t belong in politics," she said. "We know that words matter. The language we use shapes our society and how we feel about different issues."
The incident shows we have a long way to go toward equality and inclusiveness, said Saunders, who is also a professor in gender and women’s studies program.
Equal Voice Manitoba’s chair, Meghan Chorney, and communications chair, Kasia Kieloch, said the remark contributes to an unwelcoming environment.
"Women and gender-diverse individuals are underrepresented at all levels of government in Manitoba, and these types of public comments deter diverse individuals from running for public office," they said in a joint statement.
Cullen’s comment was unacceptable and very disappointing, said Lindsay Sinclair, chair of Women Business Owners of Manitoba.
"Comments like these will discourage women from participating in conversations about the future of business in Manitoba, which impacts economic development, investment, and trade," she said. "I would argue we are more likely to engage women in these discussions if we avoid sexist references and operated with respect for all."
— with files from Danielle Da Silva
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.