B.C. Minister of Post-Secondary Education Selina Robinson is facing mounting pressure to resign over her comments related to the conflict between Israel and Gaza, including a recent remark about Israel that experts say perpetuates harmful colonial narratives that ignore the history of Palestinian people in the region.
Speaking as part of a panel of Jewish public officials on Tuesday, Robinson answered a question in part by saying there is an “entire generation” of young adults who do not know about the Holocaust or understand that the region on which the state of Israel was created decades ago was previously “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. It couldn’t grow things. It didn’t have anything on it,” she said during a public Zoom call hosted by B’nai Brith, an independent Jewish human rights organization.
Experts say remarks like Robinson’s dismiss people who lived in the area for tens of thousands of years before Israel was created in 1948, including Palestinians, Muslims and Christians.
Robinson later posted an apology online.
“I want to apologize for my disrespectful comment referring to the origins of Israel on a ‘crappy piece of land’. I was referring to the fact that the land has limited natural resources,” read a post on Robinson’s account on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“I understand that this flippant comment has caused pain and that it diminishes the connection Palestinians also have to the land. I regret what I said and I apologize without reservation.”
The modern state of Israel was created out of land that was previously British-administered Palestine.
The nation’s establishment represented self-determination for Jewish people after the persecution of the Holocaust, but it is deemed the “catastrophe” — or Nakba — for Palestinians whose society, culture and identity were destroyed as they were driven from their homeland to make way for incoming Jewish immigrants.
“I was surprised and flabbergasted by the comments because they are both incredibly ahistoric and inaccurate by every measure of knowledge,” said Adel Iskandar, an associate professor of global communication at Simon Fraser University.
“What the minister is describing is out of touch with reality, with history and with every understanding of both the land and its history and its people.”
In a statement Friday, B.C. Premier David Eby thanked Robinson for the apology.
“Minister Robinson’s recent comments were wrong and unacceptable. It has caused deep hurt and distress to Palestinians, Muslims, and many others,” the statement read.
Elsewhere, NDP MP Matthew Green called for a “reassessment” of Robinson’s place in the B.C. cabinet over her “inaccurate … deeply derogatory and insensitive remarks.”
“I urge Premier David Eby to consider the implications of these comments,” wrote Green, who represents Hamilton–Centre.
Minister accused of political interference
Separate to her remarks on the panel, Robinson is also under fire over accusations she interfered with a personnel issue at Vancouver’s Langara College late last year.
The dispute surrounded former instructor Natalie Knight, who was removed from her role in October after praising the Hamas-led invasion of Israel during an off-campus rally.
The college reinstated Knight after its own investigation found her comments did not violate the law or any college policies, but then dismissed her soon after for behaving “contrary to the expectations laid out by the College.”
The about-face came soon after Robinson tweeted her disappointment at Knight’s reinstatement.
“I am disappointed this instructor [Knight] continues to have a public post secondary platform to spew hatred and vitriol,” the minister wrote. “I have met with @langaracollege to express my concerns for the Langara and broader communities. They agree everyone deserves to feel safe.”
In its own statement, Langara said an employee who made “remarks at an off-campus event that did not and do not reflect the values of the College” no longer works there. It said the decision was not a result of the remarks themselves but of more recent “activities contrary to the expectations laid out by the college.”
Langara has not clarified what those activities were nor whether Robinson’s statement played any role in the dismissal.
But the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which represents staff at more than 125 universities and colleges across the country, said Robinson should step down.
“Political interference into the internal affairs of universities and colleges must never be countenanced as it undermines their independence and the academic freedom of faculty that is necessary to preserve, share and advance knowledge,” CAUT executive director David Robinson wrote in a letter to the premier.
“By intervening publicly and directly with the college administration concerning Dr. Knight’s expressed views, the minister has violated these fundamental principles.”
A statement from Robinson’s office on Friday said the allegations of political interference are “false” and that Robinson found out about the college’s decision after the fact.
During the B’nai Brith panel on Tuesday, Robinson stood by her original remarks.
“I’m being called out by the faculty association because I expressed my disappointment at her reinstatement, but I also represent a constituency and they needed to see me upset,” said Robinson, who is the MLA for Coquitlam–Maillardville, during the Zoom call.
“[Knight] was outrageous right after Oct. 7. She went out of her way to be vitriolic and celebrate the massacre that happened, but she called out — she got called out by me, she got called out by the Jewish community.
“Langara struggled, I will say, at the beginning but decided to put her on leave while they did an investigation into what options they had to deal with her horrendous outburst and her disrespect of her students, particularly her Jewish students on campus.”
CBC News has made repeated attempts to contact Knight for comment.
Michael Conlon, executive director of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C., also said Robinson should step down, over both the Langara issue and her recent panel remarks.
“The bigger picture for us is that her very strong political views have tainted her objectivity as minister and she’s behaved in a way that we believe is highly, highly inappropriate,” Conlon said in an interview with CBC’s The Early Edition.