Female politicians changing Canadian political discourse, academics say

Renaud, the NDP MLA for St. Albert, asked Kenney to clarify whether he was “pro-choice or not,” while revealing she once underwent an abortion 20 years ago. Kenney is well-known for his anti-abortion views.

NDP MLA Marie Renaud challenged PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney on abortion stance

Marie Renaud called out Jason Kenney, asking for a clear answer on his position regarding abortion. (CBC)

Marie Renaud's challenge of PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney on abortion rights is being called an example of how more diverse legislatures are changing Canadian politics.

On Thursday, Renaud, the NDP MLA for St. Albert, asked Kenney to clarify whether he was "pro-choice or not," while revealing she once underwent an abortion 20 years ago. Kenney is well-known for his anti-abortion views. 

Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said Renaud's disclosure is the latest example of how an increase of female representatives is transforming political discourse.

"What you see is an MLA, who's a woman, speaking directly to a woman's issue in a way we've not seen before simply because women were not present in legislatures before as they are now," Thomas said.

When asked about Renaud's tweet in an interview with CBC News, Kenney said he supported the former federal Conservative government's decision not to pursue legislation on the matter. He said the NDP will continue to try and distract voters with "hot button issues."

But Thomas points out abortion regulations are set by the province so it's fair to ask him where he stands as Renaud has done. 

"It's women who go through those procedures, and so speaking about that experience is policy-relevant, in this particular context because it's the provincial government that determines when and how and where women can get abortions," she said.

Chilling story of rape, death threats 

Women make up nearly half the NDP MLAs elected to the Alberta legislature last year. Premier Rachel Notley made history by appointing the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history, a feat that was matched by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last October.

The NDP caucus also has Alberta's first three openly-gay MLAs.

The change in the make-up of the legislature has meant gender issues have had more prominence in the government's political agenda.

Last fall, Maria Fitzpatrick, the NDP MLA for Lethbridge East, brought the Alberta legislature to a standstill as she recounted how her late ex-husband beat, raped and threatened to kill her.

MLA Maria Fitzpatrick suffered broken bones, black eyes and two miscarriages due to abuse from her late husband. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC News )

Fitzpatrick's remarks came during debate on a bill introduced by another female MLA to allow domestic violence victims to break their leases without penalty.

Alberta cabinet ministers Shannon Phillips and Marg McCuaig-Boyd have spoken about the threats they've received online. Phillips has been the most consistent about retweeting inappropriate remarks directed at her and her colleagues on Twitter.

Several weeks ago, a tweet showing a picture of Rachel Notley being used as a target at a golf tournament, gained prominence after Phillips retweeted it through her account.

Political, personal risks 

Cristina Stasia, a gender studies scholar at the University of Alberta, said these politicians are standing up and demanding answers on issues affecting women like abortion, domestic violence and online threats.

"Politically, they're saying, these issues are important, we're not going to sweep them under the rug any more," she said. "We expect clear answers on the economy, we expect clear answers on reproductive rights."

However, Stasia adds this willingness to speak out can be risky for female politicians. 

"They're taking a personal risk in that there's the backlash, and often they receive threats for doing this," she said. "Then of course, there's the political risk. Instead of giving dodgy answers, like Kenney has given, they are clear about their stances and that can be politically risky."

Thomas from the U of C said she has never seen domestic violence discussed with such frankness in a legislature as it was in Alberta last fall.

Political scientists are noticing more female politicians are calling out sexualized and violent statements on social media and demanding a more appropriate tone in debate, she said. 

Thomas expects this will lead to more academic research on the phenomenon.

With files from Radio Active and the CBC's Arjuna Ranawana