OTTAWA — Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr admitted to sometimes being "brash" and "inappropriate" after a fresh complaint of disrespect surfaced Thursday — this one from a Calgary woman engaged in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government.
Jennifer McCrea, who has been fighting on behalf of a group of mothers who say they were denied benefits while on maternity leave, contacted Hehr's office in October 2016 after being encouraged to speak to local Liberal MPs about her case.
Hehr, who was shuffled into the Sport and Disabilities portfolios by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this past summer, was veterans affairs minister at the time.
"(He was) very condescending," McCrea said of the October 2016 interaction, noting she was able to secure less than two minutes of his time.
She asked him pointedly why Ottawa continues to fight sick women — a "loaded question" to which he allegedly replied, "Well, Ms. McCrea, that is the old question, like asking ... 'When did you stop beating your wife?'"
"I didn't respond (with) anything because my jaw was on the floor," McCrea recalled.
"I had never really actually heard of the term that it is a 'loaded question' ... I was just literally (wondering), 'Who talks like that, let alone ... a minister or a member of Parliament?"
McCrea said she decided to come forward about Hehr's comments after hearing a group of thalidomide survivors describe earlier this week how they felt belittled by Hehr's bedside manner during a meeting earlier this year.
Hehr needs to be more sensitive in his interactions, McCrea said — a sentiment with which the minister appeared to agree when asked about the issue Thursday during question period.
"When speaking to people I tend to be very straightforward; however, I understand my comments can be brash and sometimes even inappropriate," Hehr said as he read a written statement.
"I regret my comments and I sincerely apologize. As I've said before, I'm committed to taking steps to better myself."
Hehr also apologized earlier this week after the thalidomide controversy erupted, Hehr although he described some of his comments as having been "misconstrued."
"As someone with a disability myself, it was certainly not my intention to offend anyone," he said at the time.
Conservative MP Rachael Harder, her party's status of women critic, suggested Hehr needs to consider how better to interact with his constituents.
"There is clearly a disturbing pattern here of victim blaming," said Harder, who also questioned the minister directly in the House.
"I think certainly he needs to reflect on his actions ... I would expect his behaviour to change."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh appeared genuinely taken aback by the remark.
"He can't be talking about violence against women like that," he said. "We need our leaders to be denouncing violence against women and in no way making light of it."
Stephen Moreau, a lawyer who is representing McCrea's group of mothers, said disclosing the comments in 2016 would have distracted from efforts to get the Liberal government to take action on the question of maternity benefits.
But since nothing has yet happened on that file, the two issues may be related, he suggested.
"We're seeing a comment that is consistent with the pattern that we are seeing of this government in terms of fighting the litigation tooth and nail," Moreau said.
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press