Manitoba’s deputy premier was forced to apologize Monday after the Free Press learned he made a sexist remark during a speech to some of the province’s business elite last week.
Economic Development, Investment and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen acknowledged he borrowed a quote often attributed to former British prime minister Winston Churchill, as he addressed the Business Council of Manitoba’s annual general meeting last Thursday.
The dated analogy quoted by Cullen is: "A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest."
He turned down a request from the Free Press for an interview, and instead issued an apology through his press secretary.
"As the minister of economic development, investment and trade, I had the opportunity to speak at the Business Council of Manitoba AGM last week to provide an update on Manitoba’s efforts as we plan for strong economic growth and recovery," the Progressive Conservative MLA for Spruce Woods said in a statement. "During my address, I referenced an old Winston Churchill quote which I immediately regretted. I recognize my comment was inappropriate and I sincerely apologize for my actions."
“During my address, I referenced an old Winston Churchill quote which I immediately regretted. I recognize my comment was inappropriate and I sincerely apologize for my actions.” – Cliff Cullen
Cullen’s remark has sparked anger and disappointment among current and former female politicians, who were swift to condemn him.
His boss, Premier Heather Stefanson, said Cullen has apologized to the BCM and its members.
"As Manitoba’s first female premier I take these issues seriously and this matter has been dealt with," Stefanson said in a statement.
She was in Toronto Monday to meet with financial institutions, according to her press secretary.
Nine of the BCM’s 92 members are women, said Bram Strain, president and CEO of the invitation-only group.
Some of the female members were present when Cullen made the analogy in a room at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.
Several BCM members, including two women, contacted by the Free Press said they didn’t attend the meeting or weren’t present when Cullen addressed the crowd on behalf of the province.
Some of those members said the group’s meetings — and topics of discussion — are meant to remain private.
Strain would not comment on Cullen’s speech nor the audience’s reaction.
"It’s a private meeting," he said. "We don’t disclose what was said."
NDP house leader and justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said Cullen’s remark was incredibly unfortunate and disrespectful.
She argued those in government who still believe it is appropriate to objectify women are not fit to hold high ranking positions in 2022.
Cullen’s choice to include the quote establishes a pattern by the Progressive Conservatives to use degrading and minimizing language towards women, she said.
She pointed to a December 2017 event hosted by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, during which former premier Brian Pallister commented on heels worn by Johanna Hurme, then-chair of the business association.
"I want to thank Johanna for dressing up," Pallister told an audience of more than 1,200 people. "I want to thank her for those heels. I notice they’re a foot high."
It appears not much has changed since then inside the provincial government, Fontaine said.
"Discourse informs how we see something," she said. "Clearly, they still need training to bring them up to date to 2022 and the language that is appropriate and the language that is denigrating and degrading towards women."
The remarks were not acceptable and would merit disciplinary action, Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said, adding the Tories promised a change in tone when Stefanson became leader, but have so far failed to shed the culture of the Pallister administration.
"This is a government that said it would change everything on tone but that was sort of pretending that there was nothing wrong with the substance," he said. "Now there’s problems with the substance and tone of this government. They tried to slap a label on the new government and it’s starting to peel off."
Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux is among the female politicians who aren’t impressed by Cullen’s choice of words.
"For the deputy premier to make these comments shows a serious lack of judgment," Lamoureux said in a statement. "Referencing the length of a woman’s skirt in 2022, especially in an attempt of humour, is certainly not appropriate."
Cindy Kellendonk, a former councillor with the Rural Municipality of Lac du Bonnet, said Cullen’s remark is sexist and doesn’t meet the "higher standard" expected of politicians.
"For a leader to make a statement like that, it just reinforces the barriers women face every day," said Kellendonk, a spokeswoman for the political action group Let Women Lead. "I’m astounded he would think that was an attempt at humour. I imagine it was a very awkward feeling for (the women in attendance)."
People need to stand up and challenge that kind of comment when it’s made, she said.
“For a leader to make a statement like that, it just reinforces the barriers women face every day.” – Cindy Kellendonk
"It’s not just inappropriate, but it’s typical of how this type of behaviour is normalized," said Kellendonk, who is part of a group encouraging women to run in October’s municipal elections.
"They don’t ever think of the consequences of these comments. Cullen may not have been trying to create harm, but with his lack of understanding and lack of sensitivity, it does."
The BCM touts its membership of CEOs as representing the "economic engine of Manitoba."
Several members have donated to the Progressive Conservatives in the past, with some helping to finance Stefanson’s successful run for the Tory leadership last fall.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.