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Media

Why Was UNBC’s Board Chair Fired?

NDP government blames ‘racist and discriminatory’ comments. But Aaron Ekman blames performative politics.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 26 Jul 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

If there’s one thing you can say for certain about Aaron Ekman, it’s that he’s not easily put in a box.

The self-described “ultra-lefty” engages in debate — and frequently ruffles feathers — across the political spectrum. A labour activist and past union organizer, he regularly appears on far-right media to debate issues and offer alternate perspectives. His views are often unpredictable, frequently provocative and always colourful.

But they’re not racist, he says.

So when Ekman learned on Twitter that the NDP government was firing him as University of Northern British Columbia board chair for “racist and discriminatory comments,” he took exception.

“Been fired from more jobs than anyone I know, this is the first time on Twitter,” he tweeted in response. “Haven’t heard yet if it’s because I’ve been a Zionist, an anti-Semite, or a transphobe. Lemme know if you hear anything.”

Nearly two months later, Ekman says he’s never been told what got him abruptly removed from the unpaid position at the Prince George university.

But he maintains that it shouldn’t have been accusations of racism.

“What made the statement that the minister made so difficult was that she called me a racist and did so in writing, without quantifying that in any regard,” Ekman said in a recent interview. “If you throw this stuff around, especially in cases where no reasonable person would see that it fits, it really loses its power.”

Anne Kang, the minister of advanced education and skills training who tweeted Ekman’s dismissal, declined an interview request.

Instead, the ministry directed The Tyee to an online statement identical to the minister’s original tweet.

“Our government and the University of Northern British Columbia are deeply committed to tackling racism and hate in all its forms. We have high standards for public appointees, and racist and discriminatory comments from public appointments to post-secondary institutions will not be tolerated. I am removing Aaron Ekman from his position,” it says.

Ministry communications director Eric Berndt confirmed that the removal was based on online comments by Ekman but declined to say specifically which ones were considered racist or discriminatory.

UNBC issued its own statement the day of Ekman’s dismissal, saying it is “firmly committed to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion.” It also declined The Tyee’s request for additional information.

That’s left Ekman to speculate on which tweets led to his removal.

Weeks before he was dismissed, Ekman shared a B.C. government post that mentioned “pregnant people,” and he questioned whether referring to pregnant women was no longer allowed, or acceptable, under the provincial style guide.

“Very interested in interviewing any pregnant person who is not a woman. Willing to come to you, (travel-restrictions allowing),” he tweeted.

He acknowledges the tweet may have come across as transphobic or denying that those who don’t identify as women can’t also procreate. “The criticism I was receiving was… ‘They don’t have to justify their existence to you,’” he says.

But Ekman says that wasn’t his intention.

Instead, he says, he was looking to interview someone for his podcast, Ram & Stag, where he and conservative commentator Nathan Giede debate B.C. politics. (Their banter moved to Western Standard this spring, when Giede was picked up by the Alberta-based conservative media outlet.)

“I couldn’t recall ever having met someone who didn’t identify as a woman, who either had had children or was interested in having children,” Ekman says. “I had many questions. I thought that was quite interesting, so I wanted to have them on the show.”

Instead, he got an angry backlash.

He believes people sent letters to UNBC’s Northern Women’s Centre and the student union calling for his dismissal, although no official notice of the complaints was extended to him.

If the government had any concerns with his online activity, he says he didn’t hear about it.

But ultimately, he doesn’t believe that was the tweet that got him fired.

On the morning of May 28, he tweeted a question aimed at Finance Minister Selina Robinson and Rachna Singh, parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives. Both had signed onto a statement from B.C.’s attorney general recognizing Jewish Heritage Month, and Ekman had questions.

The questions were in response to a line found five paragraphs deep in the statement. “Over the last few years, there has been an increase in antisemitism and bigotry in B.C.,” it said.

Ekman says he keeps tabs on incidents of racism, and anti-Semitism in particular, because people sometimes assume he is Jewish based on his name.

He says he was aware of an increase in hate crimes against the Jewish community several years ago (something widely attributed internationally to the election of Donald Trump). According to annual audits published by B’nai Brith Canada, B.C. saw a spike in anti-Semitism in 2018, with 374 incidents of hate crimes against Jewish populations reported that year — more than twice the year prior.

In 2019, it appeared to taper off, with the organization reporting 212 incidents that year and 194 incidents in 2020.

Because he’d seen the numbers drop, Ekman wondered where the province was getting its data.

“Has there?” he asked in the tweet. “Does the BC government have evidence of this? Honest question.”

Twitter’s response was swift.

“Love it when self-styled progressives demand that Jews (and only Jews) provide evidence of the discrimination they face,” one person responded.

“Gaslighting about anti-Semitism is anti-Semitic. Do better!” said another.

