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B.C. minister Robinson stepping down over remarks that angered pro-Palestinian groups

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's Post-Secondary Education Minister Selina Robinson is stepping down over her remarks that modern Israel was founded on "a crappy piece of land," after her repeated apologies failed to quell the outcry from pro-Palestinian groups and others.

Premier David Eby said Robinson's "belittling" remarks were incompatible with her remaining in cabinet, although she will stay in the NDP caucus.

"The depth of the work that Minister Robinson needs to do, in order to address the harms that she's caused, is significant," Eby told an impromptu news conference in Vancouver on Monday.

Eby told reporters Monday that Brenda Bailey, B.C.'s jobs minister, will immediately take over Robinson's responsibilities, though no longer-term decisions have been made.

The premier had faced mounting calls for the removal of Robinson since the remarks last week that infuriated critics who called them racist and Islamophobic.

Representatives from more than a dozen B.C. mosques and Islamic associations wrote to Eby over the weekend calling for Robinson's removal and banning NDP MLAs and candidates in the October provincial election from their sacred spaces until action was taken against her.

Bilal Cheema, a volunteer spokesman for the group, said Robinson's exit prompted a “sigh of relief."

Cheema said Robinson was welcome to be a part of important conversations with the community.

“Now she doesn't have power over us being a cabinet minister. If she's willing to engage, our doors are always going to be open,” he said.

“We welcome an opportunity to help her beat back her thinking, her beliefs, or understanding, on the difficult history of that region, or of how we are going to build and continue to sustain this mosaic that we've built here in British Columbia.”

But Ezra Shanken, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, said the departure of Robinson — who is one of the most prominent Jewish politicians in B.C. — was “shocking.”

“I think at a time when the intimidation of Jewish students on campus is as high as it's ever been, to see a Jewish minister of advanced education stepping down sends really a chill down my spine,” he said.

“It's obviously a very, very shocking thing to see, especially after Minister Robinson was apologetic and also came up with a plan for reconciliation.”

Eby said he and Robinson both agreed on her decision to quit, which came after two apologies from her, as well as a commitment that she would undertake anti-Islamophobia training.

"When you hurt somebody, you need to reach out to them and try to figure out what the best way is to reduce the harm and address the hurt that has been caused," he said.

He said he and Robinson had been asking people "how to make things better," and the decision Robinson had to go came after a "cumulative" process.

Robinson said in a statement she agreed her departure was for the best.

"This decision does not excuse my harmful comments, nor does it absolve me of the work I am committed to doing," she said.

Robinson said she remained committed to her constituents, although she previously said she wasn't running for re-election this year.

She made the original contentious remarks on Jan. 30 during a panel discussion with other Jewish politicians hosted by B'nai Brith Canada, in which she lamented a lack of knowledge by younger people about the foundation of modern Israel.

"They don't understand it was a crappy piece of land with nothing on it. There were several hundred thousand people but other than that it didn't produce an economy," she said.

The remarks triggered a backlash from pro-Palestinian groups as well as from Robinson's own party.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called them "offensive," while the National Council of Canadian Muslims called them "horrendous."

The announcement that Robinson was out came just a few hours after her second apology in five days.

"I am very sorry. I bear full responsibility," said Robinson in the apology. "My words were inappropriate, wrong, and I now understand how they have contributed to Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism."

But her critics were unsatisfied.

Dozens of protesters soon gathered outside an NDP caucus retreat in Surrey, B.C., where they tried to deliver a petition they said had 11,000 signatures calling for Robinson to be removed as a minister.

The protesters carrying signs saying "Selina must go" made their way into the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel before leaving the petition and documents about Palestinian history outside a meeting room.

Coquitlam resident Ramona Chu was at the Surrey protest.

She said Robinson's original remarks made her feel sick, and that her apologies had felt “quite hollow.”

“It was framing that she made one mistake. But this is not one mistake. This is a pattern. It's obviously a mindset," Chu said of Robinson.

"I think, first of all, she needs to step down and give up her position of power and then she has to educate herself on colonialism. She needs to educate herself more about what's going on in Palestine."

Protester Jada-Gabrielle Pape, who said she was from the wu’Was’Ulwat’, Snuneymuxw and Saanich Nations, said Robinson's comments were "egregious."

"It's hurtful to me as an Indigenous person to hear somebody speak of the land, to speak of the relatives that way. It violently dismisses the ongoing occupation and genocide for the Palestinian people in Gaza," said Pape.

Eby said it is clear some protesters have an "agenda."

"They want to divide. They want to split British Columbians apart and that is the complete opposite of what I want our government to do, and what Selina's work is going to be going forward, which is to bring people together, and that is what informed this difficult decision today," he said.

He called Robinson an "exceptional politician."

The MLA for Coquitlam-Maillardville, east of Vancouver, is a former minister of finance, municipal affairs and housing, and citizens' services.

Eby said the decision to keep Robinson in caucus is due to her extensive past work, but it doesn’t take away from the serious nature of her comments.

"She's a representative of not just her own constituency, but of Jewish British Columbians and has absolutely done a ton of work with that community and more broadly, she's a champion of the LGBTQ community and has stood up against bullies and spoken out for really vulnerable people," said Eby.

"And she screwed up, she made a really significant error and so we need to address the harm that was caused by that."

— With files from Nono Shen in Surrey

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2024.

Brieanna Charlebois, Chuck Chiang and Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press