The Erin Weir debacle continues to haunt the federal New Democrats. It underscores party leader Jagmeet Singh’s seeming policy confusion and calls into question his political judgment.
It just won’t go away.
Weir is the Regina MP who was expelled from the NDP caucus last year and barred from running again for the party. His sin? He had dared to defend himself against charges of sexual harassment.
This week, the 37-year-old, lifelong New Democrat conceded that he won’t run under his party’s banner in the fall election. Nor will he run as an independent. He will sit this one out.
The Weir saga began with a 2018 email from NDP MP Christine Moore to fellow caucus members claiming that he had harassed not her but other, unnamed women. Singh almost immediately suspended Weir from caucus, while his office began a search for women willing to complain. Eventually, four were found. Three said Weir stood too close to them when talking and didn’t know when to shut up. The fourth said he had twice yelled at her over the issue of carbon tariffs — once during a policy debate and again later in an elevator.
At another time, these complaints might have been kept in perspective. But in the #MeToo frenzy of 2018, they were viewed as unforgivable political crimes. Weir was ordered to apologize to the “survivors” and take sensitivity training. He readily agreed, but with one exception. He didn’t see why he should apologize to someone for having heated words over a policy issue — even if that someone were female.
When his accuser was quoted anonymously on CBC, Weir responded to media requests for his side of the story. That, it seemed, was truly unpardonable. Singh expelled him from caucus and barred him from running for the NDP in the fall federal election.
In particular, Singh faulted him “for diminishing the finding of harassment by claiming that this was in fact a policy disagreement.” “It’s a bit Orwellian,” Weir told me in telephone interview this week. “If you try to defend yourself, it only proves that you’re guilty.”
In January, the Regina-Lewvan NDP constituency association asked Singh to reconsider and let Weir contest the nomination. Singh refused. Earlier, 68 prominent Saskatchewan New Democrats, including 13 former MPs, made a similar pitch. Singh dismissed that plea as coming from “people in a position of privilege.”
It was a comment that didn’t go over well in Saskatchewan.
The NDP will rue its treatment of Weir. It has been not only unfair but unproductive. A former economist for the Steelworkers Union, Weir has a keen understanding of the political economy of his home province.
On the issue of energy pipelines, for instance, he understands both the need to combat global warming and the dollars-and-cents reality of his constituents.
He favours construction of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from Alberta’s tarsands to the Pacific Coast. In part that’s because the pipes for such a project are manufactured in Regina. In part, it’s because “to the extent that we continue to use oil,” pipelines are the safest way to move petroleum.
He says he is baffled that “the current leadership” of his party has taken no position on carbon pricing, given that this issue promises to be central to the October election.
He’s equally baffled that Singh opposes all oil pipelines but appears to favour building new natural gas pipelines in British Columbia. (In fact, the NDP leader has suggested, at different times, that he both supports and opposes a plan to pipe B.C. natural gas to the Pacific Coast for liquefaction and export to Asia.)
Many New Democrats will disagree with Weir on the pipeline question. But he’s right that the party needs to clarify its muddled position.
He’s also right that vigorous debate between those who happen to be men and those who happen to be women shouldn’t automatically be treated as sexual harassment. Such an approach does no sex any favours.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom