B.C.’s female politicians face down misogynistic, hateful bullies
Jenny Kwan, Hedy Fry, Elizabeth May, Christine Boyle, and Melissa De Genova share their thoughts and experiences in advance of International Women’s Day
One of the eeriest videos shown during Donald Trump’s recent impeachment trial concerned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Rioters are seen wandering the halls of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, with one saying, “Where are you, Nancy? We’re looking for you.”
“Nancy, oh Nancy?” the man repeats. “Nancy, where are you Nancy?”
These images left no doubt in the minds of many that this misogynistic mob intended to cause Pelosi grievous harm—perhaps even assassination.
It’s easy for Canadians to think that this isn’t something to worry about on our side of the border.
After all, the last politician to be murdered in Canada was more than 50 years ago, when Quebec deputy premier Pierre Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of a car. The vehicle belonged to Front de libération du Québec kidnapper Paul Rose.
But in advance of International Women’s Day on Monday (March 8), several B.C. female politicians revealed to the Straight that they are routinely targeted with misogynistic abuse. Some face vicious racism and threats that could easily be deemed criminal in nature.
This doesn’t only occur online over social-media platforms.
For example, Vancouver East NDP MP Jenny Kwan recalled when a man burst into her constituency office while she was the MLA for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant. According to Kwan, he was making violent racist and sexist threats against her.
“I immediately came out of my office to see what was going on,” the veteran politician told the Straight by phone. “I had to place myself between the individual and my staff, who were quite shaken up.”
Kwan then warned the man that if he didn’t leave, she would dial 9-1-1. He still carried on, departing only when she actually called police.
On another occasion, someone who was upset with her threw feces onto her family’s property. Then there are the racist and misogynist threats that come into her office. From time to time, a message comes in that’s so disgusting that her staff don’t want to show it to her.
“It’s so hurtful, it’s so vile, it’s belligerent, it’s so violently grotesque that they want to shield it from me,” Kwan said. “And I said to them, ‘You must show me all that information because I must know what the risk is—what the situation is.’ ”
That’s because as an employer, Kwan feels she must do everything she can to keep her office workers out of harm’s way.
Gender-based hatred affects politicians in many countries
Kwan’s experience is far from unique. A 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union study of 42 national parliaments indicated that “sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians are very real and widespread”. Nineteen of those parliaments were in Europe, four in the Americas, nine in Africa, nine in the Asia-Pacific region, and one in an Arab country.
More than four in five women parliamentarians—81.8 percent—said they’ve been personally subjected to one or more acts of psychological violence.
More than one in five—21.8 percent—said they’ve been personally subjected to one or more acts of sexual violence. And 25.5 percent have been subjected to one or more acts of physical violence.
“Among the respondents [subjected to psychological violence], 65.5 per cent said they had been subjected several times, or often, to humiliating sexist remarks during their parliamentary term,” the study stated.
Dr. Hedy Fry, the longtime Liberal MP in Vancouver Centre, is the gender representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. She recently gave notice to the 57-nation organization that her report this summer will focus on the dangers faced by female politicians and female journalists in the OSCE member states.
“One of the things I am calling for is for male parliamentarians to speak out,” Fry told the Straight by phone.
She added that some female politicians don’t want to acknowledge that they’re being harassed, abused, and threatened because they think it will make matters worse. According to Fry, others worry that it will make it sound like they’re weak and they’re complaining.
Fry, however, pointed out that several female politicians have been murdered in Latin America. In addition, Labour MP Jo Cox was assassinated by a neo-Nazi in the U.K. in 2016 and former Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords was seriously wounded by a gunman in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011. And Fry’s caucus colleague, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Catherine McKenna, had vulgar messages spray-painted on her riding office.
“This is not a joke,” Fry said of the threats and violence directed against female politicians. “It’s not only done by people on social media.”
Fry recalled that back in the 1990s, she used to have RCMP walk with her in the Vancouver Pride Parade because of all the intimidating messages directed at her. In 2019, her campaign office was defaced with racist graffiti.
“I have had a tendency to say, ‘You cannot scare me or threaten me because if I show weakness, it means that you think you’ve got me and you’ve got me on the run,’ ” the Liberal MP said. “We’re going to lift our voices and stop this from happening. It really is a move to silence women.”
Misogyny directed against councillors, too
Kwan emphasized that this problem affects women at all levels of elected office.
That was reinforced by OneCity Vancouver councillor Christine Boyle, who told the Straight that she receives a “fair amount of aggressive correspondence online”. She added that some of it is explicitly misogynistic and some of it isn’t.
