Politics

MP Michael Cooper disparaged 'goat herder cultures' in 2008 law class discussion, lawyers claim

Conservative MP Michael Cooper made comments deriding "goat herder cultures" during a discussion about Islam's compatibility with Canadian democracy when he was a law student at the University of Alberta a decade ago, according to two lawyers who have come forward to talk about the incident.

Conservative MP denies allegation, says he's taking 'all necessary legal measures'

Michael Cooper, the Conservative MP for St. Albert-Edmonton and deputy shadow minister of justice, was removed from the justice committee for berating a Muslim witness and reading part of the Christchurch killer's manifesto into the official record last month. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Conservative MP Michael Cooper made comments deriding "goat herder cultures" during a discussion about Islam's compatibility with Canadian democracy when he was a law student at the University of Alberta a decade ago, according to two lawyers who have come forward to talk about the incident.

The lawyers allege the comments were made during a heated discussion in a seminar on multiculturalism and the minority rights section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with Cooper arguing that some cultures were incompatible with Canada's "Judeo-Christian values."

Contacted by CBC News this week, Cooper denied the allegation and said the incident was being mischaracterized.

"I recall that there was a seminar class, and there was some heated discussion around a paper that had been presented by one of my classmates," he said. "And I do recall, along with other classmates, certainly participating in the discussion. It was, after all, a seminar class where there was vigorous debate around any number of legal issues."

Cooper said he has little recollection of his comments during the discussion. "I do recall suggesting that Canada was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. And I recall that some members of the class didn't take kindly to that comment. But again, there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of vigorous debate, and then that's all that I recall."

The lawyers making the allegations — both former classmates of Cooper — are Balqees Mihirig, who now practises law in New York City, and Brock Roe, who practises in Saskatoon.

Mihirig and Roe both said they were motivated to come forward after reading about Cooper's controversial comments during a Commons justice committee meeting on May 28; Cooper rebuked a Muslim anti-racism activist who was testifying before the committee.

Mihirig and Roe said the University of Alberta incident happened during an advanced constitutional law class in late 2008 near the end of a seminar on the Charter of Rights — specifically, the sections dealing with multiculturalism and minority rights.

'Goat herder cultures'

"Mr. Cooper had much to say about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it was generally not positive. I frequently found myself challenging his statements," Mihirig writes in a letter describing her recollection of events. "It was unpleasant, and negatively impacted my experience at law school. One such exchange became particularly heated after Mr. Cooper, declared Canada to be a 'Judeo-Christian civilization' that is incompatible with 'goat herder cultures.'

"His comments occurred in the context of a discussion on section 27 of the Charter, which upholds multiculturalism as a principle of constitutional interpretation. Completely unprompted, Mr. Cooper made it a point to not only denigrate multiculturalism, but also to attack non 'Judeo-Christian' people.

"He never apologized back then, and his recent remarks provide little assurance that he has renounced such views. After ten years, his words from that class still disturb me, and I am saddened that despite his position as an elected member of Parliament, nothing seems to have changed."

Speaking to CBC News about the incident, Mihirig said she "interrupted and challenged Mr. Cooper. And I asked him how dare he say something like that. And at that point, the class descended into chaos and we were dismissed. The class ended."

Balqees Mihirig, who now practises law in New York City, says Conservative MP Michael Cooper made a comment about "goat herder cultures" during a discussion of multiculturalism at the University of Alberta a decade ago. (CBC)

Cooper was disciplined by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer after he made controversial remarks at the justice committee last month — telling anti-racism activist Faisal Khan Suri of Edmonton that he "should be ashamed" of himself.

Cooper took issue with how Suri, president of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, described the online history of Alexandre Bissonnette, the man sentenced to life in prison in February for shooting six people dead in a Quebec City mosque in January, 2017.

"The evidence from Bissonette's computer showed he repeatedly sought content about anti-immigrant, alt-right and conservative commentators, mass murderers, U.S. President Donald Trump, and about Muslims, immigrants living in Quebec," Suri said.

Suri went on to say that people like Robert Bowers — who is alleged to have killed 11 people in a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in October — and the man accused of shooting and killing 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, were similarly influenced by online hate coming from "alt-right online networks."

When it was his turn to ask Suri and other witnesses questions, Cooper laid into the Alberta anti-racism activist, accusing him of suggesting a link between "conservatism" and violent extremism.

The Conservative MP then read into the record a passage from the Christchurch killer's 74-page manifesto — which has been banned in New Zealand. In the passage, the alleged killer is quoted as saying the social and political values of China are close to his own and that he rejects "conservatism."

"I certainly wouldn't attempt to link Bernie Sanders to the individual who shot up Republican members of Congress and nearly fatally killed congressman [Stephen] Scalise," Cooper said. "So you should be ashamed."

Cooper's comments quoting the manifesto were later expunged from the parliamentary record by members of the committee, an act that was questioned by historians who said it would muddy the record.

Cooper also was forced to apologize and Scheer disciplined him by removing him from his position on the committee.

The episode came at a difficult time for Scheer, just hours before he was due to give a speech disavowing intolerance.

