Nova Scotia

Hurdles unique to women likely await prospective N.S. Liberal leadership candidates

If a woman wins the leadership race for the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, they will become Nova Scotia's first female premier. But getting to that point includes a series of hurdles, many that exist only because of their gender.

Online abuse, fundraising disadvantages just a few of the challenges

Former Community Services minister Joanne Bernard, left, and Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab are both considering runs for the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

When the Nova Scotia Liberal Party's leadership race officially kicks off, it almost certainly will include at least two women.

Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab and former Community Services minister Joanne Bernard both confirmed to CBC News on Tuesday that they are considering leadership bids following the announcement last week from Premier Stephen McNeil that he intends to step down and not reoffer in the next election.

A win for either woman would make them Nova Scotia's first female premier.

But getting to that point includes a series of hurdles, many that exist only because of their gender. It's an issue they and other past and present politicians say needs to be confronted more aggressively, in a variety of ways.

Metlege Diab, a lawyer who was first elected in 2013 and was the province's first female attorney general, said she's confronted challenges as a woman in politics, law and business, as well as culturally, dating back to the early years of her life in Lebanon.

'They don't think a woman is up for it'

"I speak directly, matter-of-factly — I am not a flowery speaker," she said. "That, my sense, is what people like in politics. The message I get from men, sometimes women, throughout my life is that they want a fighter, that they don't think a woman is up for it, or that a woman can't do it."

One of the reasons she got into politics was to show her children and grandchildren that there is a different way to fight, she said. By her own admission, Metlege Diab is not combative or bullish, preferring instead approaches based in mediation and conciliation.

"I believe there's a different way to get things done and to support your team and I believe women are quite good at finding that way," she said.

Bernard, currently the president and CEO of Easter Seals Nova Scotia, was elected in 2013 and served one term, during which she was Community Services minister, before being defeated in the 2017 election.

There were times as minister that Bernard clashed with advocacy groups, opposition MLAs and members of the public over the government's approach to transforming social services in the province.

'Those [subjects] were always off limits'

She was willing to debate policy. But Bernard, the province's first openly gay MLA, was also subjected to some of the harshest and most personal online criticism of anyone at the legislature, little if any of it having to do with policy.

"When it comes to personal attacks on my gender, my looks, my sexuality, to me those were always off limits and not up for discussion," she said.

It went well beyond what she ever could have expected when she entered politics and certainly wasn't something she was prepared to tolerate, said Bernard. Now that she's considering another run at public office, Bernard said her eyes are open wider, but no one should suggest she's coming back with thicker skin.

"In my experience, saying that to a woman who is faced with abuse is like telling her — it's normalizing violence against women and I absolutely will not put up with that," she said.

Changing the structure of society will take more than a female premier in Nova Scotia, "but it's a hell of a start," said Bernard.

PC MLA Karla MacFarlane says supporting women in politics extends beyond party lines. (CBC)

Karla MacFarlane knows about overcoming doubters and challenges.

For five years, the Pictou West MLA had been approached about running for office before she finally decided to do it.

She remembers well when she was on the verge of agreeing, finally, in 2013 to run for the Progressive Conservatives, getting a visit at her business from a longtime party supporter who came to tell her she was "a fine young lady," but there was no place for women in politics.

"I was just like, 'Oh, just watch me,'" she said.

A year after her first election win, that same man returned with flowers and an apology.

"He said, 'You're doing a great job. I'm so sorry I underestimated you.'"

Progress not happening fast enough

There are different levels of resistance women can face, running from outright hostility to unintended ignorance, said MacFarlane, who served as her party's interim leader for much of 2018 after Jamie Baillie was forced to step down amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour

There has also been progress, but there needs to be more, said MacFarlane. It's why she is one of several female politicians in Nova Scotia who push hard to present an example and make themselves available to other women considering a political run.

"If they don't see themselves there, then they're going to think that they can never do it, they can never be there," she said.

"We're making progress, we're just not making it fast enough."

Megan Leslie has also made a point of offering support and guidance to prospective candidates. The former New Democrat MP for Halifax, now the president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada, noted that in all her time offering such counsel, she's never been approached by a man who wondered if he was capable of doing the job.

Former Halifax MP Megan Leslie says the challenges women face in politics are well documented. If people want to do something about it, she says, they need to become active. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

For Leslie, that leads to a conversation she believes needs to happen about the way boys and girls are raised and why boys seem more often to be raised with an inherent belief that they can take on all challenges.

Politically, women face far more difficulty raising money than men do, and then there are the darkest corners of the internet that seem to show themselves most often to women, as Bernard discovered, said Leslie.

"In particular that thread of sexual violence in those communications, that thread of misogyny in those communications, that's real for women," she said.

Leslie pointed to the situation of federal Infrastructure and Communities Minister Catherine McKenna, who has been subjected to intense vitriol and misogyny throughout her political career. Police in Ottawa recently opened a hate crime investigation related to an incident that happened outside her office.

A need for action

Although there are men who face abuse in politics, the tone and intensity women face tends to be worse, said Leslie. This is where men need to be true allies, she said. That includes standing up for people when they're being unfairly attacked and also finding and supporting women who would make strong candidates.

"That means putting money into her campaign, that means knocking on doors; that doesn't mean sitting in your house and tweeting out, 'Oh, golly gee, wouldn't it be great if there was a female premier,'" said Leslie.

"If you want a female premier, then you've got to step up and do the work and you've got to make it happen."

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan says she's happy with her job in Ottawa and will not seek the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

One prominent Nova Scotia female politician not seeking the job is federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan.

In an emailed statement, the MP for South Shore-St. Margarets said she looks forward to working with whoever is the next premier of Nova Scotia, but she still has plenty of work to do in Ottawa.

"My job as MP and minister is the greatest honour of my professional life, and I would not trade it for anything," she said.

CBC News also contacted the heads of Nova Scotia Business Inc., the Cape Breton Partnership, Events East Group, Develop Nova Scotia, Credit Union Atlantic and the Halifax Partnership, all of whom are women. None are planning to seek the nomination.

A springboard for others

Community Services Minister Kelly Regan said last week she has yet to give serious consideration to a leadership bid, a position she reaffirmed on Tuesday.

For her part, MacFarlane said the issue transcends partisanship, and she's happy to lend an ear to any woman considering a run.

"We all, all females, regardless of political stripe, have to be that springboard that allows other females to become involved."

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With files from Jean Laroche

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