Opinion

If there's more to MP Erin Weir's expulsion than the public knows, the NDP should say so: Robyn Urback

By leaving the nature of the accusations ambiguous, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh hands critics of the #MeToo movement a cudgel with which they can beat both the party and the movement for what seems to be a gross overreaction.

Without further details, this case is sure to become Exhibit A of the #MeToo movement going too far

By leaving the nature of the accusations against MP Erin Weir ambiguous, the NDP hands critics of the #MeToo movement a stick with which they can beat both the party and the movement. (CBC)

The NDP has provided #MeToo skeptics with a handy new case study: the expulsion of Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir from caucus.

As of Thursday, the NDP hadn't revealed the exact nature of the allegations against Weir — only that a third-party investigator had found merit in one claim of harassment and three claims of sexual harassment.

But that's not why Weir was given the boot, according to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: it was because Weir didn't take responsibility for his actions and lashed out through the media at someone who issued a complaint. "All of this makes it clear a rehabilitative approach is no longer possible," Singh said.

What, exactly, did Weir do in the first place? Again, that is unclear. Singh said the investigation "found that Mr. Weir failed to read non-verbal cues in social settings and that his behaviour resulted in significant negative impacts to the complainants." It also noted that Weir stopped his advances when he was told they were unwanted.

Weir's office has characterized these encounters as completely innocuous: "The investigator made a general finding of 'sexual harassment' that Weir had probably sat or stood too close to people at social events and engaged them in conversation more than they wished to speak with him."

The skeptic in me thinks that there's probably more to this than Weir being a bit of a close-talker.

Indeed, I would like to believe that a reputable third-party investigator would appreciate the profound social implications of labelling someone a habitual sexual harasser, and thus would not deem an allegation credible helter-skelter. Perhaps that's wishful thinking.

Yielding control of the narrative

In any case, absent much of a response from the NDP (which says it can't disclose further details without risking the confidentiality of Weir's accusers), Weir's account becomes the dominant narrative.

And of course it would — it's a juicy narrative: Weir can say he got in trouble for not being a mind-reader, especially since, as the investigator acknowledged, he stood down when told that his advances were unwanted. He can say he got kicked out of caucus for pre-emptively trying to defend himself, and characterize the whole messy ordeal as entirely politically motivated. Weir has suggested he is being punished for veering off the party line on carbon pricing. 

For all we know — and because the NDP won't say otherwise — that account is pretty close to what really happened. Perhaps Weir just lacks the capacity to pick up on subtle nonverbal cues, which is an unfortunate reality in some social situations. Yes, men (and women) should try harder to understand when their presence is unwanted, but it does no one any benefit to assume that all are equally capable of doing so, and simply resort to waiting for the other person to catch on. Sometimes we have to say something, even if we'd rather not.

Again, it's possible that there is more to the story. If so, the NDP should say so. Because by leaving the nature of the accusations ambiguous, Singh hands critics of the #MeToo movement a cudgel with which they can beat both the party and the movement for what seems to be a gross overreaction: "See? I told you this would get out of hand. Men are now being punished for talking too close to women!  Am I even allowed to sit next to a woman anymore?"

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh outlines the details for booting MP Erin Weir from caucus after an investigation into claims of harassment. 2:42

There is obviously no perfect way to handle these sorts of complaints. One has to balance the rights of the accused, the protection and identity of the complainants, as well as the public interest in knowing the types of people who are representing them in government.

We've certainly seen how not to do it: suspending a couple of MPs before even informing them of the accusations against them — as was the case with former Liberal MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews — is generally to be avoided. So is dismissing accusations of sexual assault — as was the case when the Conservatives weighed the candidacy of then MP Rick Dykstra — because no actual charges were laid.

Bill C-65, tabled by Labour Minister Patty Hajdu late last year, attempts to provide a framework with dealing with harassment on Parliament Hill. But even if and when that bill becomes law, there will always be particularities that might require some improvisation on the part of the party leader.

In this case, the fact that the Erin Weir situation is almost certain to be used as Exhibit A of the #MeToo movement going too far, it behooves the NDP to reconsider its refusal to disclose any further details on the nature of the allegations.

That is, unless there really is nothing more to disclose about the nature of these claims. In which case, watch out for that cudgel.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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