Politics

Scheer strips Tory MP of committee role after confrontation with Muslim witness

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has stripped MP Michael Cooper of his spot on the House of Commons justice committee as punishment for Cooper's angry confrontation with a Muslim witness last week in hearings dedicated to online hate.

Michael Cooper had quoted manifesto of accused New Zealand mosque shooter

Conservative MP Michael Cooper told a Muslim witness he should be 'ashamed' after he drew a link between 'conservative commentators' and the online history of Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has stripped MP Michael Cooper of his spot on the House of Commons justice committee as punishment for Cooper's angry confrontation with a Muslim witness in hearings dedicated to online hate.

Earlier this week, Cooper told Faisal Khan Suri he should be "ashamed" after he drew a link between "conservative commentators" and the online history of mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette.

Cooper also quoted from the manifesto of the man accused of the mass killings in Christchurch, New Zealand in an attempt to discredit Suri's testimony.

"I have spoken with Michael Cooper about comments he made at the Justice Committee earlier this week. Having taken the time to review the incident, I have informed him that he will no longer sit on the Justice committee as a consequence," Scheer posted on Twitter.

"Reading the name and quoting the words of the Christchurch shooter, especially when directed at a Muslim witness during a parliamentary hearing, is insensitive and unacceptable. Mr. Cooper has apologized. I accept his apology and I consider the matter closed."

While he has been removed from the committee, Scheer's office confirmed that Cooper will keep his role as deputy justice critic.

Cooper, who represents the riding of St. Albert-Edmonton, declined CBC's requests for an interview. Cooper tweeted a link to the original CBC story after it was posted online. That tweet has since been deleted.

On Saturday, Cooper tweeted a statement in which he said quoting the alleged Christchurch shooter was "a mistake" caused by a misunderstanding of Suri's comments.

"I absolutely should not have quoted these words nor named the perpetrator," he said in the statement.

The eruption happened during Tuesday's committee hearing, when Cooper took issue with how Suri, the president of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, described the online history of 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 Brenton Tarrant, who is 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."

Suri told the committee that "online hate is a key factor in enforcing hate in all forms," including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and that more efforts should be made to study online hate and its effects in the offline world.

Listen: Cooper tells justice committee witness he should be 'ashamed'

An exchange between Justice Committee witness Faisal Khan Suri of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council and Alberta Conservative MP Michael Cooper. 3:16

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.

"Mr. Suri, I take great umbrage with your defamatory comments to try to link conservatism with violent extremist attacks. They have no foundation, they're defamatory, and they diminish your credibility as a witness," Cooper said.

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

Cooper did not mention Bissonnette's online history.

'You should be ashamed'

"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."

Scalise and four others were shot in 2017 by James T. Hodgkinson, a Bernie Sanders supporter, who opposed conservatism in general and U.S. President Donald Trump in particular. Hodgkinson later died of wounds sustained in a shootout with police.

Cooper was interrupted and the committee quickly fell apart, with both Liberal and NDP MPs exploding in protest.

NDP MP Tracey Ramsey objected to Cooper's accusations, telling committee chair Anthony Housefather that he can't allow a member of the committee to tell a witness he should be ashamed of himself.

"I think that's unacceptable," she said to Housefather. "You're putting [Suri] in a position of vulnerability to have to respond to these attacks. He didn't come here today to defend himself, he came here to present on behalf of his organization."

A partial retraction

The committee hearing was not preserved on video, but an audio recording of the proceedings on the parliamentary website captures the fracas beginning at 9:29 a.m.

Edmonton Centre Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault can be heard on the recording contradicting Cooper and trying to move the committee in-camera to address Cooper's comments.

Housefather swiftly took the committee behind closed doors, excusing the witnesses from the room while MPs discussed Cooper's comments. At 9:49 a.m. the committee resumed, with Cooper offering a partial retraction.

"While I certainly find the comments made by Mr. Suri to be deeply offensive and objectionable and vehemently disagree with them, I will withdraw saying that he should be ashamed," Cooper said.

"That was not unparliamentary, but I understand that it made some of the members of the committee uncomfortable. So in the spirit of moving forward I withdraw those specific comments, but certainly not the rest of what I said."

With files from Peter Zimonjic