“Can you imagine it being acceptable to ask another minority community to justify their own oppression,” was a third comment.

Six hours later, Ekman was dismissed. He said he learned about it when someone he was debating on Twitter shared the minister’s tweet with him.

“It was surprising to me the degree to which people sort of jumped on it,” he says. “Compared to most of the controversial stuff I say every day, that was pretty innocuous. It was just kind of a question.”

His dismissal was confirmed later that day in an email from Ministry of Advanced Education deputy minister Shannon Baskerville, he says, but it didn’t tell him which of his comments got him fired.

Though he says nearly 200 incidents of hate against B.C.’s Jewish population is “still nothing to celebrate,” Ekman argues that labelling his tweet as discriminatory detracts from bigger issues of systemic racism.

“If a ministry is going to say something that is demonstrably wrong, then we should ask what data they’re looking at, because the data that I’m looking at… says the opposite of what they’re telling us,” he says. “I don’t think that’s helpful, especially at a time when everybody is calling everybody racist for something.”

The Tyee reached out to B.C. Attorney General’s Ministry for clarification about the news release. The ministry sent data from 2017, the year before incidents significantly increased, and 2020 that show a 17-per-cent overall increase in anti-Semitic incidents — from 165 to 194 — over the four-year period.

“These reports rely on data from local law enforcement, as well as incidents reported to B’nai Brith’s anti-hate hotline,” the ministry said in an email. “As such, the data may not reflect the full scope of anti-Semitic incidents in B.C.”

The timing of Ekman’s question may also have fuelled the response.

Although stats on anti-Semitism for the current year aren’t available on B’nai Brith’s website, the organization published a special report declaring a “surge of antisemitism” in May, mostly related to public events protesting Israel’s role in the conflict with Palestine.

Ekman admits to some culpability in the “Twitter mob” that ensued.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t understand why people were angry or that even while I was writing the tweet, I didn’t think, ‘You know, the way I’m wording this could make somebody angry,’” he says. “But I don’t worry about that too much because I know what my politics are, I’m quite open about my politics, and have been for quite some time.”

So, how does Ekman define his politics?

“I’m a communist,” he says without hesitation, adding that he spent several years as a member of the Communist Party of BC, including six months working as the party’s provincial organizer. His work with the BC Federation of Labour, where he served two terms as secretary-treasurer, led him to join the BC NDP in 2014. He left the party in 2018.*

“Once I left the Fed, I left the NDP at the same time,” he says. “I was not in the NDP really because I ever identified as a social democrat. I’ve always identified to the left of that.”

Ekman-2.jpg
Aaron Ekman speaking to delegates at the 2018 BC Federation of Labour convention. Photo by Joshua Berson.

The 43-year-old was raised in the North, growing up in Terrace before spending time in Vancouver and eventually settling in Prince George in 2009. He met Giede, his podcast co-host, in about 2015, when Giede was chair of College of New Caledonia’s student union.

According to Giede, who describes himself as right-of-centre, they met at Prince George’s “favourite left-wing living room,” the café Books & Company. The pair discovered they shared two common values: respect for the working class and a belief in healthy debate.

Giede describes his podcast co-host as someone with integrity who “finally earned his stripes as a cancelled person.”

“Aaron being dismissed from there was no surprise to me. I think they were looking for an excuse because he was outspoken, because he was critical, because he was a free thinker, because he actually cared about the questions of the university from a student-led perspective, as well as faculty-led,” he says.

“He’s an out-of-the-box thinker, and I think that’s exactly why he got canned.”

Ekman was the first UNBC board appointee of B.C.’s fledgling NDP government in May 2018, joining a Liberal-appointed board in the midst of an ongoing labour dispute. The 15-member board, which is made up of both elected and government-appointed members, is responsible for the university’s strategic direction and administration. The board chair is elected from among the appointed board members.

He arrived at the university during a tumultuous time. Faculty had gone years without a negotiated contract after a 2015 strike ended in forced arbitration. Following a second strike in November 2019, instructors returned to the classroom while also filing a complaint to the Labour Relations Board. The university’s faculty association president called relations with administration “completely broken” and the Canadian Association of University Teachers wrote a letter to the board calling for an end to the “acrimonious” dispute.

In early 2020, UNBC’s then-president, Daniel Weeks, announced the university’s vice-president and chief labour negotiator, Barb Daigle, was stepping down. Less than a month later, Weeks resigned as president after UNBC faculty passed a non-confidence vote against him.

It was in the midst of this divisive atmosphere that Ekman was elected as board chair in July 2020. “I didn’t run away as fast as everybody else and ended up as chair,” he says.

According to the B.C. government, the board should speak with “one voice,” the chair providing “a key link between government and the post-secondary institution.” The chair must also have good communication with the minister responsible, it says.

“The board chair should foster an environment of open, candid dialogue and encourage healthy debate among board members,” it says.