“I’m sure I miss well-intentioned questions because there are times when I just can’t read through all of the ill-intentioned messages to make sure I catch the well-intentioned ones,” she said. “And I regret that.”
During her first political campaign, in 2018, Boyle found the abusive messages “pretty challenging”. Since then, she feels she has gotten better at dealing with them. One of her techniques is to minimize exposure to social media at night.
Boyle also thinks it’s important for female politicians to speak up for one another as part of a “systemic response” when one is being attacked online. That occurred last year when several local female politicians voiced their support for Port Coquitlam councillor Laura Dupont when she was fighting a motion to censure her.
“I have huge respect for women like Jenny Kwan who are consistently brave and vocal on important and difficult issues despite the kinds of pushback that they may get,” Boyle said. “And I don’t know what that takes to last that long in the work.”
Another politician who thinks female politicians need to act collectively to counter misogynistic abuse is NPA Vancouver councillor Melissa De Genova.
In a phone interview with the Straight, De Genova described several ways in which people have harassed her and her family, both online and in person. Because her husband is a Vancouver police officer, De Genova has been swarmed on social media with hateful messages by some who want to defund the VPD.
“You are trash and your husband needs to quit his job,” one social-media user said. “Nobody likes your white supremacist ass. Kill yourself.”
De Genova said that it’s imperative for everyone—and not just women—to take a stand against this type of abuse.
“If we don’t, my concern is we actually will see lower representation in the future of women—not just on Vancouver city council but at all levels of elected government.”
Kwan echoed the importance of showing solidarity, emphasizing the importance of forming “a wall against this kind of hate”.
“So when I see this happening to other colleagues and so on—and when they stand up to it—I feel a sense of sisterhood,” Kwan said. “And a sense of pride.”
Women targeted in different ways
But that’s not the worst of De Genova’s experiences. She also endured an attempt to humiliate her in person following concerns that she expressed about unlicensed cannabis shops opening in the city.
“After meeting another councillor for coffee, I returned to my car and was planning to head off to an event when I was intimidated by three men—and one of these men exposed themself to me,” De Genova revealed. “The VPD confirmed that they believed that to be a targeted incident and they thought it was possibly meant to scare me.”
She added that this type of tactic would likely never be directed against a male politician.
“I think that women are targeted in a different way than men,” De Genova said.
Yet another politician who has faced more than her share of online abuse is Elizabeth May, former leader of the Green Party of Canada. Because she refuses to block people on Twitter, she has been exposed to torrents of hateful messages, including death threats.
“They want to rape you and throw you in a ditch and hope you’re dead,” May told the Straight by phone.
Even her husband, who has run for political office, has been shocked by what social-media users have written to her.
But she said that when she contacted Twitter about threats in the past, the company was not very responsive. According to May, Twitter suggested that just because someone wishes her dead does not necessarily mean that it’s a “death threat”.
May is convinced that many of the anonymous accounts that spew vitriol at her are fake. And in some cases, she believes that they may have been created by people with vested interests as a means to intimidate her. That’s because different anonymous accounts sometimes use the same pat phrases over and over again.
“One of their favourites is ‘crazy as a soup sandwich’,” she said.
Social media can be tamed
May believes that the federal government could easily shut down much of the misogynistic and hateful social-media trolling.
According to her, this could be accomplished by simply declaring through legislation that Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other such platforms are “publishers”. That way, they would be legally liable for defamatory content.
“These guys need to be regulated—really regulated,” May said.
For her part, Kwan would like to see regulations to make social-media giants accountable for removing hateful and violent extremist content from their platforms.
“They can also take measures to ensure whoever signs up on their social-media platforms are not people who can hide behind anonymity,” Kwan added.
One thing that all the politicians interviewed agree on is that the social-media environment must not dissuade younger women from running for office.
Fry emphasized that the best decision-making occurs when men and women are both involved because they each bring different lived experiences and there are physiological differences in their brains.
“We see the world differently,” the Liberal MP said. “We look at a problem and we see different aspects of that problem. If we came together, we have a 360-degree view.”
De Genova said her husband said that their daughter will have more opportunities if she continues to fight against the targeted bullying that she has endured.
For Kwan, it’s really about not giving in to those who seek to intimidate her or her staff.
“They want to silence us,” Kwan said. “They want to make us disappear. They want to make us not to have that equal status to run for office, to sit as a city councillor, as an MLA, as an MP, and so on. So there’s a big part of me that says we must not let them win.”
Kwan advises women who might want to enter politics that it can be difficult, but they shouldn’t let negative messages steer them away.
“Know that you’re not alone when this happens and know that there are many many people who will stand with you and who will fight with you to ensure that all of our voices…are honoured.”