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JIM VIBERT: Education Minister Zach Churchill can’t act like a schoolyard bully

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

The allegations that Zach Churchill accosted former or current members of the legislature climbed to three this week, but the premier remained steadfast in defending his “passionate” education minister and MLA from Yarmouth.

Speaking in the legislature Wednesday, Premier Stephen McNeil seemed to suggest that whatever Churchill did in those three incidents, it was OK so long as he didn’t get physical.

Last week, when Conservative leader Tim Houston reported that he’d been accosted by Churchill just outside the legislative chamber in Province House, the Liberals used their majority to keep the matter out of the hands of a committee of the legislature that exists to deal with this kind of stuff.

However, since Houston made his allegation — Churchill acknowledges the two had a spirited exchange but denies that it was in any way physical or menacing — two previous allegations of the same type against Churchill have become public.

Former NDP MLA Ramona Jennex remembers an incident in 2012, when she was education minister in the NDP government and Churchill a member of the official opposition.

She says Churchill approached her outside the chamber, berated her verbally and profanely, and pushed her backward with a poke to her shoulder.

The NDP decided to handle that incident informally, by alerting then-opposition leader Stephen McNeil to the actions of his caucus member and leaving it to McNeil to deal with the matter.

Wednesday the premier said his staff has combed through the files in his office and no allegations that Churchill, or any member of his caucus, had had “physical contact” with any other MLA were found.

Premier McNeil said if there was evidence of such an encounter, he would deal with it. But he repeated the word “physical” enough to clearly lay down the marker for what he believes to be inappropriate behaviour by Liberal MLAs. Everything’s OK until a punch is thrown, apparently.

Jennex was motivated to contact Speaker Kevin Murphy about the 2012 incident after hearing about the confrontation between Churchill and Houston.

Murphy revealed this week that he received two pieces of correspondence from former MLAs alleging menacing encounters with Churchill. Jennex’s would have been one of those; New Democrat Denise Peterson-Rafuse, the other. Jennex noted, and many would agree, there seems to be a pattern of behaviour here.

Churchill protests his innocence on all counts. In a statement this week he said, “I would never touch another member of the legislative assembly in the manner suggested,” (by Jennex) and he went on to accuse members of the opposition of a “co-ordinated personal attack.”

Sometimes the best — only? — defence is counterattack. This isn’t one of those times.

The suggestion that two former NDP MLAs and current Conservative MLAs are co-ordinating a personal attack against him is both patently absurd and a little worse than that.

If Churchill or the premier’s office, which issued the statement for the minister, actually believe that “co-ordinated attack” bunk, paranoia has set in, and paranoia takes governments to very dark places. If they don’t believe it, shame on them for saying it to dismiss and diminish allegations of abusive behaviour.

While the premier can claim he was never aware of any “physical” encounters between Churchill and the other members, he is now fully aware of three incidents in which MLAs — past and present — allege they had encounters with Churchill in which, they say, he behaved in a fashion they found menacing.

Mr. Premier, your education minister is being called out as a bully.

Everybody but you seems to know that bullying does not necessarily involve physical contact.

Nova Scotia can’t have a bully as education minister at any time, but particularly in the current environment where bullying is a sometimes lethal problem confronting kids. Surely, the education minister needs to model a higher standard of behaviour than that of a schoolyard bully.

The premier needs to satisfy himself, and us, that the minister is not a bully.

Except that he won’t. He won’t because his government’s standard operating procedure when it finds itself or one its own in a tough spot is denial, bluster and counter-accusation, until the matter eventually and inevitably runs its course.

And nobody is the better for it.

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