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Coun. Ward Sutherland under fire for 'Johnny Jew from New York' remark during forum

Calgary Herald logo Calgary Herald 2017-10-12 Annalise Klingbeil, Calgary Herald
080417-no_object-58272458-__STORY_SLUG__-W.jpg Coun. Ward Sutherland under fire for 'Johnny Jew from New York' remark during forum

A sitting councillor is insisting he said Johnny “Choo” – not “Johnny Jew “– after drawing criticism for what was perceived as a racial slur at a packed candidate debate Wednesday evening.

In a statement sent to media Thursday afternoon, hours after a video of Ward 1 Coun. Ward Sutherland’s remarks were widely shared online, Sutherland disputed he used the anti-semitic term ‘Johnny Jew from New York’ while speaking about public art.  

“During our discussion about public art at the forum I referenced a famous New York designer with the last name of Choo,” the statement said.  

“The point I was hoping to drive home was the importance of utilizing local artists rather than those from abroad.”

While Sutherland didn’t say which Choo from New York he was referencing, there is a Jimmy Choo who designs women’s shoes and lives in the United Kingdom.   

In his statement, Sutherland encourages “anyone with questions to watch the video of the forum,” and notes no reaction from the crowd was made after his comments.

Rabbi Mark Glickman of Temple B’nai Tikvah watched the video Thursday morning and said “it sure sounded like Johnny Jew.”

“If he said Johnny Choo, I don’t know what that means,” said Glickman.

“‘Johnny Jew’ is not a very widely used term, but it is an anti-semitic canard and language like that has no place in civilized political discourse. I would hope the Calgary community would have no tolerance for such language and Calgary voters will take that into consideration when they decide who they’re going to vote for,” the Rabbi said. 

The remarks from incumbent Sutherland came in response to a moderator’s question at an all candidates forum held at the Tuscany Club and come in the midst of an election marred by accusations of racism.

“The unfortunate comment made by Sutherland, as we understood it, is utterly unbecoming of an elected official, or any person of good will for that matter,” said Martin Sampson, director of communications at CIJA, the advocacy agent of Calgary Jewish Federation.

“Whatever the intent of the comment, it was an inappropriate use of language that perpetuates antisemitic stereotypes and as such is unacceptable. Mr. Sutherland should apologize and be more mindful of his language in future.”

Asked to pick a “contentious” election issue from a list that included the arena negotiations, secondary suites, bike lanes, fluoridation and art projects, and speak about how they would approach the topic if elected, Sutherland chose the arts.  

“One of the things dear to my heart, actually is the situation with the arts,” began Sutherland, who talked about what the Medicine Hill development, next to Canada Olympic Park, will eventually look like.

“A lot of it has different aboriginal features in it. And then 20 metres away, we get these towers. To me, I thought it was KerPlunk when I first saw it. It just showed how a system can be broken,” said Sutherland, referencing the controversial $500,000 Bowfort Towers public artwork created by Del Geist that spurred controversy in August.

Sutherland went on to speak about an unsuccessful attempt to change the city’s contentious art policy in late 2013, after he was first elected.

“As I dove into the weeds, I found one of the biggest issues was the fact that the people, the committee that was picking the art, first of all, 10 out of the 10 people were artists. And, when they were looking at it, they’re going well Johnny Jew from New York he’s the best artist so we’re going to use him and not even look at it,” he said. 

Sutherand told the audience he lost the pitch for changes to the art policy in a 4-11 vote. 

“The good thing about Bowfort Towers is because it was so embarrassing and it was election time the 11 individuals that voted against it now voted to freeze the program and we’re going to review it. Thank you,” he finished, referencing a September decision by council.  

Outgoing Ward 11 Coun. Brian Pincott said he’s not entirely surprised by the remarks, adding he’s heard similar talk before from council colleagues over the years.

“Racism and misogyny is a problem, a challenge on council and something needs to be done about it,” said Pincott.

Ward 1 competitor Cam Khan, who was sitting beside Sutherland at the debate, said Thursday the comment was racist and inappropriate.

“If he’s saying racist comments, he’s not qualified for this position,” he said.

Cole Christensen is also vying for the Ward 1 seat and attended Wednesday’s debate.

“The remarks made by the incumbent councillor at last night’s Ward 1 debate are reprehensible,” said Christensen.

Five people are running for the ward 1 seat including Sutherland, Khan, Christensen, Chris Blatch and Coral Bliss Taylor.

Reached Thursday, Giest, the artist behind Bowfort Towers, refused to comment on Sutherland’s remarks.

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