Premier's high heels comment part of 'bigger issue,' chamber of commerce chair says

The chair of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce responds after Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister thanked her for dressing up and wearing heels during his state of the province address.

Brian Pallister remarked on Johanna Hurme's attire during state of the province address

Premier Brian Pallister began his state of the province speech by thanking Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce chair Johanna Hurme for dressing up and wearing heels. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The chair of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has responded to Premier Brian Pallister's comments about her attire during his state of the province address, saying she doesn't think the comments were ill-intended, but that they still needed to be called out.

Pallister thanked WCC chair Johanna Hurme for "dressing up" and wearing heels at his address on Thursday.

"I don't think his comments were ill intended, nor was it all that significant of a moment for me personally," Hurme said in a written statement Friday.

"Having said that, the national attention that the incident has created since yesterday highlights a much bigger issue that I cannot ignore on behalf of all women, young girls and progressive men in the audience — and now across our country."

Hurme, a founding partner in a local and well-regarded architecture firm, had just finished giving a presentation about sprawl and the infrastructure deficit before 1,200 business leaders before Pallister's address.

"I want to thank Johanna for dressing up. I want to thank her for those heels. I notice they're a foot high," Pallister said at the start of the address, while also referring to the broken arm he recently suffered while hiking in New Mexico.

"It's a humbling experience to come to you today, not just in this condition but having Johanna cut my meat for me meant a lot to me. Johanna — good luck in your upcoming term. Congratulations and thank you for taking it on."

"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," Hurme wrote in her statement.

'Awkward' joke

Pallister's comments led to criticism from business leaders and Opposition politicians.

Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president Loren Remillard called the comments "inappropriate." NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine, the Opposition critic for justice and status of women, said she was disappointed by the premier's comments.

Pallister said in a statement late Thursday that he was making an "awkward" joke about his height, and said he meant no offence. The premier stands six feet, eight inches tall.

"Given my tall stature, I am particularly aware of my height and often make light-hearted comments about being taller than the people around me," Pallister said in the statement.

"I made an awkward reference to Johanna's high heels in that context. I can see how they could be easily misconstrued. That was never my intention and I meant no offence of any kind to Johanna."

Hurme says she wants to move past the incident. "The [unfortunate] reality is that I would not be in the position that I am in today, as an architect and as a business owner, should I not have dealt with much worse situations than this in the past," she wrote.

She said she had spoken to the premier, who had expressed his regret about the comments.

Perpetuating stereotypes

University of Winnipeg business and economics professor Maureen Kilgour teaches about ethics and equity issues in the workplace. She says Pallister's comments perpetuated stereotypes about women, in front of leaders of the business community, which remains heavily male dominated.

"I was actually quite surprised. It was like, 'Oh no, that doesn't sound very good,'" she said.

"She's in a position of leadership in this organization. Hundreds of people in the room. And the comment that's made about her is not her accomplishments, her position of leadership, her plans going forward, but really the way she looks," she said.

In addition to placing an emphasis on Hurme's appearance, his comments about her helping to cut his food plays into stereotypes of women as "nurturers," she said.

Kilgour worries about the implications the comments could have had on others in the audience, particularly young women aspiring to leadership positions.

Regardless of his intent, Kilgour thinks he should apologize.

"Under human rights law, intention is not a big part of a finding of discrimination or harassment. So you could inadvertently discriminate against someone, or inadvertently harass people, without even realizing you're doing it."

Kilgour said this is an opportunity to teach and learn about what is acceptable behaviour in public.

CBC News asked the minister responsible for the status of women for an interview. She declined.

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With files from Sean Kavanagh