"There is absolutely no room in a peaceful and free country like Canada for intolerance, racism and extremism of any kind. And the Conservative Party of Canada will always make that absolutely clear," Scheer told a Toronto audience that night.

"I find the notion that one's race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation would make anyone in any way superior or inferior to anyone else absolutely repugnant. And if there's anyone who disagrees with that, there's the door. You are not welcome here."

Brock Harrison, spokesman for Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, told CBC News that "Mr. Scheer has spoken to Mr. Cooper about these allegations and asked him whether or not they are true. (Cooper) assured Mr. Scheer they are false and that he has never used the inflammatory language attributed to him. We understand Mr. Cooper will launch legal action against the individuals who have made these claims in order to clear his name and Mr. Scheer supports him in that effort."

Insufficient punishment

Mihirig and Roe said the committee episode led them to conclude that Cooper had not changed his views, and both felt that the punishment — removing Cooper from the justice committee — was insufficient.

Roe noted that Cooper retained his post as deputy justice critic for the party, and that committees were in any case due to wrap up at the end of the parliamentary session, just a few weeks away. When Parliament reconvenes, there will be new committee members.

"That comment, that class, it's remained in my head and every time I've kind of encountered Michael or heard of him in the news, or whatever, I always think back to that moment," Roe told CBC News.

"Mr. Scheer has the tools in his tool box to impose some type of punishment on members of his party for making statements and doing things like what Michael Cooper did in committee. He didn't use them all. He used one of the weakest tools he has. He could have removed him from caucus. He could have removed him as the deputy justice critic but he didn't."

After contacting Cooper, CBC News heard from two other former University of Alberta students. Both said they were in the same classroom that day; one had written the seminar presentation on which Cooper was commenting.

Both said they had been asked to come forward by the MP to address the allegation. The two former students, now practicing lawyers, said they remembered the flare-up in class, but did not recall hearing the 'goat herder' comment. Both declined to put their names on the record.

One said: "While I remember my presentation, and the classroom debate that it generated, I have no recollection of Mr. Cooper making the specific statement that I understand is being attributed to him."

That lawyer, who described himself as a former Conservative who now supports Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada, said Cooper had been expressing support for the arguments in his presentation when the dispute occurred. CBC News asked if he was willing to sign a statement that the comments did not occur. He said he would not swear to a negative, but added he had "no interest in defending (Michael Cooper) just for the sake of doing so."

'Tone deaf'

The second person who contacted CBC News also asked that his name not be used. He described himself as someone who had socialized with Michael Cooper at law school, but did not share his politics.

He said he was present at the seminar, which he described as "one of the most awkward" moments in law school. He also said he did not recollect the 'goat herder' comment, although he could not swear that it had not been made. He said Cooper could be somewhat "tone deaf" but would not have wanted to insult anyone.

CBC News also asked Mihirig and Roe about their political affiliations. Mihirig described herself as a former Liberal who has more recently made contributions to the Democratic Party in the U.S. Roe said he was once a Liberal who became an NDP supporter and donated regularly to the New Democrats until December 2017, when he left the party because he disagreed with the direction it was taking.

Cooper taking 'all necessary legal measures'

CBC News contacted two other individuals who attended the seminar (CBC contacted seven seminar participants in total — the majority of those who were present in the classroom). Neither wished to be named.

One told CBC News that he recalled the 'goat herder' comment with absolute certainty, and that the incident had shocked him.

The other did not recall the exact words used, but told CBC News that he was "100 per cent" confident Cooper had directed "racist" comments at Mihirig, the only Muslim in the room. He said that Cooper had been "angry" and "beet-red" when he made the remarks.

Mihirig wrote about the incident in the University of Alberta Law School newspaper, Canons of Construction, at the time; the article was published on Jan. 28, 2009.

Without naming Cooper, she wrote: "Recently, I sat in a class where a colleague declared Canada to be a 'Judeo-Christian civilization' that is incompatible with 'goat-herder cultures.'

"The comment was made in a context of the constitutional rights of immigrants and cultural accommodation. In particular, he was directing his comments at Muslims.

"As a fellow law student and a Muslim, I was stunned. Fortunately, this is a more extreme law school example."

Mihirig told CBC News she made the decision at the time not to name Cooper.

"I decided to discuss the topic and make it a learning opportunity for him and my classmates," she said. "I mean, everyone read the paper. A lot of people knew what happened and implicitly knew — we weren't a large law school — implicitly knew who it was referring to. And so, I didn't feel the need to name him.

"And, you know, in the spirit of maybe it was a one- time thing or maybe he would learn from it. Unfortunately, given the recent events, it doesn't appear that he's he's learned very much or has changed much."

CBC News asked Cooper how he had responded to the article at the time.

"I had heard something about it and I believe that I had seen it," he said.

"I just carried on and continued in law class and, again, heard nothing more for 11 years. Which is why I reached out to two former classmates, who have no recollection of me saying anything of the sort — who have spoken to you. And it is why I have instructed my counsel to take all necessary legal measures."

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