‘I be­came a tar­get’

The dif­fi­cult ten­ure of women politi­cians in Canada

Cape Breton Post - - Cape Breton / Province -

Joanne Bernard re­calls the shock she felt when she left Nova Sco­tia’s non-profit sec­tor to work in pro­vin­cial politics, and sud­denly be­came the tar­get of the worst kind of on­line vit­riol, in­clud­ing fat sham­ing and ho­mo­pho­bic tirades.

She said she soon learned this was the norm for fe­male politi­cians across Canada, cit­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of On­tario Premier Kath­leen Wynne, Al­berta Premier Rachel Not­ley and former B.C. premier Christy Clark.

“It is not some­thing women in politics are pre­pared for,’’ said Bernard, who served as Nova Sco­tia’s Com­mu­nity Ser­vices min­is­ter un­til late May, when she was de­feated in a gen­eral elec­tion. “Most of us come from dif­fer­ent walks of life where this is not part of our re­al­ity ... It wasn’t un­til I was elected that I be­came a tar­get.’’

Cathy Ben­nett stepped down as New­found­land and Labrador’s fi­nance min­is­ter Mon­day, cit­ing per­sonal rea­sons. Though she didn’t elab­o­rate, it was only six months ago that she called to­gether a group of fe­male jour­nal­ists to de­scribe the “vile and sex­u­ally ex­ploita­tive’’ abuse she had en­dured on­line.

Ben­nett cited var­i­ous emails that de­scribed her as “a mon­ster’’ and “a witch,’’ while an­other said: “I hope she chokes on her break­fast,’’ and “You should do the world a favour and kill your­self.’’

Bernard said she spoke with Ben­nett about cy­ber­bul­ly­ing last month, when the two women took part in a me­dia in­ter­view on the topic. The pair also trav­elled to the United Na­tions this year as part of a na­tional del­e­ga­tion to the com­mis­sion on the sta­tus of women.

“She (Ben­nett) went through some very hor­rific per­sonal at­tacks,’’ said Bernard. “Every­thing from how she looked to re­peated re­quests that she kill her­self ... It took a toll on her.’’

Ben­nett, the CEO of her own con­struc­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany be­fore she ran for of­fice, did not re­spond to a re­quest for an in­ter­view Tues­day.

De­spite the ad­vances made by women at all lev­els of gov­ern­ing in Canada, Bernard said a back­lash against that progress seems to be get­ting worse on so­cial me­dia sites like Twit­ter and Face­book.

Last Novem­ber, when two fe­male can­di­dates quit the Al­berta Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship con­test, Calgary leg­is­la­ture mem­ber San­dra Jansen said she had faced on­line in­tim­i­da­tion that in­cluded hav­ing her so­cial me­dia feed “filled with filth.’’

A few weeks later, af­ter she crossed the floor to join the gov­ern­ing NDP, Jansen is­sued a state­ment re­count­ing some of the abu­sive com­ments she said had been di­rected at her. Among other things, she said she had been la­belled “dead meat,’’ a “use­less tit,’’ a “dumb broad’’ and told that she should stay in the kitchen.

“Let us be strong and clear in our re­solve that no mat­ter where we sit along po­lit­i­cal lines we stand to­gether against this,’’ Jansen told the house. “Please op­pose it. Don’t ig­nore it. Don’t look the other way. Don’t ex­cuse it. Be­cause our daugh­ters are watch­ing us.’’

Jansen was given a stand­ing ova­tion from politi­cians on both sides of the aisle.

In 2015, Al­berta En­ergy Min­is­ter Marg McCuaig-Boyd tear­fully spoke about feel­ing cy­ber­bul­lied and con­cerned to go home over a plan to change farm health and safety rules. The fol­low­ing year, Op­po­si­tion leader Brian Jean apol­o­gized for hint­ing at vi­o­lence against Not­ley at a town­hall meet­ing.

Wynne, mean­while, has been bom­barded with ho­mo­pho­bic abuse on so­cial me­dia, while Clark was once asked by a DJ what it was like to be a “MILF’’ — a lewd term re­fer­ring to her looks.

In Halifax, pro­vin­cial politi­cian Lenore Zann re­called Tues­day how she was bul­lied on­line in 2013 af­ter some­one posted a top­less photo of her on Twit­ter.

Zann, a mem­ber of the Nova Sco­tia leg­is­la­ture from the Truro area, filed a com­plaint un­der the prov­ince’s now-de­funct anti-cy­ber­bul­ly­ing law.

The former ac­tor and pro­ducer said she had been ha­rassed on Twit­ter for two weeks af­ter a young man posted a photo taken from the ca­ble TV series “The L Word,’’ in which Zann ap­peared top­less in a shower scene in 2008. Zann said the sender re­fused to delete the im­age, while oth­ers retweeted the pic­ture and hurled vul­gar in­sults at her.

“A lot women see what is hap­pen­ing and they say, ‘I don’t want to en­ter politics,’’’ Zann said in an in­ter­view. “They’re be­ing scared off.’’

Zann, who later dropped her com­plaint, said she stayed away from Twit­ter for a year.

“I just didn’t want to go through that kind of bul­ly­ing and sex­ual ha­rass­ment,’’ she said, re­call­ing one par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing on­line mes­sage: “I’d take you out be­hind the shed and rape you and shoot you.’’

The source of that kind of hate al­ways comes from men “who can’t stand the idea that women are ac­tu­ally start­ing to have their voices heard,’’ she said.

“It makes you feel, psy­cho­log­i­cally, like you’re be­ing at­tacked by a group of peo­ple — it’s al­most like it’s hap­pen­ing in real life,’’ Zann said. “Psy­cho­log­i­cally, you feel un­der threat and your body re­acts. It’s de­bil­i­tat­ing.’’

Bernard and Zann said the so­lu­tion is to limit anonymity.

“When they put that cloak around them, they feel in­vis­i­ble,’’ Zann said about on­line abusers who hide be­hind fake names. “They can come up from un­der their bridge like a troll to at­tack their un­sus­pect­ing vic­tims — and they run back into their lit­tle hole.’’

CP PHOTO

Joanne Bernard, Nova Sco­tia’s com­mu­nity ser­vices min­is­ter, is seen at her con­stituency of­fice in Dart­mouth, N.S. in this file photo from Fe­bru­ary 2014. Bernard re­calls the shock she re­ceived when she left the non-profit sec­tor to work in pro­vin­cial politics, where she sud­denly be­came the tar­get of the worst kind of on­line vit­riol, in­clud­ing fat sham­ing and ho­mo­pho­bic tirades. She soon learned this was largely the norm for fe­male politi­cians.

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