Stop talking, start fixing: Alberta's women in politics say it's time to do something about harassment

MLAs, staffers and experts say the abuse directed at female politicians has been unbearable for years but the pandemic has just made it more visible. They say it’s time to stop offering condolences and take action to stop it.

Warning: This story contains offensive language

Shannon Phillips, seen here in a file photo, is the finance critic for the NDP. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Warning: This story contains offensive language.

"Trash." "Incompetent blonde whore." "Rat." "Baby girl." "Token coloured female." "Cold hearted bitch." "Petro hooker."

That's just a small selection of the insults hurled at women who work as government MLAs and staff in Alberta on a daily basis. Some are from anonymous accounts on social media. Sometimes there are threatening voicemails left on office answering machines.

Sometimes there are emails like the one sent to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange:

"I hope you choke on your breakfast and everyone present there simply watches the life leave your body."

MLAs, staffers and experts say the abuse directed at female politicians has been unbearable for years but the pandemic has just made it more visible. They say it's time to stop offering condolences and take action to stop it.

"It just blows my mind sometimes how dichotomous things have gotten," UCP MLA Michaela Glasgo said. "We've gone from talking about policy to attacking people."

Adriana LaGrange, minister of education, is among many women in politics in Alberta who face harassment on a regular basis. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Her NDP colleague across the aisle, Shannon Phillips, says she's exhausted by the topic. "We've been having this same conversation for years."

Regardless of age, ethnicity or political stripe, female politicians in Alberta are facing harassment and abuse on a daily basis — large amounts of it on social media.

"Online interaction has taken away some of the human aspect of politicians and politics," Glasgo said.

The comments online are severe. Someone recently told Leela Aheer, minister for the status of women, she needed to be slapped in the face, while another wished she would be dropped in a river wearing cement shoes.

The invention of social media makes abuse easier to dole out, but one researcher says it didn't create the phenomenon.

"What I think is the driving force that really amplifies this is polarized partisanship," said Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.

"But it's the sexism and misogyny that makes the attacks that are directed at women particularly violent."

Thomas says there isn't much accurate data in Canada on how severe the problem is because many women don't report what they endure.

A study from the Inter-Parliamentary Union done in several countries around the world found that 82 per cent of women in politics reported being harassed.

Leela Sharon Aheer is Alberta's minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women.  (Richard Marion/CBC)

It also noted that most places don't have clear procedures for how politicians should report threats or abuse.

Phillips says there needs to be a toolkit in place where politically active women can go for information, advice or help.

"How do elected officials or their staff understand what is coming from bot activity or fake accounts and what's real? What is the roadmap when we get threats? What are the steps for action? That has never been clear to me in the Alberta context at all," she said.

'I've become … desensitized'

Research done in Canada and the United States shows that witnessing abuse discourages other women from running for office.

"I've become a little bit desensitized," NDP MLA Janis Irwin said.

"I think it sends a really, really unfortunate message to the young women who are considering getting involved in politics."

It's not only the elected officials receiving hateful comments or threats.

Staff to ministers and MLAs often fall in the crosshairs.

Several examples provided to CBC News show they are called parrots or puppets of their male colleagues and told they are incapable of thinking for themselves.

One staff member was told she looked like she had an eating disorder. Another had her images used by a stranger to impersonate her on a dating app. Another shut down her social media after anonymous accounts tracked her flight while on a vacation.

Thomas says staff becoming targets is a signal that political rhetoric is getting too heated.

"Every political elite, party leader, high profile politician, they have a democratic and moral responsibility to do their best to diffuse polarized partisanship," she said.

"There is no political party that can say that they're immune or better on this."

Thomas suggests law enforcement investigate more of these incidents and that voters can reward or punish parties' behaviour at the ballot box.

Glasgo says governments need to support the women elected to their chambers to set an example to the public. She also says it's important to debate policy without making disagreements personal.

Irwin wants better support networks for women, while Phillips says police, social media companies and governments all need to take responsibility when abuse is hurled at female politicians.

Janis Irwin, seen in this file photo, is the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Each of the women say they'd be happy to never talk about the subject again.

When asked about what she would say to young women interested in politics, Glasgo paused and sighed deeply before answering.

"Just know that you are capable and there's many women around you that are willing to support you, and if you want to run, the best thing that you can do is just hold the chair at the table, take your seat and get to work."