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Jansen’s experience of harassment is unfortunately not unique

By Nancy Peckford      

The dissonance between Canadians’ clear desire to see more women in public life and the treatment women experience as elected officials is extremely troubling.

Sandra Jansen courageously called out some members of her own party, among others, for their sexist bullying and harassment as she prepared for a leadership bid against Jason Kenney, writes Nancy Peckford. Photograph courtesy of Sandra Jansen's Facebook
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OTTAWA—This past week, Sandra Jansen stood in the Alberta legislature and recounted some of the awful and misogynistic commentary being thrust her way in recent weeks.

As is well known by now, Jansen courageously called out some members of her own party, among others, for their sexist bullying and harassment as she prepared for a leadership bid against Jason Kenney. Adding fuel to the fire, Jansen’s recent crossing of the floor to join Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government, which of course warmly welcomed her, has served to only exacerbate the hostility being directed her way.

Various media outlets have expressed shock and dismay at what, unfortunately, is a fairly standard feature of political life for women in Canada: harassment. Is it new? No. Has social media amplified the voices of a very small but vocal minority who seek to diminish and undermine elected women with whom they disagree? Absolutely. The challenge for elected women, as former Manitoba Liberal leader Rana Bokhari said in an interview with the CBC, is that by publicly naming it, you are opening yourself up to even more vitriol.

Few elected women have gotten into politics expecting the ensuing harassment that frequently accompanies it. They have sought public office because they care deeply about the communities in which they serve, and want to make a meaningful difference. The intensity of gendered commentary that elected women confront only serves as a distraction to the hard work they are endeavouring to do every day.

It’s one of the reasons why Equal Voice exists, and we were thrilled to launch, in the past two weeks, new chapters in both Manitoba and Quebec.

At Equal Voice’s Manitoba chapter launch, Progressive Conservative MLA and Speaker of the provincial legislature Myrna Driedger, as well as former NDP and Liberal federal MPs Judy Wasylcia-Leis and Anita Neville, respectively, spoke about the value of women and men coming together to accelerate the closure of the gender gap.

Currently, women comprise just 22 per cent of Manitoba’s legislature. If that sounds particularly low, it isn’t. Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut have even fewer women serving in their legislatures, with Nunavut ranking last in Canada with just nine per cent women.

Remarkably, just three provinces, British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta, and one territory, the Yukon, have more than 30 per cent women in their legislatures, with B.C. at the top with 37 per cent women. Perhaps not coincidentally, the provinces with the highest percentages of women are led, in fact, by female premiers, and also have the highest proportion of women in cabinet.

But it’s not just about the numbers. Ms. Wasylycia-Leis, a highly respected Manitoba federal MP for 15 years, recounted the frequency with which she was told to “go home and take care of her grandkids” (she doesn’t have any) during her 2010 mayoral run in Winnipeg. Neville spoke for one of the first times about how negative comments often trumped substance in the coverage she and her colleagues received as Parliamentarians, committee chairs and ministers during the Liberal reign of 1993 to 2006.

In Quebec, Equal Voice’s launch brought together another cross-party coalition of prominent women and men, including Anju Dhillon, Quebec MP and parliamentary secretary for the federal Status of Women; NDP Leader Tom Mulcair; NDP Whip Marjolaine Boutin- Sweet; as well as federal Liberal MP Marc Miller who is chair of the Quebec caucus. Hosted at the Hill & Knowlton offices in Montreal with the support of Nathalie Bourque, a high-profile businesswoman, and respected Quebec academic Pascale Navarro, it served as another occasion to reflect on progress achieved and what remains to be done.

While Quebec used to have one of the highest percentage of women in any provincial legislature, the last election saw a drop in women’s representation. Many high-profile women lost their seats. Further, while Quebec once boasted Canada’s first gender-parity cabinet of any provincial government, this accomplishment under former Premier Jean Charest has yet to be replicated.

It goes to show why vigilance—not to mention sustained and concerted efforts—are required when it comes to women in political life. There is no quick fix, and no victory can be taken for granted. The dissonance between Canadians’ clear desire to see more women in public life and the treatment women experience as elected officials is extremely troubling.

While it is easy to dismiss it as “just the cost of being in public life,” that would do a profound disservice to every woman currently serving in office. Canadians, members of the media, party leaders, and other decision-makers need to insist that we set the bar much higher for the fair and respectful treatment of all elected women, regardless of party, background, and age. We owe them nothing less.

Nancy Peckford is executive director of Equal Voice.

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