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Session ends with finger-pointing over Nov. 20 protest

Daily Leg Update: MLA Meara Conway is tossed as Assembly passes motion in the aftermath of the pro-Palestine disruption last month.
Jeremy Harrison and Meara Conway sparred during final Saskatchewan legislature sitting of 2023.

REGINA - What has been a turbulent and acrimonious fall sitting of the Legislature ended Thursday in fitting fashion, with more turbulence and acrimony.

On the final day of the sitting for 2023, Opposition NDP MLA Meara Conway was kicked out while Government House Leader Jeremy Harrison had to apologize over comments they hurled at one another during a contentious debate over a concurrence report motion in respect to the Standing Committee on Privileges.

That committee had met the previous day to consider a motion in response to the Nov. 20 protest at the Legislature. The events that afternoon had seen legislature proceedings disrupted for 40 minutes after pro-Palestine supporters erupted in chants of “ceasefire now!” from the gallery, causing the Speaker to clear the Assembly. 

In the aftermath of the disruption, the Sask Party had accused the NDP of meeting protest organizers at a “secret meeting” at Tommy Douglas House on Nov. 14. Opposition MLA Jennifer Bowes also came under criticism and ended up apologizing for liking an Instagram post containing video of chants from demonstrators of “from the river to the sea.”

In the end, an investigation of the NDP role ended up being a no go. On Wednesday, the Sask Party dropped their calls to have the opposition New Democrats investigated over allegations their members were involved in organizing the protest.

The motion that passed at the Privileges committee Wednesday thanked Legislature security personnel and requested the “legislative district security unit, in co-operation with the legislative staff, review the incidents on Nov. 20th, ’23 and develop proposals to prevent future breaches of privilege.” That report went to the House Thursday for the concurrence motion.

What particularly had the government outraged was a moment during the Wednesday meeting when Conway read into the record a letter from a Jewish individual from human rights organization Independent Jewish Voices, who wrote:

“It cannot be inherently violent to call for your own dignity to be respected. ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is not hate speech. It’s simply a call for Palestinian liberation and a call for the freedom and human rights of Palestinians to be respected in their homeland.”

On Thursday, Government House Leader Harrison blasted that statement, as recorded in Hansard. 

“Yesterday in committee we witnessed an appalling and frankly embarrassing display by the NDP member for Elphinstone-Centre (Conway) vigorously defending anti-Semitism and/an anti-Semitic phrase that was chanted in this legislature.

“And it’s not me saying that, Mr. Speaker, that those words are hateful and anti-Semitic. It’s B’nai Brith Canada. Yesterday I read a letter from B’nai Brith Canada explaining what those words mean to Jewish people. They said:

“The phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ is hateful and calls for Israel to disappear. The slogan epitomizes the Hamas manifesto which denies Jewish history, incites vicious anti-Semitism worldwide, and promotes violence to destroy the Jewish state…

“Even the Leader of the Opposition said, and I quote, ‘Let me be very clear. The phrase that was used is not acceptable.’ But the member for Regina Elphinstone-Centre disregarded all of that and her own leader, saying that this anti-Semitic phrase is legitimate political speech.

“Mr. Speaker, this tells you all you need to know about the kind of party the NDP has become. The NDP and the Canadian left in general has a serious and obvious anti-Semitism problem…

“Mr. Speaker, in a few moments we’re going to vote. Our government will be supporting the motion commending our security personnel and condemning those who organized and perpetrated this protest. And I guess we’re going to find out who’s running things over there, whether it’s the NDP leader who called these words unacceptable or the member for Elphinstone-Centre who defended this anti-Semitic chant. We’re about to find out.”

Conway responded by slamming Harrison’s remarks.

“Mr. Speaker, what we’re seeing now from this Government House Leader is sour grapes. What we’re seeing from this Government House Leader is an attempt to distract the public from his government’s failures, Mr. Speaker. They would much rather be talking about this.

“They don’t want to talk about women having to go out of this province to get basic health care. They don’t want to talk about a $1 million junket to Dubai, Mr. Speaker. They don’t want to talk about a 260 million botched AIMS program, Mr. Speaker. They don’t want to talk about their inability to balance a budget, Mr. Speaker. And they certainly don’t want to talk about the fact that they lost a member this session to a human trafficking sting.

“That’s what this is about, and it is so disgusting to see this government try to weaponize a bloody conflict halfway across the world to score political points.

“What we’re seeing here, Mr. Speaker, and has happened since this disruption happened, this Government Leader accused us of being behind it, accused us of holding secret meetings. This was all about distraction. These were accusations made without basis in fact. Totally unfounded.

“And yesterday we saw a pretty quick end to this big investigation that was going to be going on into the Saskatchewan NDP, because this Government House Leader knows that that was never based in fact, and that investigation would show we had nothing to do with that disruption.

