Ottawa

LRT station stink may be a 'gender' thing, transit commissioner speculates

The final transit commission of a monumental year for OC Transpo took a bizarre turn Wednesday when a male commissioner suggested complaints about the bad smell at Parliament station could be a "gender equity thing."

Citizen commissioner Michael Olsen said he didn't smell anything at Parliament station Wednesday

Citizen members Michael Olsen, left, and Sarah Wright-Gilbert, right, joined Ottawa's transit commission in 2019. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The final transit commission of a monumental year for OC Transpo took a bizarre turn Wednesday when a male commissioner suggested complaints about the bad smell at Parliament station could be a "gender equity thing."

Michael Olsen, one of the commission's citizen members, was responding to earlier comments by another citizen commissioner, Sarah Wright-Gilbert. She told OC Transpo staff that although a previously reported sewer puncture was fixed late last week, the unpleasant odour still lingered at the downtown LRT station Wednesday morning.

But Olsen said he had also been at the station Wednesday morning and hadn't smelled anything, suggesting their opposite experiences might have something to do with their opposite genders.

It is a scientific fact that women have more developed senses of smell than men do.- Michael Olsen, transit commissioner

"Maybe this is a gender equity thing, because I was there this morning, I actually lingered after the train to let the rush go," he said.

"It is a scientific fact that women have more developed senses of smell than men do. So I don't know if this is part of it. I'm not saying she smelled something that wasn't there, but I smelled nothing. So I'm not sure what the issue is or if, in fact, there is an issue."

A number of transit commissioners immediately took issue with Olsen's comments, starting with Wright-Gilbert.

"I take offence to commissioner Olsen's comments about me smelling things because I'm a female," she said. "I'm going to ask for an apology, now please."

Olsen replied: "No, I will not give it."

After a private discussion with Coun. Allan Hubley, who chairs the commission, Olsen provided an apology — of sorts.

He said he feared his comments were "not taken as intended" and that he was citing what he "thought was a well-known scientific fact that women typically do have a better sense of smell than men, and that this has been attributed to them having actually more brain cells than men.

"So if she was offended or misinterpreted somehow my remark, or if I miscommunicated it, I do apologize. but I do not apologize for the overall comment."

After being pressed by Hubley for a more "fulsome" apology, Olsen said simply: "I apologize."

Crews work to repair a ruptured sewer line that city officials later acknowledged had been causing a foul odour inside Parliament station. (CBC)

'Clear example of sexism'

Perhaps not surprisingly, Wright-Gilbert did not find his apology sincere.

"That comment is a clear example of sexism," she told reporters after the meeting. "Stating that someone, because of their gender, experiences something differently, especially something such as a smell, is sexism.... I am disappointed in the comment, and I am disappointed in the non-apology."

Late Wednesday Wright-Gilbert posted a statement to Twitter where she said she rejects Olsen's apology.

"It is my view that an apology with caveats and that is forced is not a genuine apology," she wrote.

Olsen told reporters after the meeting that his comment was an "offhand remark," adding: "I didn't think it would be taken as it was.… My apology was sincere."

There is some scientific evidence that shows, in general, women can have a keener sense of smell than men. But that didn't stop other councillors, including Coun. Theresa Kavanagh, from taking issue with Olsen's comments.

"It had nothing to do with another commissioner raising the issue," said Kavanagh, who sits on the transit commission and is the liaison for women and gender equity issues. "She raised a bonafide issue, and to pull her gender into it was not appropriate. It was wrong, and his apology to it was not heartfelt."

Hubley said he would be speaking further with Olsen about the incident. In her statement, Wright-Gilbert thanked Hubley for his leadership and said she plans to discuss a resolution with the transit commission chair.

What does Parliament station smell like to you? Transit commissioner Michael Olsen said Wednesday that the answer may depend on your gender, leading to accusations of sexism from fellow commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert. 1:07

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