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Sexism rears ugly head in Canadian politics again

By Nancy Peckford      

The latest was directed at International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, who confronted accusations of not being a grown-up after Canada’s trade deal with Europe initially faltered.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland was recently called not grown-up by the opposition after the CETA trade deal ran into trouble last week. Photograph courtesy of WTO
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OTTAWA—As the Trump campaign has descended to new lows that even the most cynical politicians could not have anticipated, we are having our own mini-dramas here in Canada.

Thankfully, no one has been called a “nasty woman,” but perhaps that would have been the better of the options. Donald Trump’s now trademark defensive comment has sparked ambitious and accomplished women everywhere to turn a verbal attack into a badge of honour.

As many U.S. female commentators have said, Hillary Clinton might as well have been called a witch, or another similar-sounding word, given the connotations “nasty woman” conjures up. And while Trump may appear to have gone out on a precarious limb, the underlying suspicions and hostilities perpetuated by our dominant cultural paradigms about women in power are hardly new.

In Canada, we only have to recall the days of the Belinda Stronach saga in which a crossing of the floor precipitated such negative reactions. Globe and Mail writer Norman Spector boldly told a Vancouver radio station, “I think she’s a bitch.” Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott commented to the Regina Leader-Post at the time, “Some people prostitute themselves for different costs or different prices.” Utterances of the descriptor “dog” were, allegedly, overheard in the House.

So while we may, in 2016, have a gender-balanced federal cabinet, it isn’t the magic elixir for elected women who have and still work in a vastly male-dominated arena.

Perhaps no one should be surprised then about the verbal sparring on the federal political scene with more women assuming prominent positions. The latest was directed at International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, who confronted accusations of not being a grown-up after Canada’s trade deal with Europe initially faltered.

Few would have to be reminded of the “big girl voice” ordeal during Freeland’s first intervention in the House as an MP after winning a byelection in 2014. Likely riffing off this theme, and on the heels of the trade deal stalling before a partial resolution last week, there were assertions from the opposition that Freeland was not up to the task. In particular, there were calls to put a “grown-up” in the seat after Freeland expressed visible frustration and disappointment about the challenges to secure a deal.

And while both sides are dancing around who invoked the word “adult” first, this misses the point entirely. Men outnumber women 3 to 1 in the House of Commons. The political culture in Parliament is replete with bravado and jabs, rooted in a history where women had no political place at all. And yes, while times have obviously changed, the tone and style of banter in Canada’s Parliament remains a vestige of the 19th century.

Given this context, no one, and especially no woman MP, needs to be told she isn’t grown-up enough to ably steer high stakes international portfolios. Clearly, negotiations over seven years to secure one of the most complex and rigorous trade deals in the 21st century would have its share of hiccups. If nothing else, critiques that are highly personalized risk being misconstrued as a signal to women that politics really is for the old boys with cigars.

Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu said it best when she noted: “When a man gets mad and storms off or bangs his fist on the table or yells in Question Period, no one asks him to act like a grown-up. So there is still a bias that emotions that are considered feminine emotions [like] frustration, sadness … are somehow less grown-up than anger or rancour.”

No doubt, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, and House leaders for both the Government and the opposition see little gain from this kind of discourse. Emotion is real in the House, and we’ve seen more than our fair share of it over the decades, including this past June. Anyone remember Elbowgate? Subsequent to that incident, while many weighed in on the prime minister’s judgment, few said he should be sacked for losing his cool, not to mention physically colliding with another (female) Member of the House. It was seen for what it was—Parliament is an institution where the stakes are high and elected Members are passionate about making life better for Canadians, so, of course, frustration is inevitable.

Freeland deserves to be credited for her tenacity and strong commitment to getting the job done on a watershed trade agreement with Europe. The fact that she expressed some strong emotion along the way is not only natural but expected. It shows that she’s got skin in the game. Having brought the deal closer to a successful conclusion by late last week, I am glad I caught a glimpse of Freeland’s visceral frustration when the deal temporarily faltered. And in her efforts to finally seal the deal, I expect that she didn’t even have to get nasty about it.

Nancy Peckford is executive director of Equal Voice.

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