Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister calls comments he made about a prominent architect's high heels and clothing during a speech last week a "screw up" but says his words were prompted by something she said to him in a prior conversation.
During a year-end interview with reporters Thursday, Pallister said he made the comments last week because Johanna Hurme, an architect and the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce chair, had earlier told him she wore high-heeled shoes for him.
Pallister is more than six-and-a-half feet tall and often jokes about his height.
"Johanna referenced that she dressed tall for me and I thanked her for it," he said.
Pallister came under fire for the remarks, which opened his state of the province address at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce event last week.
At the beginning of the Dec. 7 speech to 1,200 business leaders, he said he wanted to thank Hurme for "dressing up. I want to thank her for those heels. I notice they're a foot high."
Hurme herself declined to respond to Pallister's explanation Thursday, saying the statement she made last week still stands.
"As I said, I wasn't personally offended beyond just thinking that it may not have been the right place and context to make those comments. So again, it's not about the shoes, it's about the situation we were in and the audience we had, and him being the premier," she told CBC News Thursday.
Hurme added women leaders often struggle with being taken seriously and society has to change that.
Pallister said Thursday he will continue to have a positive working relationship with Hurme.
"Last thing I'd want to do is hurt Johanna's feelings and frankly I'm relieved her feelings aren't hurt," he said. "I like her and I'm proud of her and I admire her."
He also said the comments landed him in some trouble in his own family.
"Look, I got hell when I got home from my 25-year-old daughter," the premier said Thursday.
"She said 'Never, ever refer to whatever anyone's wearing, Dad, for crying out loud, right?' It's hard to live with this kind of criticism, right?"
Teachable moment for business community
Barbara Bowes, president of the human resources firm Legacy Bowes Group, attended the Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week. She remembers a loud gasp in the crowd.
"There was confusion in people's faces," she said. "Did I really hear what I heard?"
She said in the context of #MeToo people are more sensitive to sexism and are feel less inhibited to speak out against it.
"It is a shock when you hear something like that," she said. "We're so sensitive now, more and more issues are being raised and more teachable moments are available to us."
Bowes believes the premier did not mean any harm by his comments but said it did show how pervasive it is to remark on the appearance of a woman in our culture.
"We do need to sit down and pay attention to what are the words that we use, what are the critiques that we make for men versus women," she said. "We just do things, we don't think a lot of times."
In a written statement last week, Hurme said that she didn't think the premier's comments were ill-intended, but that the attention the comments generated drew focus to a bigger issue.
"While I believe the premier was attempting to acknowledge my presence in the room, he unfortunately chose to do so not based on my work or content of that presentation, but rather make a joke about the fact I was wearing tall shoes," she wrote in her statement.
'You're not going to get the rough edges off'
In Thursday's year-end interview, Pallister said voters chose him because he isn't always polished and that comes across as genuine.
During the interview with a group of media representatives, a Canadian Press reporter referenced some of the premier's more controversial remarks, including his "race war" comment at a luncheon in Virden, Man., last January; calling non-Christians and non-Jewish people infidel atheists in a recorded holiday greeting in 2013, when he was leader of the Opposition; and referencing Hurme's appearance.
"I've done what, 10,000 interviews since I became Opposition leader? And you just cited [three] examples of screw ups," Pallister answered.
"I'm 25 years in public life and you're not going to get the rough edges off. … If people want cosmetic, focus-tested politicians then they'll vote for somebody else."
Pallister also told reporters Thursday he plans to run again in 2020.