'Lift her up': Alberta group campaigns for women in politics

Lift her up, don't lock her up — that's the message of a new campaign by the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters. The group is rallying support for women in politics, regardless of their policies.

'A democracy needs healthy dissent, absolutely, but it's about not bullying or personalising attacks'

Rachel Notley said the group that started the chant at the anti-carbon tax rally on Dec. 3 is likely an "extreme alt-right" group. (CBC)

Lift her up, don't lock her up — that's the message of a new campaign by the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters.

The group is rallying support for women in politics, regardless of their policies.

"A democracy needs healthy dissent, absolutely, but it's about not bullying or personalising attacks," said Jan Reimer, the council's executive director.

The Lift her Up campaign follows a political rally in Edmonton, where a crowd chanted, "Lock her up," about Premier Rachel Notley.

More than 1,000 people gathered in front of the Legislature Building on Dec. 3 to protest Alberta's impending carbon tax.

They began the chant during a speech by politician Chris Alexander, a federal Conservative leadership hopeful. 

Ralliers chanted 'lock her up' about Premier Rachel Notley during a speech by Chris Alexander at the Alberta legislature on Saturday. 0:39

Calling for Notley to be locked up because of her political views makes no sense, Reimer said. She hopes a counter-campaign will remind Albertans to focus on policies, rather than people.

"Speak to the issues," she said. "Put them front and center and let's have a healthy debate about them."

Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, said the focus should be on policies, not people. (CBC)

Even though the language of the chant isn't blatantly sexist, Reimer said the suggestion that women aren't wanted in politics is.

"We need to really recognize this for what it is and put an end to it," she said. "If you just stand by and say nothing then these kinds of things can grow." 

Sexism on Alberta's political stage is already a challenge, Reimer added. 

She cited a 2015 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which pegged Edmonton and Calgary as two of the worst places for women in Canada.

Of 25 cities included in the study, Calgary placed second-to-last in the leadership category. About 35 per cent of elected officials in Calgary are women, compared to 31 per cent in Edmonton.

In Victoria, the overall top-ranked city for women, female politicians hold nearly half of elected positions.

'Vile misogyny' 

Initiatives like the Lift her Up campaign can shift these statistics, said Lise Gotell, a professor of women's and gender studies at the University of Alberta.

"The vile misogyny that has been directed at women in this province, I think, has been really unparalleled in Canada," she said.

Disagreement can be lively, it can be fierce, it can be harsh, but it shouldn't be personal.- Lise Gotell, University of Alberta professor

Reinforcing that female politicians are supported and encouraged can change that narrative, Gotell said, adding that attacks such as the "lock her up" chant do the opposite.

"Disagreement can be lively, it can be fierce, it can be harsh, but it shouldn't be personal," Gotell said.

"When it is targeted at women, as a gender, it's sending a message to women that they don't belong in positions of political power and that's problematic."

'It doubles down on your resolve pretty quickly"

In 2015, Notley appointed the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history. 

That hasn't been enough to stop the sexist and threatening messages to Alberta's female politicians, MLA Karen McPherson said.  

Last October, for instance, McPherson reported a Facebook post that suggested Notley should be assassinated. 

But the sexism can also be subtle, McPherson added, like when people ask if she's a secretary in the Legislature Building. 

"They just kind of all blur together, I try not to pay too much attention to them," she said about sexist tweets, emails, and Facebook messages.

Rather than becoming discouraged, McPherson said the backlash feeds her determination to represent women in Alberta.

"Just talking with women who aren't in politics and just hearing how important it is to them to have women represent them, it doubles down on your resolve pretty quickly," she said.