Politics

Conservatives rally around Cooper over 'goat herder' controversy, as Trudeau attacks

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer needs to address intolerance in his party after one of his MPs was accused of being disrespectful to Muslims for the second time in a month.

MP Michael Cooper was accused by two ex-law school students of deriding 'goat herder cultures' in class debate

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer needs to do something about the "room for intolerance" in the Conservative party. (Chris Wattie/Reuters, Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer needs to address intolerance in his party after one of his opposition MPs was accused of being disrespectful to Muslims for the second time in a month.

Trudeau was addressing a recent allegation made by two lawyers — both former law school classmates of Conservative MP Michael Cooper — that Cooper disparaged "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.

Cooper, MP for the Alberta riding of St. Albert-Edmonton, has denied making the comment in his law school class, saying his part in the discussion was being mischaracterized. The two lawyers made the allegation after Cooper had to apologize for berating a Muslim anti-racism activist during a parliamentary committee hearing late last month.

"I think what Mr Cooper said at committee, what he is alleged to have said in media reports, illustrates there's an awful lot of room for intolerance in Andrew Scheer's party," Trudeau said.

"I think he needs to address that."

Several of his Conservative colleagues offered support for him Wednesday, saying the allegations were unsubstantiated.

Cooper's former classmates — Balqees Mihirig, who now practises law in New York City, and Brock Roe, who practises in Saskatoon — said that during a heated seminar discussion on multiculturalism and the minority rights section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Cooper argued that "goat-herder cultures" were incompatible with Canada's "Judeo-Christian values."

"There’s an awful lot of room for intolerance in Andrew Scheer’s party. I think he needs to address that. " 0:21

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," he told CBC News this week. "But again, there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of vigorous debate, and then that's all that I recall."

Mihirig and Roe both said they were motivated to come forward after reading about Cooper's controversial comments at committee.

At that committee meeting, Cooper took issue with how Faisal Khan 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.

Conservatives back Cooper

Suri went on to say that the man accused of shooting and killing 51 people in March at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was similarly influenced by online hate coming from "alt-right online networks."

Cooper accused Suri of suggesting a link between "conservatism" and violent extremism. To make his point, Cooper read into the record a passage from the Christchurch killer's 74-page manifesto — which has been banned in New Zealand — disavowing "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."

Scheer removed Cooper from the justice committee and Cooper made a public apology, but he remains the party's deputy justice critic.

Conservative MPs say fellow MP Michael Cooper should stay in the party caucus despite allegations that he made culturally insensitive comments towards Muslims while a law student a decade ago. 1:06

Scheer told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that he spoke with Cooper about the allegations and he believes the MP is telling the truth.

"I called Michael about it. He has a very clear recollection of the event and he denies ever saying that. I certainly take him at his word," he told host Vassy Kapelos.

"Its disappointing that … a news outlet would run with an unsubstantiated allegation when there have been allegations made about, for example, the prime minister, that those same broadcasters didn't go with."

Scheer did not say which allegations he was citing regarding the prime minister. 

Praise for Cooper

Other Conservative MPs also voiced their support for Cooper Wednesday, with MP Erin O'Toole saying Cooper is a knowledgeable and thoughtful MP and he was disappointed by what he called "unsubstantiated" accusations referencing an incident that happened so long ago.

"I am troubled by unsubstantiated reports from something someone once said in university or school. I was in law school. There are great debates in the classrooms of law schools, as there should be on our campuses," O'Toole said.

"To think that he's been in public life for four years and this is being brought up now, unsubstantiated, is disappointing."

CBC spoke with four other people, along with Cooper, Mihirig and Roe, who were in the seminar at the time of the alleged incident but did not wish to be identified.

Michael Cooper, the Conservative MP for St. Albert-Edmonton and Official Opposition deputy shadow minister of justice. (Terry Reith/CBC)

One said he recalled the 'goat herder' comment with absolute certainty, while another said he did not hear those exact words but was "100 per cent" confident Cooper had directed racist comments at Mihirig.

Two others, who acknowledged they had been asked to come forward by Cooper, said they remembered an incident in class but did not recall hearing the 'goat herder' comment.

Conservative MPs Peter Kent, Pierre Poilievre and Rob Nicholson also spoke in support of Cooper today.  

"He said it didn't happen, but I will tell you about Michael Cooper," Nicholson told CBC. "I'm very, very appreciative of the work that he has done. He introduced a bill that better protects jurors."