'Sexist' banquet joke riles researchers at Arctic science conference in Winnipeg

A group of researchers released an open letter protesting what they call a sexist joke at the conference's gala banquet, which the executive director is defending as a 'linguistic misspeak.'

'Comments were completely misconstrued... It was actually a linguistic misspeak,' says executive director

ArcticNet 2016 includes presentations on a wide array of research subjects impacting the health of the biology and the physical systems of the Arctic. (Patricia Bell/CBC)

Canada's annual gathering of top Arctic scientists is roiling after researchers released an open letter protesting what they call a sexist joke at the conference's gala banquet, which the executive director is defending as a "linguistic misspeak."

This week more than 800 scientists from across the country are gathered in Winnipeg for ArcticNet 2016, where they're sharing research on environmental, social, economical and political challenges and opportunities that are emerging from climate change and modernization in the Arctic.

At Wednesday's gala, a joke was made during a tribute to Martin Fortier, the retiring head of ArcticNet.

"Basically, it was a roast of his contributions to the network," said David Barber, a Canada Research Chair in Arctic system science at the University of Manitoba, speaking on behalf of the ArcticNet board.

"The idea was to poke fun at some misspeaks that Martin has made over the years."

Fortier is a francophone.

"(The speaker) made a statement about a misspeak that Martin had made several years ago at one of the Arctic science meetings we were holding," said Barber.

"He was speaking at the end of the banquet and making a few comments about the meal and he said he went and sampled some of the vegetarian women to make sure they were happy with the food they had received."

Fortier had meant "surveyed" and not "sampled."

Barber said the speaker stated the bare bones of the word mix-up without explaining that it was another in a series of Fortier's innocent linguistic mistakes.

Banquet 'tarnished by those comments'

"I want to say that event is a really beautiful event, and unfortunately the ending was tarnished by those comments," said Natalie Baird. 

Baird, a master's student in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba, is one of 26 students and researchers who signed an open letter to the ArcticNet board of directors condemning the remarks made at the gala.

The letter says it is "extremely troubling" that the comment was "presented as entertainment, and celebrated at the 2016 ArcticNet Gala."

It also says the fact that it was not immediately addressed by the ArcticNet Board of Directors "reinforces that these types of comments are acceptable in this research community.

"This calls into question the environment that allows for these comments to be made without thought. It horrifies us to imagine what else is being said of female researchers and other marginalized peoples 'off the podium.'"

While Baird said the remarks were representative of a "history of women experiencing sexism in science," she said she is feeling encouraged that "the board [eventually] addressed our letter."

"At the Women in Northern Science reception that was hosted in partnership with ArcticNet [on Thursday]… the board of directors came to the front and opened with the reception with a formal apology of what was said."

Comments 'taken out of context'

Leah Braithwaite, the executive director of ArcticNet, was one of the people behind that Thursday apology.

While she stressed that ArcticNet does not "condone anything discriminatory or exclusionary," she said the comments "were taken completely out of context, and without the context, the comments did sound hurtful and offensive to people."

Braithwaite said the "comments were completely misconstrued, and they didn't mean at all what they sounded like."

"It was actually a linguistic misspeak."

However, Braithwaite acknowledged that "the comments did sound hurtful and offensive to people.

"Some of the students were upset by the comments, I guess went and prepared this letter, so once the board received the letter, we decided we had to respond."

Braithwaite stressed that the board "really wants to ensure [ArcticNet] is very healthy environment for everyone in the network."

with files from Mackenzie Scott and Canadian Press