April 3, 2019 5:35 pm
Updated: April 3, 2019 6:50 pm

N.S. education minister denies allegations of physical confrontation with former MLAs

Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill is doing damage control after two former MLAs accused him of a “pattern of inappropriate behaviour.” As Jeremy Keefe explains, Churchill isn't denying that he can become spirted in debate, but claims it has never become physical.

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Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill says he doesn’t recall the two alleged incidents that were recently brought forward by former MLAs accusing him of threatening and aggressive behaviour.

“If that happened six years ago, as it’s been alleged, that would have been a story of the day,” Churchill told the media Wednesday. “I don’t think I would be here if the premier had been made aware of that.”

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“I need to recognize that what I perceive to be frank, direct and pointed conversations, others can perceive to be aggressive and off-putting.”

READ MORE: Former MLAs accuse N.S. education minister of ‘pattern of inappropriate behaviour’

Global News first reported that the allegations by former NDP MLAs were laid out in two letters sent to Speaker Kevin Murphy, Premier Stephen McNeil, PC Leader Tim Houston and NDP Leader Gary Burrill. The letters reference incidents that allegedly happened before the election in 2017.

Murphy confirmed he received emails from two former house members, but did not release further details.

One of the letters, from former NDP MLA Ramona Jennex, references an alleged altercation in 2012 in which she says Churchill “approached me when I exited the chambers and, using profane language, berated me verbally.”

The other letter, written by former NDP MLA Denis Peterson-Rafuse, claims that then-natural resources minister Churchill, came across the aisle after a heated question period, yanking her by the shoulder.

Churchill said there’s truth to the fact that he can confrontational but denied that it’s escalated to a physical confrontation.

“Any mistakes I’ve made have been to allow moments of heated debate to continue once debate is over in the chamber and recognize that not everybody likes arguing as much as me,” Churchill said.

“I think I need to have great self-awareness of that.”

WATCH: Tories walk out over Churchill confrontation

Both letters state the alleged incidents were reported to the premier. McNeil says he’s spoken to Churchill in the past about his conduct and enthusiasm but reiterated that none of the allegations were physical in nature.

“At no time had anyone raised with me a member of our caucus physically touching a member of the Opposition,” McNeil said Wednesday.

“I can assure you I would clearly remember that, and that member would know what my thoughts would be on that issue.”

But former interim Nova Scotia NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald remembers one of the incidents like it was yesterday.

“There had been physical contact between a member and a member of my caucus, I decided I needed to take this up with the premier,” MacDonald said.

Last week, Progressive Conservatives walked out of the legislature in protest after their leader alleged he had been assaulted by Churchill during a heated verbal argument over the Yarmouth ferry.

Houston told the legislature that Churchill had followed him into a phone booth in the members’ area and grabbed him by the shoulders. Houston moved that the allegation be investigated by the House internal affairs committee, but that was voted down by the majority Liberal government.

Churchill isn’t denying that he may have made a mistake in his interaction with Houston but claims he was goaded by something he’s passionate about and fell for the bait.

“I don’t think (Houston’s) rendition of the events is accurate or fair. I hope that the fact that he has been so over the top with the accusation and his commentary, I do hope that’s self-evident to people,” he said.

“All I can do in this job and in this position is submit myself to the wisdom and judgement of the public. They’ll have to make their minds up on what they think happened.”

READ MORE: N.S. Tories walk out in protest after apparent confrontation with minister over ferry

Houston says the government is trying to sweep away the allegations without action.

“I’m disappointed with the premier’s actions, for sure,” Houston said. “I’ve seen (Churchill’s) behaviour really escalating, escalated to a point that a serious line was crossed last week.”

“What we’re seeing with Minister Churchill is just an absolute failure to take any responsibility for his own actions.”

For his part, the current NDP leader is calling for an investigation.

“In any workplace, when a person brings forward a complaint that someone has been inappropriately aggressive towards them, they need to be assured that they’re not going to themselves be attacked or diminished for bringing forward those complaints,” Burrill said.

Churchill denies that he’s shown a pattern of inappropriate behaviour and intends to work towards restricting political debates to the chamber.

“I like debating. I like arguing. I like arguing all the time. I can be very fierce with debating and pointed with it,” he said.

“I think the lesson for me here is leave it on the ice.”

—With files from Sarah Ritchie and Jeremy Keefe

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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