British Columbia Liberal leader Kevin Falcon says he supports supervised drug injection sites, but when member of the legislature Teresa Wat spoke to the audience of a Mandarin news show last week, she had a different message.
Wat, speaking on Phoenix TV’s Daily Topic Show, said “we are very opposed to so-called safe injection sites,” remarks she later said “accidentally misrepresented” her party’s position.
The Liberal MLA representing Richmond Centre is the latest politician to be accused of straying from an official line or tailoring a message to non-English-speaking audiences.
“There is something very powerful about the situational context for delivering a message,” said David Black, a political communication associate professor at Royal Roads University.
“If you are speaking about a policy that you might think might be difficult for a given audiences to receive, you are going to adjust, you are going to modify, you might even change that message because it’s almost more important that the message be received well than it be entirely accurate.”
Victor Ho, the former editor-in-chief at the Vancouver edition of Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily newspaper, said Wat’s remarks represent one of the biggest gaffes he can remember involving mixed messages to different communities.
He said Phoenix TV’s viewership skews heavily toward people with mainland Chinese origins, and it was possible for politicians to forget their broader constituency in discussions with specific groups.
But the onus remained on a politician to be accountable to all constituents for their positions, he said.
“You should have a standardized opinion, no matter if it’s for the Chinese community or the mainstream society here in Canada,” Ho said. He added that “otherwise, you can’t take accountability of all your stakeholders.”
In Wat’s case, she said in a video sent by the BC Liberal caucus on Wednesday that she “used the wrong choice of words” to describe the party’s position on injection sites in the Phoenix interview, posted online on Feb. 9.
There have been other cases of Canadian politicians accused of tailored messaging to non-English-speaking audiences, in situations that have cost some more dearly.
In 2019, then-Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum told Chinese-language journalists that Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou had “strong arguments” against her extradition to the United States, where she was wanted on fraud charges.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially resisted calls to fire McCallum but then dismissed the ambassador when he made more remarks about Meng’s case a few days later.
In the 2019 Burnaby South byelection won by federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, federal Liberal candidate Karen Wang sent messages on Chinese-language social media platform WeChat that said she was the only Chinese candidate, while Singh was “of Indian descent.”
Wang stepped down from the race when the post was reported in English media.
Falcon, who has previously called himself a supporter of “safe injection sites,” said Wednesday that his party supported “supervised consumption sites,” and he had spoken to Wat about her comments.
“I think that she would be the first to tell you that she didn’t express it as perfectly as she intended to,” Falcon said, adding that he believes Wat — who is the BC Liberals’ Shadow Minister for multiculturalism, anti-racism initiatives, arts and culture — misspoke and made an “honest mistake.”
“I’m very comfortable she has not formed a new position or (was) suggesting that we have a different position as a party.”
BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said she is more concerned that the incident signals intensifying partisanship in the legislature, taking attention away from dealing with the drug crisis itself. Wat’s comments first surfaced in English media through the BC NDP caucus’s YouTube and Twitter channels.
“Unfortunately, when we see that become more and more of the so-called debate that we are having, which is trying to pitch parties against each other and wedge them, this doesn’t do well to serve the people of this province who we are supposed to be serving,” Furstenau said.
Black said that a politician can’t lose sight of their job of representing their party’s views, especially in a multicultural society where communication is increasingly through languages other than English and French.
“You must represent ideas that you do not necessarily believe or that your audiences may not find comfortable and that’s the burden of leadership,” said Black.
— Chuck Chiang and Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press