People tell me I’ve got a way with words. But sometimes words get away from me.
Back in May, I got myself in hot water during a union run-off vote in Sudbury. At one point, I used the expression, “I just wish they’d stick to their knitting” in reference to the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA).
What I meant was somewhere between “they should stick to what they know” and “they should mind their own business.” That’s not what some people heard. To some people, I was making a sexist remark about a union that is almost all female.
Recently, a Toronto politician got the same reaction when he said that chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat should “stick to the knitting.”
“He might as well have told me to go back to the kitchen," Keesmaat told a radio host. ”I think it's a deeply offensive comment."
Toronto councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong apologized for what he said. So did I.
The whole episode taught me a lesson that I kind of already knew: sometimes it’s not what you mean that matters – it’s how it sounds.
I said ONA should “stick to their knitting” because it was an expression my mother used to use. When she said it, it was never addressed to girls or women or any gender in particular.
But that doesn’t matter. When I listen to it with other people’s ears, it does sound sexist. So that’s a lesson learned.
The big problem with language is that it’s filled with metaphors, and sometimes nobody remembers where they came from.
“Back burner.” “Cold turkey.” “Tough bananas.” Who knows where these come from? I don’t. But I do know that all of us who take the OPSEU Statement of Respect seriously – and I’ve read it out in a thousand meetings – have to be careful with the way we use language. And the best way to be careful is to listen honestly to the reaction our words get from others.
In August, Indigenous activist Candy Palmater did a great video about why we should stop using offensive phrases like “off the reservation” and “lowest on the totem pole.”
“Words are real,” Palmater says in the video. “They count.” And, I would add, if they sound offensive to the people you’re talking to, they are.
Take it from me: you’re never too old to learn. Or too important to say, “I’m sorry.”
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union