British Columbia·Analysis

'Slap dat ho': Sexist attacks on Maple Ridge mayor not part of healthy debate

This spring, Maple Ridge, B.C., Mayor Nicole Read went into semi-hiding out of fear after a series of online threats. Some went right for her gender.

‘Something is obviously seething under the surface,’ Nicole Read says about hatred aimed at her

Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read says the level of vitriol shocked her, from people defacing her picture to ordering her back to her 'throne.' (Nicole Read/Facebook)

This spring, Mayor Nicole Read of Maple Ridge, B.C., went into semi-hiding out of fear.

Rattled by the personalized vitriol against her, she blamed a series of online attacks — calling her a "ho" — for temporarily driving her out of public life.

She's one of a string of female politicians who have reported attacks in Canada — slurs that focus on their gender instead of the issues — that some say are making women shy away from politics.

Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read appears with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in this 2016 posting on social media. Both are attacked online, but Trudeau has never been called 'dat ho.' (Nicole Read/Facebook)

At one point, Read was eating at a restaurant with her family when somebody started a post on Facebook where "haters" piled on urging people to "throw fries" at her, and, in one case, "slap dat ho."

"It's a real challenge," said Read, who was disturbed and concerned for her children. "You don't expect that the city you love and you live in — you don't expect to see this kind of hate. Something is obviously seething under the surface for some people."

Threats to Read came from a community embroiled in turmoil over her support for a homeless shelter where people are housed even if they continue using drugs.

But bombardments of online threats aimed at female leaders are all too common, an advocate says.

Female politicians a target

Read is part of a growing list of female politicians — from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to Alberta member of the legislature Sandra Jansen — who face bullying and harassment just for doing their job.

While ugly social media attacks also target male leaders — Vancouver's mayor was dubbed "Mayor Moonbeam" — abuse watchers say female leaders are hit with rhetoric focused on their gender.

'They're gonna have to when PMR (Protecting Maple Ridge) gets through with her LOL,' wrote one attacker online, suggesting she planned to drive Maple Ridge's mayor insane. This was one of dozens of insults and veiled threats against the mayor posted online. (Facebook)

Grace Lore of Equal Voice in Ottawa said a disproportionate number of threats take a "gender tone." Equal Voice describes itself as "a national, bilingual, multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office in Canada."

Lore called Read's case "extreme," because the mayor felt prevented from doing her duties.

"We don't see this very often," she said.

But others are less shocked.

Manitoba NDP member of the legislature Nahanni Fontaine faced everything from profanities to promises she'd "get it," if she kept speaking out about women facing violence.

A small group post a lot about their anger towards Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read urging voters to 'Get Read Out' because of her advocacy for homeless shelters in the city. (Facebook)

Fontaine sees the abuse as a logical outgrowth of a culture of misogyny.

"It doesn't surprise me. Women bear the brunt of people's anger," said Fontaine, who often feels singled out.

No shortage of anger

In Maple Ridge, a small vocal group is fixated on Read, saying she is ruining their city.

Mike Hayner of Protecting Maple Ridge is the person who posted "slap dat ho" on Facebook, while Read was dining with her family, and she called him out on the "horrible" comment.

Shelter residents set up a tent city called Anita's Place on city property on May 2 after turbulent debate over plans to build a low-barrier shelter in Maple Ridge turned some residents against Mayor Nicole Read. (Yvette Brend)

"I did say that, and I honestly apologize for it. My emotions had the better of me for a while," he wrote to the mayor, who demanded he cease emailing her.

Hayner insists Read's "glorious vision" for the city made her the focus of fury — not the fact she's female.

"We want her gone. She's the worst mayor Maple Ridge has ever had. If you don't agree with her, then you are called 'haters,'" said Hayner, who insists he'd never advocate violence.

"She's not the shiny white goddess she wants to promote herself as being."

Bring attacks into the open

Lore said most attackers insist their slurs are about issues, not gender, but the language they use tells another story.

She said it helps to bring such attacks into the open, making the exchange "become part of that public record of debate."

That's when anti-female slurs become a problem — not just for the individual politician — but also for a society forced to look itself in the mirror and define where healthy debate ends and a violent sexist attack begins.

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