On Oct. 4, we learned about some of Sydney-Victoria Liberal candidate Jaime Battiste’s social media postings from 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016, when he was already an established professional in his thirties.
Among other things, Battiste joked about being tempted to commit sexual assault and about drunk driving. He insulted Indigenous women and Chinese people, used unrepeatable expletives to refer to women’s bodies, and showed himself happily sporting a large hammer and sickle, symbols of an evil regime that killed or uprooted tens of millions of people (including members of my extended family).
This vulgarity was not contained to one posting, but dispersed over multiple messages.
I was sad about the revelations. I do not know Jaime Battiste personally, but I know of him and some of his work. And I have understood him to be a person of intellect and achievement. I was very happy to see his candidacy.
I don’t believe in “gotcha” politics or in defining people by their mistakes. People change. People can recover after meltdowns (if that’s what happened here). Voters can and do accept sincere apologies.
Forgiveness is part of my personal ethic, and I perceive the same to be true of most fellow Cape Bretoners. When asked for my analysis by the media last week, I stated that Battiste could politically recover from his past comments, as utterly unacceptable as the past comments were.
But I am worried. Battiste’s apology was somewhat limited and terse. He has not explicitly reassured us that his actions, views and values as Member of Parliament would be completely reformed from what he has previously expressed on social media.
Reports on the offensive comments surfaced on a Friday. Battiste’s campaign issued a short e-mailed statement that day: “I would like to apologize for my comments. At times in my life, I have made crude jokes that I thought were funny at the time, but I realize now that these words were offensive. These were things I said during difficult times in my life and they are not a reflection of my beliefs or who I am today. I apologize unreservedly.”
For the entire weekend, Battiste was not available for interviews. Reporters finally caught up with him at Cape Breton University on Oct. 7, during a candidates’ debate on the environment. Battiste didn’t say a whole lot more, but explained that the offensive comments “were done during a time of heartbreak and depression and that’s not a good time to use humour.”
At the time of writing this column, Battiste has not posted an apology or explanation on his campaign Facebook page. Instead, he wrote that he is “still moving forward” and that he is “taking the high road and asking all my supporters to do the same. It’s about our future not about the past.”
Does he get it?
We shouldn’t simply dismiss the past, even if we do forgive the candidate. Nor should we assume that people with legitimate questions and concerns about Battiste’s past behaviour are somehow taking a low road.
Does Battiste understand that if he becomes Member of Parliament some women (and men) will feel uneasy meeting with him privately, based on how crudely and dismissively he has described them in the not-too-distant past?
Jaime Battiste was very lucky to get a second chance to stay in the race. No doubt, he was helped by leader Justin Trudeau’s recent apology for his own past actions. Also to Battiste’s advantage was the fact that it was too late to place another Liberal candidate into the winnable Sydney-Victoria riding.
But if Battiste wins on Monday, any new, serious post-election transgression or revelation would probably cause his expulsion from the Liberal caucus. And then the people of Sydney-Victoria would end up with a discredited independent as their MP for the rest of the mandate.
That’s why I hope Battiste will still outline for us what steps he is taking to prevent a repeat. I hope he can assure us that he has the supports he needs in case other personal difficulties surface in his life. The candidate needs to sit down for a fuller, open session with voters and the media.
As an economically struggling region, Cape Breton requires effective representation, characterized by dignity, decorum and respect for everyone. That’s why Jaime Battiste should do more at this time to reassure us.
Dr. Tom Urbaniak is a professor of political science at Cape Breton University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.