Big city mayors discuss barriers women face getting into politics

"Politics is a tough gig in general," but women in politics are also often on the receiving end of all sorts of "vitriol and hate" specifically because of their gender, Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu says.

'Vitriol and hate' women in politics face act as deterrent to future generations, minister says

Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 2. (Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

"Politics is a tough gig in general," but women in politics are also often on the receiving end of all sorts of "vitriol and hate" specifically because of their gender, Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu says.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities met in Winnipeg this week, and on Friday afternoon a panel of politicians is expected to discuss the barriers women face getting into politics.

Hajdu will be at the event.

The MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North said one of the most difficult parts of being a politician came early on. Male rival candidates in her riding weren't thrilled when she won, Hajdu said.

"I was the first Liberal candidate in my riding to run and the first woman to win that riding," she said. "At the beginning I faced a lot of pushback and it was very uncomfortable."

Hajdu has also been the subject of hateful commentary online and voiced concerns following #Elbowgate, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau aggressively strode across the aisle in The House of Commons and elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the process.

Trudeau "apologized unreservedly" for the collision, which happened as he was trying to free Opposition Whip Gord Brown from a crowd of MPs and take him to his seat.

The dust-up rattled Brosseau, so she left the Commons. That response elicited a torrent of tweets online accusing her of over-reacting to the situation.

'Hate and vitriol'

"The hate and vitriol that she got after that incident was just unacceptable," Hajdu said.

And Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was attacked online when she commented that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, Hajdu said.

"She innocently enough tweeted out a fact … and had a link to studies that people could read," Hajdu said. "She received a tonne of hatred and blowback. It is, especially cyberspace, a very vile place to be for a woman in politics."

Hajdu said those incidents were discouraging to her personally and could act as deterrents to other women considering a life in politics. While Canada is making strides toward gender equality in some areas, there is still a lot of room for improvement in the political arena, Hajdu said.

Discouraged from entering politics

"To face that kind of vitriol and in some cases outright threats in the social media sphere, it's very discouraging but it's also a real deterrent for many women who might be interested in any kind of public realm of service."

As the minister representing women, Hajdu hopes to change that.

Right now, members of Parliament must sign a code of conduct that addresses harassment in the workplace. Hajdu said she is currently working with the House Leader Dominic Leblanc to modernize workplace conduct and harassment policies in Canada to make women feel safer and more encouraged to pursue a life in politics.

"Part of it is about setting a tone and climate, but part of it is actually having a structure that is strong, that will actually support people regardless of the party they are in," she said.

"I think when you add women, you actually do change politics significantly," she said. "I think it's really much stronger when you have women at the table. They have the lived experience of being a woman. Just like anything else, I think policy is strengthened when you have stakeholders that represent those perspectives at the table."