But any enthusiasm Ekman had held for the B.C.’s three-year-old NDP government was quickly waning.

If the government was surprised by any of his recent commentary, he says, they just weren’t paying attention. He’d become increasingly critical of the provincial government on social media, pointing to what he describes as “performative and pointless” rhetoric taking the place of meaningful change.

“It just struck me as hyper-hypocritical to talk about reconciliation… and yet they still think it’s OK to march sniper rifles into the territory of a First Nation,” he says about the arrests of land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory last year and the ongoing dispute over old-growth logging on Vancouver Island.

For the record, Ekman says he’s in favour of logging “in most cases” and the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

He says vague accusations of racism are a way to distract from the bigger systemic issues that have seen Indigenous land defenders removed from their territories in recent years.

“This stuff is still going on and the best these folks can muster is, like, an orange shirt,” he says. “The performative measures allow people to have a bit of an emotional release, which gives them a pass on continuing to do absolutely nothing about there being an utter lack of drinking water on a number of First Nation reserves around the country.”

He says a recent rise in identity politics on the left, something used by employers for “well over 100 years” to keep working people divided, makes it harder to bring about systemic change.

It’s something that currently threatens to destroy the Green Party of Canada, which is fighting in court for the right to hold a non-confidence vote against party leader Annamie Paul.

The party’s issues began with a Facebook post by Noah Zatzman, a former political advisor to Paul, targeting several federal politicians, including Green MPs Jenica Atwin and Paul Manly.

“The progressive and climate communities have displayed, at some points this week, overt virulent anti-Jewish behaviour,” Zatzman wrote in the May 14 post, adding he intended to work to replace the MPs with politicians supporting Israel.

“We will not accept an apology after you realize what you’ve done. We will work to defeat you and bring in progressive climate champions who are antifa and pro LGBT and pro indigenous sovereignty and Zionists!!!!!”

When asked by the party to back up his claims of anti-Semitism, Zatzman declined.

“Imagine a Black or Indigenous person accuses someone of racism and is asked to prove it,” he told The Tyee.

Despite calls from the party to repudiate Zatzman’s comments, Paul has been silent on the topic. The fallout led to Atwin, the first Green MP elected outside B.C., crossing the floor to join the Liberals last month. As the party heads to court to secure a non-confidence vote, it could also end Paul’s leadership position — the first for a Black or Jewish woman with a federal party.

Ekman says as a union organizer he has learned the importance of working across cultural and political lines in order to achieve a common goal.

“You get all sorts of members who are not of your political stripe, and you have to be able to talk to them,” he says. “Because if you can’t get along, if you can’t move in the same direction as your co-worker because he’s a conservative and you’re not, the boss is gonna win.”

“In that respect, identitarianism can be really dangerous and can be very counterproductive.”

But, he adds, he doesn’t believe it was those on the left who led to his firing in May.

“On that day, it was decidedly Conservative-leaning, pro-Israel people on Twitter who I think were able to effect that change,” he says.

Is it possible, maybe, that people don’t know how to take his often-inflammatory tweets? Again, Ekman doesn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he says. “To be perfectly honest, if the minister had just said, ‘Look, this guy says things on Twitter that are kind of off-colour or controversial, and it’s just not a good fit for the university,’ I would have understood that.”

Ekman had been on his way out anyway. His most recent term with the UNBC board was set to expire mid-June. He’d told the government months earlier he didn’t plan to stay on.

“And then I would have faded away into obscurity,” he adds.

For the university, things are looking up.

This spring, the faculty ratified its first collective agreement in over a decade and relations with administration appear to be stronger than ever. After five years of upheaval, it appears UNBC has emerged from a dark period and Ekman says that won’t change with his departure.

In June, the board elected Catherine Wishart, who has a background working in post-secondary education, as its new chair.

“She’ll be fantastic,” Ekman says. “They’re not going to miss a beat. Everything’s in great shape, which is good, because we’ve come through a very tough period.”

Ekman jokes that as a union organizer, he’s unlikely to share his next project. But he quickly adds that his current plan is to embrace retirement. “I think at some point I’ll get bored and go trying to organize a union somewhere,” he says.

But his dismissal hasn’t tempered his criticism of the provincial government. Nor will it change his online activity, he says.

“Not in the slightest,” he emphasizes.

“I haven’t apologized for anything I’ve said, either. People probably think that I just kind of make statements off the cuff. I actually put a fair bit of thought into what I write. I understand it to be provocative in certain quarters,” he says.

“I think [the minister] probably does have the power to dismiss me because she finds my tweets to be unprofessional. That’s not what I’ve ever taken issue with. It was being called a racist.”

* Story updated on July 26 at 4:07 p.m. to provide more specific information on Ekman's work with the Communist Party of BC.  [Tyee]

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