If you are a woman, you are not listened to. It’s almost like you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re a woman, but that’s not what it says. In public, there is not a man who will say that, but the atmosphere is there, says the former mayor, who despite the challenges, misogynistic behavior and low blows has appreciated his experience in municipal politics.
Janice Savoie is not the only one who has to work in a toxic climate. Politicians are increasingly targeted by harassment, slurs, cyberbullying and threats.
Kedgwick Mayor Janice Savoie said she felt intimidated by male colleagues.
Photo: Radio-Canada / Janique LeBlanc
But for many women, especially those in positions of power, the attacks are daily, numerous and often virulent.
Former Liberal federal minister Catherine McKenna knows all about it.
It’s really hard to talk about bullying because there was a lot of it, on social media like Facebook and Twitter. There were even pictures that I was like a Barbie and we were crushing it, remembers McKenna.
For Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin, the attacks exploded in number and violence last spring after she expressed support for the Palestinians and quit the Green Party to join the federal Liberals.
The threats and insults that Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin has received on social media are sometimes very violent.
When I started as an MP, it wasn’t a big deal. When I made my shift, it was like a tsunami and now it’s continuous, says the Liberal MP for Fredericton. She even suffered threats after which the police had to be involved.
Women politicians: a prime target
Research shows that, in fact, it is mainly women politicians who are targeted, explains Professor Mireille Lalancette, referring to studies carried out in the United States. According to this specialist in political communication, the harassment of women politicians is different from that of their male colleagues.
Mireille Lalancette, political communication specialist, believes that women and people from cultural or sexual minorities are more often targeted by harassment when they are in politics.
The attacks on women politicians are going to be much more misogynistic. They will attack in particular the body, the beauty, the integrity and the legitimacy of women politicians. They will also be the object of threats to the integrity of the person.
There are many calls for rape, death, suicide of people who speak up. If the women have children, that’s going to be part of the threats. We are going to want to create fear because the threats are aimed at a power relationship, it is aimed at silencing.
Former minister Catherine McKenna suffered violent verbal attacks in addition to cyberbullying.
I was walking with my kids and a man stopped to yell at me […] Really that is a bit shocking. We always think: what can happen to my children, she says with a sorry air.
Incidents targeted his campaign office and the staff at his constituency office in Ottawa. The GRCRoyal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ottawa Police were involved due to incidents at his residence. When a vandal wrote on his desk, the English word en
C which she refuses to pronounce, the police ruled that it was a hate crime.
Employees of Catherine McKenna’s constituency office when she was an MP found the facade vandalized on October 24, 2019.
Photo : CBC/David Richard
Catherine McKenna is delighted that this type of crime against women politicians is finally recognized.
It’s not [hors de l’ordinaire], it happens to a lot of women in politics, also to other ministers, especially minority ministers and we now see with journalists, adds the one who left politics to devote herself exclusively to the fight against climate change.
According to Professor Mireille Lalancette, the more people speak in public space, the more they will be targeted by harassment and intimidation. The people most at risk are
usually women, people from ethnic minorities, cultural or sexual diversity, note the one that offers training and advice to counter harassment and bullying.
Women’s skills in doubt
People attacked my intelligence and my age, says Jenica Atwin, who is 34. She is outraged that she is regularly told that she is not ready for the job of deputy.
Jenica Atwin, Liberal MP for Fredericon.
Photo: Radio-Canada / Janique LeBlanc
For Janice Savoie, questioning her skills was devious. She felt that male colleagues were ignoring her interventions at the city council because she is a woman.
What’s worse is when you feel [qu’ils pensent] : “Just, shut up. We don’t have time, we don’t want to listen to you, you’re not here, you’re not important”. Critics are verbalized. That, you can talk about it, you can address them, but that, what do you do? You’re just a second class citizen, she notes.
According to Professor Lalancette, these attitudes are still prevalent because political circles are predominantly male.
We are used to seeing men in power, white, of a certain age and when it comes to a young woman […] this is where we can say: “Does she have the credibility and the skills to be there”, specifies Mireille Lalancette.
Ms. Savoie remembers a closed-door city council meeting where she was the only woman. After listening to others, she gave her opinion, but advisers soon told her she was wrong.
The mayor of Kedgwick, Janice Savoie, while she was the town hall of the municipality.
When the meeting was opened to the public, a city councilor echoed his words.
To my surprise, there is a gentleman who said the exact same thing that I had just said [à huis clos], word for word, then everyone around the table would say, “Yes, you are right.” Fifteen minutes before they said to me: “No, you’re off the mark”, indignant Janice Savoie.
The Effects of Bullying and Threats
Several women politicians approached preferred not to speak publicly about it, no doubt so as not to expose themselves further to harassment and perhaps also not to discourage other women from taking the plunge into politics. Those who have testified admit that the treatment they are undergoing or have undergone leaves traces.
It hits so hard, it comes looking for you.
A few months after leaving politics, Catherine McKenna realizes better the weight of the daily harassment that she suffered as federal minister.
Every day knowing that there are people who hated you on social media, me I them mutais, I was blocking them, but it’s something quite heavy, says the one who continues to denounce these acts loud and clear.
When it turns in a violent direction, with intimidation and threats, it’s just too much, says Jenica Atwin.
The young woman, mother of two boys, has tears in her eyes as she remembers her 9-year-old son’s comment last June.
Mom, I don’t like politics because it makes you cry. It’s a difficult memory for Jenica Atwin who wants her children to see her as a strong, happy and secure mother and politician.
Professor Mireille Lalancette specifies that by creating fear, attacks can encourage women politicians to be silent or to adopt
a much more beige, banal speech that will not lend itself to criticism.
Many are also closing their social media accounts.
Countering attacks and intimidation
Women politicians call for accountability of social media platforms to regulate the attacks and threats they disseminate with impunity. Jenica Atwin wants the government to legislate to eliminate hate speech.
She points out that the technology already exists to spot keywords to eliminate violent and hate messages before they are delivered to the recipient.
White supremacists and things like that, platforms need to get rid of that. It is clear, these are not nuances, obviously that they are hate speech! I want Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to take responsibility for attacking this problem because it is getting worse, states the Member of Parliament for Fredericton firmly.
In Europe, we are working on policies that force platforms to be accountable, underlines Mireille Lalancette who hopes that this type of measure will inspire our governments to act against cyberbullying. The professor of political communication also advocates the awareness of individuals and organizations on how to behave in social media and on the internet.
Despite everything, an extraordinary experience
Women politicians who have opened up about the harassment and intimidation they have experienced do not regret their years in politics. On the contrary, they are proud of it and strongly encourage other women to take the leap.
Former minister Catherine McKenna has been the target of intimidation and threats, but does not allow these events to hamper her time in politics.
Get started! This is something extraordinarycries enthusiastically Catherine McKenna.
We talk about harassment, but every day I didn’t think much about harassment. There were moments, sure it’s a pretty heavy weight when you talk about it, but politics is amazing and I think women have a lot to add to politics., she said with conviction.
Absoutely! We need to continue to fight against issues like that. We can’t be afraid because if we walk away, the people who are not nice and who make threats have won, launches with ardor Jenica Atwin.
Same story for the former mayor of Kedgwick who, despite the challenges, loved his seven years in municipal politics.
Absolutely, because success and the pride when you succeed is priceless! You are proud when you succeed then doubly because you are a woman, she concludes, her face beaming.