Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said he was immediately embarrassed when a female colleague made sexist remarks about a female New Democrat MLA during an online roast about three weeks ago, video of which became widely distributed over the weekend.
“I wish I had found a way to intervene at the time without embarrassing Ralph Sultan and the other people on the call,” Wilkinson said Tuesday morning during a media availability. “There was a sense of not wanting to ruin his evening but also a sense of being taken aback at what was coming of of Jane [Thornthwaite]’s mouth.”
“Many of us were increasingly embarrassed to the point of being appalled,” he said, adding that the remarks showed bad taste and poor judgment.
During an online roast to celebrate Sultan’s retirement, Thornthwaite, 61, the Liberal MLA for Vancouver North-Seymour, attempted to barb Sultan about his inability to take NDP MLA Bowinn Ma, 35, to task on political issues because of his “soft spot” for his fellow UBC engineering graduate.
“Bowinn is, you know, a very pretty lady and she knows that she’s got it and she knows how to get Ralph going,” Thornthwaite said. “Bowinn would be right up, right up next to him, cuddling, cuddling, cuddling, a little bit of cleavage there. And Ralph would be enthralled with her.”
The remarks were made during a $100-a-ticket event held over Zoom on Sept. 17 to celebrate the retiring Sultan, 87. The roast was attended by Wilkinson and several caucus members. Video of the event was posted on Twitter on Saturday by Mo Amir, who hosts a B.C. political and pop culture podcast.
Ma on Monday called on Wilkinson to explain to British Columbians why he sat back during the online roast while Thornthwaite sexualized her interactions and her “efforts to extend kindness across partisan lines.
Wilkinson addressed the controversy Tuesday after unveiling his party’s election platform.
“I worked my entire life to ensure women had all the same options as men, whether it’s in my own family, in the workplace, in the private sector, in my time in hospitals, and my time in the legislature,” said Wilkinson, who is a medical doctor, lawyer and engineer.
“There’s no place for those kinds of sexist remarks in our society — period,” he said. “I want to apologize to Bowinn Ma and commit we will all work very hard to do better.”
Wilkinson said he publicly apologized to Ma online on the weekend and has extended an invitation to have a conversation “where I can express my disappointment in the whole process, my disappointment in Jane, my disappointment in myself, and say that we’re sorry once again.”
Asked why he didn’t stop the roast in the moment, he said sometimes there are scenarios when people say something inappropriate at a wedding or family event, or, in this case, a retirement roast.
“It was for an 87-year-old gentleman who lives alone,” Wilkinson said. It’s hard to stop the train when you don’t know what the next words will be, he said.
Asked why he didn’t apologize three weeks ago, Wilkinson said it was clear at the end of the event that Thornthwaite’s words were sexist, hurtful and inappropriate and “she had made a bit of a fool of herself.”
“I thought the event spoke for itself,” he said. “The issue got dealt with more recently.”
NDP Leader John Horgan said Thornthwaite’s comments are an example of “blatant sexism,” while Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau called them comments “appalling.”
UVic political scientist Kim Speers said more than halfway into the election campaign, the incident “has the potential to change votes.”
The old boys’ club in all of the parties needs to be dismantled, she said, adding that the incident demonstrates that women hold internalized sexist views toward other women. “The comments made by Thornthwaite were an attempt to diminish Ma’s reputation and authority on so many levels.”