Edmonton

Brian Jean comment reflects Alberta's wider sexism problem, women's advocates say

The glass ceiling in Alberta has cracked, but the constant stream of violent rhetoric aimed at political leaders breaking through worries women’s rights advocates, who say it’s indicative of the broader sexist culture that exists in the province.

'The more you say, 'Oh, it was just a joke,' the more normalized it becomes'

Edmonton YWCA CEO Jackie Foord, left, and University of Alberta gender studies scholar Cristina Stasia say Wildrose MLA Brian Jean's comment about Premier Rachel Notly reflect a wider problem with sexism in the province. (CBC)

The glass ceiling in Alberta has cracked, but the constant stream of violent rhetoric aimed at political leaders breaking through worries women's rights advocates, who say it's indicative of the broader sexist culture that exists in the province.

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean ignited a firestorm Tuesday when he told an audience "it's against the law to beat Rachel Notley."

The opposition MLA quickly apologized for his remark about the premier, which he made at a town-hall meeting in his hometown of Fort McMurray, while responding to questions about seniors housing.

Jean later called his comment an "inappropriate attempt at humour."

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who said his comment that "it's against the law to beat Rachel Notley" was an "inappropriate attempt at humour." (CBC)

To Jackie Foord, the chief executive of the Edmonton YWCA, it was much more than that.

The more you talk about it and the more you say, 'Oh, it was just a joke,' the more normalized it becomes.- Jackie Foord

"We have a problem, and references like, 'We can't beat the premier,' aren't helping the situation," Foord said. "The more you talk about it and the more you say, 'Oh, it was just a joke,' the more normalized it becomes."

University of Alberta gender studies scholar Cristina Stasia agrees.

"Brian Jean is a symptom of a larger problem," she said. "And we need to begin to actively address this culture."

Violent references aimed at women

Since her NDP government was elected in May 2015, Notley and women in her caucus have faced violent threats. In December 2015, a string of social media posts prompted condemnation from the man at the centre of the latest controversy.

Female members of Notley's cabinet have also been subject to online hate, with some advocating physical violence.

"Those violent references aren't being targeted toward men, and I don't think anyone can say that's just a coincidence," Foord said. "They're targeted towards women because women have traditionally been the victims of violence."

The Edmonton YWCA say EPS responded to approximately 8,512 domestic violence calls in 2015, up from 7,849 in 2014.

The sexist commentary is not unique to Notley. When Premier Alison Redford led the Progressive Conservatives, she also encountered it.

But Stasia said it seems to have gotten worse since the NDP came to power. Redford was leader of a party that had been in power for more than 40 years.

"There was a certain security in that, that she was already part of the flock," Stasia said of the former PC premier. "It's not just that we have a female premier, it's that we have a female premier that's now telling us stuff we haven't heard before in this province."

History of male-dominance in the workforce

Stasia and Foord don't think the problem is confined to politics. Foord said there are conditions in Alberta that fuel a wider problem.

It's not just that we have a female premier, it's that we have a female premier that's now telling us stuff we haven't heard before in this province.- Cristina Stasia

"The money in this province has traditionally been held, the highest paying jobs, have always been held by men, because they are trades, they are oil and gas sector based," Foord said. "That's changing, but it has given a sense of entitlement to men that doesn't necessarily happen in other places."

A study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives ranked Edmonton and Calgary as two of the worst cities in the country for women. Of the 25 urban centres indexed, Alberta's two major cities came in 23rd and 24th. The standings take into consideration education levels, the wage gap, the rates of sexual assault, and representation in political offices.

Addressing the problem

Notley's office issued a statement Wednesday saying the premier accepts Jean's apology.

Stasia said the way Notley has handled the situation, and numerous others she has faced before, is admirable.

"I think her accepting the apology and moving on with getting the work of the province done is the right call here," Stasia said.

The record number of women in the Alberta legislature has shattered the glass ceiling and helped raise awareness about the issues women face, both in public office and their everyday lives.

"We elect politicians of every stripe to hold a standard and to set the standard on what our province should be like," Foord said. "The vision for our province should come from our elected politicians. This isn't a vision that any of us voted for. It doesn't matter who you voted for. This is not the province that we wanted created."

Notley and her government can't change the province by themselves, Stasia said.

"This is something we all have a stake in."

Education has to start in schools, but Stasia said has hope in the next generation, given that students in her classrooms want to combat sexism.

"This is not the Alberta they want to create," Stasia said. "They want to create a more equal culture."

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell

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