“This is sour grapes. And shame on the Government House Leader for trying to weaponize this conflict that is so steeped in pain, that is so steeped in hurt, entrenched views. Instead of trying to bring the diverse communities of this province together at a difficult time, he is trying to weaponize it. Shame on him…

“The group that came here consisted of a broad section of society: campus groups, social work students, mosque communities, a respected imam attended, peace activists, many individuals. And when you look at the videos of that protest, which are posted online, you can see that the entire first and second row of the east gallery does not stand and join in the ceasefire chant. They sat and observed the proceedings. So to paint them all with one brush is frankly one of the reasons that we are not in support of this motion, in addition to the fact that we will not get into condemning speech said by one side and not another, Mr. Speaker. 

“It was absolutely disgusting and dangerous to see this Government House Leader and even the Premier attempt to label us on this side as extremists — including the member for Coronation Park, the only Muslim member on this side and one of the few in this legislature, who has never received so much as a parking ticket. Now he is facing questions from his community because he was labelled an extremist by that Government House Leader and even the Premier.

… But these are the kinds of loaded antics that Saskatchewan people have come to expect from this government, desperate to distract from their record of failure. They are more and more taking pages out of the Trump-style political handbook, and it does not play in Saskatchewan.”

It was the personal remarks against Harrison that drew an immediate rebuke from Speaker Randy Weekes, who asked Conway to withdraw and apologize. 

She said she could not. After being asked three times to apologize, Conway was suspended and removed for the rest of the day.

Speaker Weekes then called on Harrison to withdraw and apologize “for making a number of personal accusations against the members across the aisle.” Harrison did so.

The discussion did not end there. Minister of Justice and Attorney General Bronwyn Eyre responded saying “it’s extremely important to underline what has just occurred here and to realize that the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ has been iterated and reiterated as justified by that member…

“There is no splitting hairs on this statement. There are no subtle nuances and connotations. The statement is the thing, Mr. Speaker: ‘From the river to the sea.’ It is hateful. B’nai Brith has said it is hateful. We stand with that and there is no debate on the meaning of that statement, Mr. Speaker.”

Following that, the vote took place on the concurrence report and it passed 36-10 on a party-line division, with the government in favor and NDP members opposed.

Bad feelings spill into the reporters’ scrums

After the final vote, Harrison took questions from reporters in the rotunda, in which he reiterated his strong positions on the whole matter.

“I am deeply concerned about anti-Semitism,” said Harrison. “We are seeing it rise across the country every day in a way we have not seen it before. This government is deeply concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism, and what we are seeing across the country, around the world, and here in our own jurisdiction, and right here in this Chamber. 

“And we take that very seriously. That is why I put on the record some very straightforward comments about what shocked me yesterday in the Privileges Committee, which was Meara Conway coming in and defending the use of ‘the river to the sea.’ And in addition to that contextualizing and saying ‘well, maybe Jewish people experience that phrase differently.’ 

“That is not acceptable,” said Harrison, who accused Conway and the “entire Saskatchewan NDP” of “condoning, defending and contextualizing the use of ‘from the river to the sea.’ That is racist, that is hateful, and that calls for the extermination of Israel and the Jewish people. That is what that phrase means.”

Harrison’s scrum soon descended into a confrontational and argumentative exchange with reporters, who challenged Harrison’s assertions that the Nov. 20 disruption was a “riot.”

“What happened here was a riot. It absolutely was. They were trying to tear down this flag,” countered Harrison, referring to the Israel flag placed above the rotunda. “There were people shutting down the Assembly through their ‘grave disorder’ which was the technical ruling made by the Speaker of the Assembly, ‘grave disorder’ that shut down the Assembly that led to the recess of business of the Chamber.” 

Reporters challenged Harrison on his depiction of events, noting no one actually tried to tear down the Israel flag. They also pointed to security’s own accounts of what transpired.

“We had a riot in this Assembly… you guys can disagree all you want,” said Harrison. He later said “the Speaker doesn’t call ‘grave disorder’ and shut down the Chamber because things are peaceful and happy.”

When reporters asked Conway about the accusations she was anti-Semitic, Conway responded “I am not.”

She also stood firm about her refusal to take back her remarks in the Assembly.

“I didn’t apologize today because of serious, personal and professional accusations that were made not just to me but my team,” said Conway. “I am proud I didn’t withdraw and apologize. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, I meant every word that I said in there.”

She then took aim again at Harrison, accusing him of lying and slander.

“Jeremy Harrison is on record as lying about the events of the day, we have letters to demonstrate that. He has not been forthright. And then, in addition to that we’ve seen language calling us extreme as including our only Muslim member, the member for Coronation Park (Noor Burki) that put him in a very difficult position. He’s been fielding questions from his community about why he’s called a extremist…

"This is inflammatory rhetoric at a time when we are seeing incidents of anti-Semitism, of Islamophobia on the rise in our part of the world. We should be doing everything we can to bring communities together, not to sow further division, and I’m worried that this is what the Government House leader Jeremy Harrison is doing. I also indicated that what he said in there was slander, so that would be unparliamentary language, but it’s not true what he said about me and my team so that’s why I refused to apologize.”

As for whether they would also review Harrison’s comments in the scrum outside the Assembly chamber, Conway said she hadn’t turned her mind to that.

“We’ve seen quite a performance from Jeremy Harrison. He’s in a frenzy, and I believe it’s all about distracting from this government’s record, and it would be very difficult to take him seriously if what he did in there today wasn’t quite so serious.”