Deputy premier Cliff Cullen didn’t seem terribly remorseful last week during a legislative committee meeting, days after getting caught making a sexist comment in front of a large group of business leaders. When asked multiple times by an opposition MLA whether he would commit to taking sensitivity training, Cullen — who also serves as the minister of economic development, investment and trade — refused to answer. Instead, he trumpeted his government’s record on economic development.
It was hardly the kind of sober reflection one would expect from someone who, just a few days earlier, committed to turning the controversy into a teachable moment.
Earlier this month at a Business Council of Manitoba annual general meeting, Cullen made an offensive remark attributed to former British prime minister Winston Churchill about women’s attire.
"A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest," is the quote the deputy premier repeated.
Cullen didn’t immediately apologize for his denigrating remark (even though he later claimed he knew it was wrong the moment he said it). It wasn’t until it was reported in the Free Press days later that Cullen apologized in the legislative assembly. Even then, he expressed regret only after he was asked about his comment during question period. Cullen also refused to take questions from reporters.
Three days later, the minister was asked by NDP MLA and economic development critic Jamie Moses, during a May 20 committee of supply meeting at the legislature, whether he would agree to take sensitivity training to learn about the negative impacts of sexist language on women.
Cullen didn’t answer. He said he already apologized for his comment and went on to talk at length about how much his government is doing to stimulate the economy.
He was asked a second time.
"Sensitivity training would go a long way to educate and enlighten the minister about the things that are, perhaps, appropriate and not appropriate to say," said Moses. "Will the minister agree to take sensitivity training?"
Cullen dodged the question again. He responded by listing government programs he said will help women enter the workforce. He also bragged about how a new venture capital fund and government tax credits will help all Manitobans participate in the labour market.
Moses asked a third time.
"I think, you know, taking sensitivity training would not only go to help educate the minister but it would also set a really good example that leaders in our business community who make mistakes can learn and get better," said Moses.
“Sensitivity training would go a long way to educate and enlighten the minister about the things that are, perhaps, appropriate and not appropriate to say." ‐ Jamie Moses, NDP MLA and economic development critic
Cullen still wouldn’t commit. "I appreciate the line of questioning the member goes down here, and I have offered my apologies to the business council, to the chamber, to the premier, to my caucus and, in fact, to all Manitobans," he said, adding it was time to "move on."
If Cullen refused to take sensitivity training, or even discuss why he doesn’t think he needs it, Moses asked whether he’d at least consider enrolling in the provincial government’s respectful workplace course.
Cullen wouldn’t commit to that either, at least not initially. He tried to change the subject by claiming his government is making government workplaces more respectful. He also took a partisan jab at the NDP, saying he knows the former government had "challenges" in that area, referring no doubt to allegations of sexual harassment made several years ago against former NDP cabinet minister Stan Struthers. In fact, there have been well-documented cases of sexual harassment within both the NDP and Tory caucuses in recent years.
And then finally, a breakthrough. After asking one more time if Cullen planned to sign up for government’s respectful workplace course, the minister agreed.
"I believe I did take this course at one point in time, but I’m probably due to take that course again," said Cullen. "And I will endeavour to undertake that."
It doesn’t appear the training had much impact on Cullen; he barely remembers taking the course. Nevertheless, now that he agreed to re-enrol, perhaps the minister could provide the legislative assembly during the next sitting with a full report on what he learned. He now has the opportunity to make this a truly teachable moment.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.