Canada’s corridors of power no place for toxic, racist behaviour
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When the first and longest-serving First Nations woman in the British Columbia legislature resigned last month, she blamed rampant, toxic and racist behaviour.
“This place felt like a torture chamber,” Melanie Mark said, referring to the B.C. legislature. “I will not miss the character assassination.”
Mark, a former cabinet minister, said she underwent daily, personal attacks by colleagues not just for her political views but her gender, health, and Indigenous ancestry.
She pulled no punches when naming the culprits.
“The nastiness from white men in here is awful,” she explained, “I’ve put up with enough abuse in my life.”
She added: “People have called me a bitch… you can call me anything, but don’t ever call me a stupid bitch. I’m educated. I’ve worked hard for my career my whole life. I have all the credentials, I deserve to be here.”
Anyone who watches five minutes of debate in federal or provincial legislatures knows name-calling, insults, and taunting — what’s often called “heckling” — is common.
Some comments are good-natured, funny, and collegial. Many more are childish, mean, and hurtful.
In any other room in the country, many things said in Canada’s “highest” halls of government would be illegal harassment.
While official speeches by members and ministers and questions during question period are governed by the Speaker, who follows “rules of order and decorum” (and can punish individuals when these rules are broken), it’s a grey area when Canada’s elected officials yell things at one another during debate.
Advocates say everything said by lawmakers should be “free speech.”
What if “free speech” is just a shield for those in powerful gender and racial groups to target marginalized and oppressed members of other groups and silence them?
Mark isn’t the only Indigenous woman serving in a Canadian government who has experienced daily, violent and racially motivated abuse from their colleagues.
“I often refer to the House of Commons as a ‘dude-fest’” Winnipeg Centre MP Leah Gazan explained on the Free Press podcast Niigaan and the Lone Ranger last November. “Where you see the most grotesque, misogynistic behaviour and mansplaining.”
Gazan points out that “heckling” in Parliament is simply a licence to impose violence against women and, in particular, racialized and Indigenous women.
Other Indigenous women elected to government, including former Churchill MP Tina Keeper, Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, and current Manitoba MLA Bernadette Smith have experienced similar attacks.
Sometimes racial slurs and insults seep into more official debate, too. In 2009, then-junior MP (and future Conservative leader) Pierre Poilievre used the term “tar baby” to refer to federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s carbon tax policy.
This was a term that shocked and harmed African-Canadian MP Marlene Jennings.
“As a Black child growing up,” Jennings told media, “I was called all sorts of pejorative names based on the colour of my skin, including the N-word and ‘tar baby’ — and believe me, it was hurtful.”
In March 2021, Manitoba MLA Nahanni Fontaine, an Anishinaabe woman, was heckled by Justice Minister Cameron Friesen, who yelled out that she would “know a lot about gangs.”
Friesen later apologized and admitted that was “not my best heckle.”
This week, my colleague Danielle de Silva wrote a piece about how female politicians in Manitoba are subject to brutal harassment online. She reported that body shaming, “gender-based abuse” and specific attacks against racialized women are common.
Targeted, online attacks hurts democracy and silences diverse voices in government.
What if the culture of government is inherently to hate women, though?
After becoming Speaker of Parliament in 2015, Liberal MP Geoff Regan vowed to curtail heckling by naming individuals who made egregious and offensive statements to colleagues.
Inthe first 77 sitting days after Regan started tracking heckling, men were the only offenders, the vast majority of whom were white.
Thirty-two percent of MPs attacked by these men were women.
Men, and particularly white men, make up 70 per cent of Canada’s elected officials, women make up the 30 per cent — racialized women are a fraction of that, but you get the point.
Something in the culture of government fosters, protects, and ensures that Indigenous women, such as Mark, will never be welcome.
Unfortunately, Regan’s decision to call out men didn’t reduce heckling. In fact, it increased threefold during his attempts to “call offenders out.”
If punitive measures won’t work, maybe education will.
Would every member of provincial and federal governments undergo anti-racism training to help stop violence against women — and in particular racialized, gender-non-conforming, and Indigenous women?
Because, as it stands, Canada’s highest political offices are dominated by men — and white men at that — who use their privilege to threaten and bully those whose voices are needed most for diversity, equity, and reconciliation to be achieved.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.