“In the heat of a debate over the privatization of potash in Saskatchewan, I used an inappropriate phrase, one that my partner Amanda Lang immediately rebuked me for. She was right.” O’Leary said in a press release. “As the CBC’s independent ombudsman pointed out in a recent ruling, the phrase was offensive and inappropriate. I agree. I withdraw the remark and apologize to those who were offended. I intend to make this clear on the show.”
In his report, CBC Ombudsmen Kirk LaPointe notes that O’Leary’s comments were “unambiguously offensive, disrespectful, and out of keeping with the values CBC has worked for decades to espouse and fortify” and in breach of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.
“The term “Indian giver” has its origins in European settlers mistaking native American goods for trade as gifts (natives had no other form of currency than goods),” he writes. “More than a century ago it acquired an offensive connotation to describe someone who took something back.”
O’Leary’s remarks came during an exchange with co-host Amanda Lang during a segment about “a Conference Board of Canada report on the financial implications for Saskatchewan of the proposed takeover of its Crown corporation, PotashCorp, by Australian-based BHP Billiton,” which suggested the province stood to lose nearly $2 billion in revenue.
O’Leary suggested the report couldn’t be trusted, and that the private sector should examine the deal instead. Lang replied that the conference board was credible and that the province should stand up for its citizens. O’Leary said Lang should stand up for shareholders “who invested in PotashCorp on the expectation that there would be a payoff,” LaPointe writes.
He continues: “Lang said it was important to weigh the shareholders’ interests against the interests of those who live in the province and benefit from the royalties. She said there were likely some in the province who felt it should never stop being a Crown corporation.”
This promoted O’Leary to say: “You know, you are an Indian giver with a forked tongue. You sold these rights to somebody who paid hard cash for them. Now you don’t like it anymore.”
Lang replied: “Is there any other kind of backward example or statement phrase you want to use? Because that came from the 19th century, and I do not approve.”
O’Leary retorted: “And you know what? It’s appropriate today to say that because what you’re suggesting is that you sold these rights for cash to shareholders who took risks and now you want it back. Shame on you.”
The complaint was filed by Alex Jamieson, an aboriginal Canadian, who wrote to CBC that he took offense at the statement and expressed surprise that no apology had been made:
“For CBC to allow that perception to stay in the minds of the viewers by not condemning his actions, as a public corporation, and allow O’Leary to continue on in this role as commentator without having received apparent punishment or having issued a public apology himself, I believe, is the more heinous of the two offences.”
The program’s executive producer Robert Lack wrote to Jamieson, agreeing that the phrase “Indian giver” was offensive and “entirely inappropriate.” He noted that CBC had “discussed the matter” with O’Leary and is “confident he now understands just how offensive such language is.”
LaPointe notes that O’Leary “neither a CBC staff employee nor a journalist. He is a contracted commentator who runs an investment business. Separate corporate policies more specifically apply to contracted employees.” Nonetheless, the Ombudsman mandate is to “attend to such remarks within news and information programming, no matter who commits them.”
He thinks Lang did a “commendable job by instantly responding” to O’Leary’s remark, which she handled “critically and nimbly.” But he also notes that it isn’t her job to act as O’Leary’s handler, and that “public accountability for the remarks rests principally with him and ultimately with CBC management.” “There remains an obligation to the public,” he wrote.