Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/4/2019 (234 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
What sort of behaviour merits a hero’s welcome? And what level of misdeed justifies telling someone they’re simply not welcome?
Winnipeg’s mayors have occasionally found themselves in the critical spotlight for their handling of the first question — recall, if you will, Sam Katz’s ill-considered presentation of the key to the city to Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, a rock star with a long-standing reputation for misogynistic excess, or Glen Murray’s decision to offer the same honour to actress and frequent tabloid target Shannen Doherty.
Current Mayor Brian Bowman stepped up to the podium this week to address the second question — by discussing a celebrity visitor to the city, but not for the purpose of conferring a ceremonial trinket or issuing a welcoming proclamation. Instead, the mayor urged a local group to disinvite a featured speaker from a public event.
And in so doing, Mr. Bowman overstepped. Controversial though the individual in question might be, it is not the role of an elected civic leader to dictate whose ideas Winnipeggers should be allowed to hear.
Several weeks ago, the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg released the lineup of speakers for a panel discussion Friday titled "Sorry Not Sorry: Unapologetically Working for Social Justice." Among the scheduled participants is Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist whose background includes co-chairing the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, D.C., acting as executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, helping to organize Black Lives Matter protests, and serving as lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban.
Some of Ms. Sarsour’s other activities, including her pro-Palestinian remarks regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and support of the boycott, divestment, sanctions campaign against Israel, have led to her being labelled as anti-Semitic by numerous Jewish groups. Other Jewish organizations have voiced support for her work.
Representatives of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada flanked Mr. Bowman as he urged the SPCW to rescind its invitation to Ms. Sarsour.
That Middle Eastern politics are complex, nuanced and virtually impossible to discuss without inflaming passions on one or both sides is a truth that has remained unchanged for generations. For the unenlightened outsider, choosing sides is fraught with peril. Intentionally or not, by issuing his plea for a voice to be silenced, Mr. Bowman chose a side.
He did not speak out last year when controversial academic and author Jordan Peterson brought his divisive message to town, nor did he protest when erstwhile Conservative party leadership hopeful and avowed xenophobe Maxime Bernier sought to advance his fledgling party’s agenda in Winnipeg.
Perhaps motivated by heightened sensitivity regarding anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence after a high-profile local incident, Mr. Bowman seems to have decided the SPCW’s controversial speaker represented an opportunity to take a politically righteous stand (he’s not alone; provincial Families Minister Heather Stefanson also denounced Ms. Sarsour’s panel-discussion participation).
While it’s certain that there’s more behind their statements than crass opportunism, the timing of the elected officials’ statements — while the local incident was in the headlines, rather than back when Ms. Sarsour’s invitation was first made public — suggests politics played at least some part in the decision to speak out.
Winnipeggers, for the most part, are a resilient, thick-skinned and open-minded bunch. The politicians they elect should allow them to decide for themselves who they listen to and what they think of what they hear.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.