A Liberal MP has apologized for remarks she made about sexual violence at a women's panel over the weekend, VICE has learned.
Yasmin Ratansi, an MP for Don Valley East, was accused of "victim blaming" when she answered a question about the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence in politics. In an interview with VICE Monday, Ratansi denied any wrongdoing, and described the allegations as "nonsense." But by late Tuesday afternoon, after VICE repeatedly contacted the PMO for comment, she offered a full apology for her remarks.
The panel, which focused on how far women have come in 2017, took place at a Toronto event hosted by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women to celebrate the organization's 35th anniversary. It featured Ratansi, Ontario judge Feroza Bhabha, Debbie Douglas, who runs the Ontario Council for Agencies Serving Immigrants, and was moderated by independent Senator Marilou McPhedran (who was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).
But sexual violence survivor Arezoo Najibzadeh, 22, as well as other audience members and fellow panelists told VICE that a series of comments Ratansi made in response to a question about sexual violence in politics were offensive, disrespectful, and amounted to victim blaming.
Yasmin Rajabi, program director, Young Women's Leadership Network, is one who posed the question to Ratansi, asking the panel what they are doing to ensure the voices of young women are heard, especially because gender-based violence is such a prevalent issue in politics.
Rajabi told VICE Ratansi asked for evidence to support her statement that sexual violence is a widespread issue in politics.
"Her opinion was I was speaking from not a factual experience and I needed to bring statistics in a conversation like that." According to Rajabi and Najibzadeh, MP Ratansi also said "sexual violence happens because women sexualize themselves" and that when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment, women should should have thicker skin and treat these encounters "like water off a duck's back."
Ratansi initially denied making the comment about "water off a duck's back," telling VICE she only spoke of her own experiences and about how she needed to have thick skin to make it in politics. She said women should present themselves with confidence.
When Rajabi described harassment and abuse as being widespread, Ratansi told VICE she said, "Do you have something to back it up," and pointed to the fact that Trudeau fired two Liberal MPs for sexual misconduct two years ago and that the House of Commons adopted an anti-harassment policy in 2014.
By Tuesday afternoon, however, Ratansi sent VICE the following statement: "I unreservedly and sincerely apologize for comments I made recently in response to questions around sexual harassment on Parliament Hill. Any form of harassment, sexism or language encouraging victim shaming have absolutely no place in our public discourse and in our society.
As a woman in politics, who has overcome many obstacles throughout my career, often in male dominated environments, I believe in supporting women in all walks of life who experience sexism and harassment. We need more women in politics, and I intend to play a positive role as an elected official by encouraging women, and supporting them when they speak up.
I recognize that my comments have caused anguish to Ms. Najibzadeh and have apologized to her, and offered my support. My door remains open."
Najibzadeh, a former volunteer for the Liberal party who describes herself a sexual violence survivor, said she began crying and left the room while Ratansi was speaking.
"Never in a million years did I think these words, these type of thinking would be perpetuated by a woman in politics and a woman MP," she told VICE, noting Ratansi's response triggered her PTSD. Najibzadeh said when she was a volunteer in politics, from ages 16-19, she experienced everything from sexual harassment to groping.
Najibzadeh said after she left the room, a number of women followed her out. Eventually, she said Ratansi came out and apologized to her. On Monday, Ratansi told VICE she had apologized for being ignorant about a protest Najibzadeh had organized to draw attention to sexual violence on Parliament Hill—not for making the offending comments.
Fellow panelist Debbie Douglas told VICE she too found Ratansi's comments "shocking."
"The message clearly was that women themselves were in many cases to blame for any harassment they may experience," she said, noting there was a large "outcry" from both panelists and the audience during Ratansi's remarks.
"I don't think the irony was lost that this is an MP who is in a party with a leader who calls himself a 'feminist.'"
Panel moderator McPhedran told VICE she cut Ratansi off when she made the comment about treating harassment like "water off a duck's back."
"I went on to say that while that may be the advice that Ms Ratansi was giving, that would not be the advice that I would give," she said. McPhedran told VICE she believes sexual harassment is prevalent on the Hill, noting that she was harassed at a political dinner just last week.
"I would say that what I heard was very concerning to me," she said of Ratansi's comments.
The Canadian Council for Muslim Women told VICE it "deeply regrets that comments made during the open discussion were disrespectful and hurtful."
Najibzadeh also called out Prime Minister Trudeau, noting that Ratansi's comments prove how deeply entrenched victim blaming is within political circles.
"It's not enough to say you're a feminist, it has to appear in every single commitment and action that you take," she said. "I don't care if you go on stage and recognize sexism in politics and have the whole world clap for you, that's not what action looks like."
Maryam Monsef, Minister for the Status of Women, told VICE her office had reached out to Najibzadeh to engage in a dialogue about eliminating gender-based violence. "We must ensure that women in our workplaces, our communities or public spaces are treated fairly, and do not face sexism and harassment. It is time to believe survivors of gender-based violence, value their perspectives and take their needs and experiences into account," she said in a statement. She also pointed the government's $100-million investment into its "strategy to prevent and address gender-based violence."
On Saturday night, Najibzadeh called out Ratansi in a series of tweets. Ratansi blocked Najibzadeh on Twitter and protected her account.
"I don't want nonsense to be coming to me, I would block anybody who is harassing me," she told VICE Monday, noting she is a feminist. "If somebody wants to have a logical conversation, I'm willing to have a logical conversation, but to make accusatory remarks and keep on going on and on about something I never said?"
In spite of the apology, Najibzadeh remains blocked by Ratansi.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.