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Canadian Female Politicians Speak Out About Sexism in Politics

Sherina Harris spoke to former Newfoundland Finance Minister Cathy Bennett, Ryerson politics professor Tracey Raney, Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen, former Ontario MPP Sheila Copps, Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould and Manitoba MLA Nahanni Fontaine to report on sexism in Canadian politics.

Silhouette of Cathy Bennett over top of a maple leaf
Illustration by Claire McCulloch.

In December 2016, then-Newfoundland Finance Minister Cathy Bennett stood in a room with female reporters and fellow female politicians. She called this personal press conference to address the sexist and sexually violent messages she had received on social media since introducing a budget that increased the provincial deficit.

With a PowerPoint, she shared some of those messages with the group of women. A few slides she deemed too inappropriate for the evening news, and asked the reporters not to broadcast those messages; they didn’t.

“You should do the world a favour and kill yourself,” one message read.

“All Newfoundlanders should put a bounty on her head. She is a witch,” read another.

Women currently occupy 27 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons in Canada. After the 2014 Ontario election, women represented 35.5 per cent of seats in provincial parliament.

“Although still a numerical minority, the very presence of these few women in politics is enough that they face a constant barrage of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault from their male colleagues and the public that is designed to belittle and intimidate,” wrote Tracey Raney, an associate professor in the department of politics and public administration at Ryerson University, in an email.

Under Siege

A month before Bennett’s press conference, Sandra Jansen, a member of legislative assembly (MLA) in Alberta, used her member’s statement in the House to read some of the sexist messages she had received.

“My point was to say, you know, ‘You can ignore my social media feed’ to my fellow politicians, the Conservatives across the aisle. ‘You can ignore it if you want, but the fact is, here in this House I’m going to say those words because you need to understand this is what I face every day,’” said Jansen.

Jansen was formerly a member of Alberta’s Conservative party and crossed the floor to sit with the NDPs after dropping her bid for the Conservative leadership. While she was in the leadership race, Jansen said there was a “very sexualized narrative” that, at times, made her feel “under siege.”

“I think I lost track of how many times I was called a c-nt. Certainly, people would get on my Facebook page and say my role in the last government was to give the premier head,” she said.

She said the verbal abuse kept escalating and by the time she exited the race and crossed the floor, she was receiving rape and death threats.

Sexism for women in politics can come in other, more subtle forms too.

Sheila Copps, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP), said that in cabinet she would often be called by her first name whereas her male colleagues were addressed by their last names.

“From the time that I went into politics, I was young and I think within two weeks of me arriving in the provincial legislature I was told by a minister to quieten down, to go back to the kitchen,” Copps said.

“My first encounter with sexism in politics being directed at me personally was during the nomination process before the most recent federal election,” wrote Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions, in an email.

“The first person whom I asked to sign my nomination papers said no because I ‘wasn't what they were looking for in a candidate.’ They wanted someone older, with business experience, and who was male,” said Minister Gould.

Nahanni Fontaine is a longtime Indigenous women’s rights advocate and the NDP MLA for St. Johns, Manitoba. In a debate during the campaign, she had to be escorted out of the building because someone outside was shouting, “She’s gonna f-cking get it.” The sexism “started on the campaign trail, with the added layer of feeling very physically threatened,” Fontaine said.

After being elected and speaking publicly about the threats from the debate, Fontaine said the sexism continued, both in vulgar phone calls and emails.

“For me personally, because I am so outspoken, and because I refuse to capitulate to patriarchy and the ways in which it manifests itself, it poses an even deeper uncomfortable defence of space for patriarchy and for men in general,” she said.

Moving forward

About 10 days after Bennett’s press conference, she said she received a “telling” phone call from the premier of Newfoundland.

“He actually said that he was surprised himself, because even in the negative feedback he had gotten, he had never gotten some of the sexual and sexually violent things that I had received,” Bennett recalled.

Bennett said she hadn’t expected the press conference to be as emotional as it was.

“I think there was a camaraderie in the room towards the end and, you know, I was really pleased that even though the room was a bit emotionally charged towards the end, I was glad that I spoke out because I thought it was the right thing for me to do,” she said.

Copps said that there’s “no doubt” that people will use gender as a way to chip away at the confidence of female politicians.

“I think you just have to keep moving forward and hold your head high.”


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