Brave face against bullying Manitoba’s female politicians united against online harassment
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It’s a day that’s seared into Manitoba lawmaker Rochelle Squires’ memory.
She had been a minister in former premier Brian Pallister’s first cabinet for less than 24 hours when the online abuse began.
Fair criticism on social media over the appointment of an anglophone to the francophone affairs file had rapidly devolved into a misogynistic discourse of sexual acts Squires must have done to earn the job. A dimple on her chin was a primary target of the vitriol.
“There was this comment: ‘Look she still has cum on her chin,’” Squires recalled. “That was day one of my introduction to cabinet.
“I was sworn into cabinet on May 3 and the night of May 3, I was cowering under covers because I was just so filled with shame and I was so filled with fear,” she says.
Nearly seven years later, Squires says she chooses to keep a low-profile on social media and rarely engages on Twitter, where the online abuse and harassment against women and non-gender-conforming politicians, particularly racialized representatives, can be the most intense.
The rapid introduction to online gender-based abuse targeting politicians and their looks, while traumatic and unacceptable, did serve a purpose, Squires says.
She found a support network of women and colleagues who encouraged her to carry on, and after the onslaught, her resolve to combat misogyny and hold space for other women in politics was strengthened, she says.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Squires says.
“Even though as women politicians we are subject to a lot of misogyny and vitriol, particularly online, we need to push forward and continue to make space,” she says. “We’re underrepresented in all political spheres in Canada, whether it’s municipal, provincial or federal, and we cannot cede our space.”
Partisan politics was put aside in defence of Premier Heather Stefanson, who has been the target of a growing number of social media posts that criticize her appearance.
New Democratic Party candidate Renee Cable took to Twitter last month to defend the Progressive Conservative leader, decrying photos being circulated to demean Stefanson’s appearance.
Some folks on #mbpoli are sharing a photo of @HStefansonMB to demean her appearance.
As a @mbndp candidate for this year’s election, let me be clear: I don’t support toxic bullying of any woman in politics – regardless of party or position. We can disagree without doing that.
— Renée Cable (she/her) (@reneecable) February 13, 2023
“As an (NDP) candidate for this year’s election, let me be clear: I don’t support toxic bullying of any woman in politics, regardless of party or positions. We can disagree without doing that,” the candidate for Southdale said in her post.
NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine said many women and non-gender-conforming politicians are subject to online abuse over their appearance and dress daily and it’s an issue elected officials across the globe take seriously.
She pointed to the recent decision by the office of Gov. Gen. Mary Simon — the first Inuk woman to hold the position — to close commenting on all social-media platforms because of the increase in abusive, misogynistic, and racist engagement.
“You may not like what women politicians are doing or how they’re executing their job, that’s fine,” she said. “You can criticize them for their policy. You can criticize them if they’re not doing their job. You can criticize them if they’re not in the chamber doing the work they’re supposed to be doing — that’s fine, that’s legitimate criticism.
“But to comment on somebody’s appearance is wholly unacceptable.”
Fontaine said online bullying concerning appearances is rare in her case, but she noted her direct message and email inboxes receive personal attacks, vicious name-calling and veiled threats. She also resolved early on in her career to call out misogyny and abuse in a bid to improve conditions for women who enter politics.
“Any time that we can have these very open and frank conversations about what women politicians — and predominantly and particularly BIPOC women politicians and gender-diverse folks — on what we face in executing our duties as MLAs is important,” Fontaine said.
Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux says the toxicity of social media became readily apparent after she was elected in 2016. She has signed off Twitter permanently and tends to limit her engagement on other platforms, preferring to speak with people by phone or in person.
So far, Lamoureux says she’s been fortunate when it comes to online abuse and she applauded Cable for standing up for the leader of an opposing political party.
However, she says she has experienced bullying in the legislature. In the chamber, all members could do a better job of standing by each other and setting an example for civil, public discourse focused on policy, Lamoureux said.
“I think we need to be intentional about it,” Lamoureux said. “Our jobs are to be representing our constituents. They aren’t to be bashing one another and taking cheap shots at one another.”
Online abuse of female and non-gender-conforming politicians appears to be on the rise and is becoming a growing deterrent to running for public office.
Equal Voice, a Canadian multi-partisan organization that advocates for greater representation of diverse populations, estimates less than half of the seats in provincial and municipal governments across the country are occupied by women.
“There’s a huge opportunity loss that we have by not having more diversity in our elected houses and not having that talent pool around decision-making tables,” says Chi Nguyen, executive director of the Ottawa-based group. “It cheapens our democracy if we don’t have a house that looks more like our community.”
Nguyen said the challenges of online, gendered harassment deserves increased attention during an election period as abusive discourse tends to ramp up. Political parties must also have measures to support candidates and members when online bullying occurs, she said.
“It’s really important that all parties take the opportunity to let their supporters know that kind of language is not in service of good democracy.”–Chi Nguyen
“It’s really important that all parties take the opportunity to let their supporters know that kind of language is not in service of good democracy,” Nguyen said. “It’s meant to be an exchange of ideas. It’s meant to be an opportunity to set the stage for where Manitoba’s future is going, and it’s hard to do that when you stoop to the level of personal attacks and critiques of appearance.”
Online abuse against women in public and political spheres is a threat to democracy, says Shari Graydon, founder of the non-partisan, feminist group Informed Opinions. The non-profit organization is running a campaign to track instances of online abuse, to support people on the receiving end, and to advocate for regulatory change.
“These kinds of attacks that have nothing to do with a politician’s policies or credentials, their ability to serve their constituents need to stop because they are driving women from public life,” Graydon says.
Online abuse must not be normalized, Graydon says, and lawmakers at the federal level have a responsibility to make digital spaces safer for the most frequent targets of hate.
“As long as we are allowing bad actors to disseminate that content, women do not have free speech.”–Shari Graydon
“As long as we are allowing bad actors to disseminate that content, women do not have free speech,” she says. “If we don’t do something about it and if platforms are allowed to continue to use algorithms to not just protect anonymous users but to amplify the abuse… it’s going to be even more difficult to address the gender gap in Canadian politics.”
Graydon emphasized that parties and governments must also be held to account on their efforts to increase participation of women in politics and cannot use online abuse as a scapegoat for gaps in representation.
“Many other countries around the world have made meaningful parity in gender in politics,” Graydon said. “Not because they have solved online hate, but because they are prioritizing measures to ensure women’s voices are present.”
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.