Alberta's polarizing politics squeezing women out

After the only women in the Alberta Tory leadership race withdrew this week, some say the polarization of political debate is making it difficult for women to run for office.

'It is a well known fact that Sandra has for months been a lightning rod for angry alt-right a**holes'

Donna Kennedy-Glans (left) and Sandra Jansen withdrew from the PC leadership race this week. Kennedy-Glans says she was squeezed out of the political centre, while Jansen says she left due to harassment. (cbc)

At the PC policy convention in Red Deer last Saturday, a tentative looking Donna Kennedy-Glans approached a table of assembled reporters in the meeting hall.

She asked how could she make a statement to the media. It was apparent that something, or someone, was bothering her.

"Hey, everyone, Donna Kennedy-Glans has something to say," one reporter announced.

"Something is afoot," said Kennedy-Glans, who as an MLA and cabinet minister built a reputation as a thoughtful politician. "We need all of us to mobilize the centre. That is very, very important."

She was referring to the sudden appearance of busloads of new youth delegates who bought last-minute memberships, and voted in the election of a new youth president.

Kennedy-Glans was also upset that policy discussions and decisions were taking on a distinctly "social conservative" slant.

Through it all, she appeared unwavering in her goal of leading the PC party. She said she had the necessary 500 signatures and $50,000, and was positioned to file everything by the approaching deadline.

Women pull out of PC race

While Kennedy-Glans spoke with reporters, the only other female candidate, Calgary MLA Sandra Jansen, was reportedly being pursued down the hall by zealous volunteers, who harangued her over her progressive views on abortion and her support for safe places for gay and transgender youth in schools.

When, a few days later, Jansen cited harassment as the reason for pulling out of the race, her allegations went unrefuted.

Jansen did not name names in her statement, but the implication was the volunteers were from front-runner Jason Kenney's camp.

Caucus colleague and leadership candidate Richard Starke backed up Jensen's allegations, saying his wife saw what happened.

A Kenney volunteer, Warren Mitchell, also confirmed what happened.

He later wrote on his Facebook page: "She's not making s**t up in her statement to save face. That I have seen that accusation on display from Kenney's supporters and official campaign staff is disgusting. It is a well known fact that Sandra has for months been a lightning rod for angry alt-right a**holes."

Kenney's initial response was to issue a statement hinting the reason the two candidates withdrew was because they couldn't raise the money.

The next day, however, a second statement from Kenney took on a different tone, condemning "any disrespectful comments."

'It's the human thing to do'

"Neither I, nor any member of our campaign staff, has engaged in personal attacks against other candidates ... or for that matter the premier and members of government," Kenney wrote.

But the silence over her allegations from her caucus colleagues was also deafening.

Lana Cuthbertson says harassment on social media is discouraging women from entering politics. (LinkedIn)

Interim leader Ric McIver did not reach out to her and had little to say when asked why Jensen wasn't in the legislature the day after she pulled out.

Starke, the other sitting MLA running for the leadership, did call Jansen, saying "It's the human thing to do. She is a colleague I respect, and we're a team."

The party leadership committee has said it is investigating what happened.

But the events last weekend have cast a pall over efforts to encourage more women to seek political office.

"When you hear of another example of that coming out of a party convention, it's discouraging," said Lana Cuthbertson, chair of Equal Voice Northern Alberta, which encourages and supports women entering politics.

The ongoing abuse on social media and harassment makes it even more critical for groups like hers to support women who want to seek public office, she said.

Social media attacks

Cristina Stasia, a gender studies expert from the University of Alberta, said sexism is a problem in Alberta politics.

"We are aware of the continuous misogynistic attacks on social media and other formats, but there's nothing or very little being done to mitigate that, or intervene in that. And that's what needs to happen."

Political parties have little ability to moderate extreme views on social media, resulting in the polarization of opinions and parties, said Lori Williams, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. 

That was evident through the U.S. election campaign, she said, and is now being seen in the PC leadership race in Alberta.

"So, fiscal conservatism isn't enough," said Williams. "And the Progressive Conservative party as we've known it, as a big-tent party, capable of accommodating moderate voices on both the right and the left, seems to be evaporating."

In the hallways of the legislature, there were snickers from NDP political operatives who saw the withdrawal of the female candidates from the PC leadership race as a sign of trouble in the ranks of an opposing political party.

Premier Rachel Notley grasped the significance of the incidents during a news conference Wednesday, using it as another opportunity to showcase how her government has promoted gender equality.

"We need to continue to be very intentional about promoting and celebrating the role of women, not only in politics, but in key decision making positions throughout our society and throughout our community," she said.