BY PETER EWART
Special to the News
Appointed by the NDP provincial government to the UNBC Board of Governors in 2018, Aaron Ekman was elected chair of the board by his fellow board members in July 2020. On the afternoon of Friday, May 28, without warning, that same government removed him. In a tweeted explanation, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training, Anne Kang, said that the government and UNBC “are deeply committed to tackling racism and hate in all its forms.”
What Aaron Ekman had done in terms of being “racist” and “hateful” was not specified and still is not clarified days later. In the past, he was a long time trade union official, working as president of the North Central Labour Council and elected secretary-treasurer of the BC Federation of Labour in 2014 and 2016. He is also a community activist who is known for speaking out against racism of any kind and in support of labour rights and social justice.
Ekman was surprised by his sudden dismissal as were many of his colleagues at the university and in the community. But he guesses that the removal might have something to do with a simple question he asked in a tweet. Earlier in the day, Minister of Finance Selina Robinson and Rachna Singh, Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives, had issued a joint statement on Jewish Heritage Month stating that “over the last few years, there has been an increase in antisemitism and bigotry in B.C. (1).” In a tweet, Ekman asked the question: “Has there? Does the BC government have evidence of this?”
Some other tweeters responded arguing that his question was somehow “anti-semitic.” Ekman replied: “We should question the validity of all such assertions. Why wouldn’t you see the question as an opportunity to establish the assertion, rather than respond [with] allegations of anti-semitism?”
A little while later in the course of online discussion, another tweeter sent along a screen shot from Minister Kang that stated, “We [the provincial government] have high standards for public appointees and racist and discriminatory comments from public appointments will not be tolerated.” As a result, she informed the Twitter audience, “I am removing Aaron Ekman from this position.” This very public tweet was the first that Ekman learned about his removal. Certainly an unprofessional way for a government to inform an appointed official that he or she was terminated, especially one who was recently elected chair of the university Board of Governors by his fellow board members.
Furthermore, it turns out that Ekman’s questioning of the claim that there is a rise in anti-semitism in B.C. was reasonable and was based on previous reading. According to B’nai Brith, a well-known Jewish organization which provides an annual audit of anti-semitism in Canada, anti-semitic incidents grew substantially in 2020 in some other parts of the country, but in British Columbia, after peaking in 2018, they declined in 2019 by 43.3 per cent (2) and in 2020 by 8.5 per cent (3).
Another irony is that, while Ekman has spoken out against Israel’s recent bombing of Gaza, on the whole, he says that he tends to “skew towards Israel” when looking at Middle Eastern politics. So much so in the past that he has even been accused of being a Zionist.
Ekman acknowledges that he can be provocative on Twitter and is unrepentant about it. However, he believes the “racist” label is defamatory and may be the result of him being a thorn in the side of the provincial government on a host of issues in the last few months, including what he terms is the rise of “identity politics” within the NDP.
It is clear that the government needs to answer some questions about this affair. They include: Why did it remove Ekman? And why does it refuse to clarify the actual grounds of his “offences,” despite media inquiries and requests from the community?
When this writer spoke to Aaron about his removal, he pointed out that the government never gave him any reasons and he only found about it by chance from the terse Twitter note issued publicly by Minister Kang that he had come upon by accident. He did say, however, that he had already informed the Ministry three months ago that he would be stepping down from his position at UNBC shortly. So why the rush to strip him of his position and to do so in a manner that denies him due process?
Legally, the government might well have the power to offer no explanation, but people nonetheless expect due process and accountability. It claims that Aaron’s dismissal was done in the name of upholding “high standards.” Without clarification from Minister Kang as to what those mysterious standards are and how Aaron violated them, the air is rife with suspicion that his removal was an act of revenge and vindictiveness to get rid of an outspoken appointee.
For a government to defame and humiliate a citizen on an arbitrary basis is not a small matter and casts a pall over the political culture. Is that what is happening here?
To repeat, we need answers from this government.
Peter Ewart is a writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Joint statement on Jewish Heritage Month. May 28, 2021. BC Government. https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2021AG0076-001035
- Annual audit of anti-semitic incidents – 2019. B’nai Brith. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gG6dXVevy0eEiHgTNXNhulwv54s79Cd9/view
- Annual audit of anti-semitic incidents – 2020. B’nai Brith. https://www.bnaibrith.ca/antisemitic-incidents/