Arezoo Najibzadeh is the Founder and Managing Director of Platform, a civic leadership organization for Black, Indigenous, and racialized women and gender-diverse youth.
Improving engagement and representation for diverse women in Canadian politics first requires creating safe and inclusive working spaces for elected officials, staffers and volunteers. But with politicians accused of sexual misconduct nonetheless taking or maintaining political power, Canada’s civic institutions have failed time and time again to provide that.
We see that at the municipal level, for example, with Ottawa City Councillor Rick Chiarelli, who committed “incomprehensible incidents of harassment” against staff according to an integrity commissioner report. He denied the allegations. More recently at the federal level, Kevin Vuong was newly elected as MP for Spadina-Fort York in Toronto despite a sexual assault charge, which was later dropped, coming to light during the campaign.
Because of the Liberal Party’s weak vetting processes, Mr. Vuong was able to become a candidate in the first place. But it goes beyond a single party: even as he was dropped as a Liberal candidate late campaign, he was still able to stand and win as an independent candidate. Despite the protest of many Liberal Spadina-Fort York voters at a confusing and undesired outcome, Mr. Vuong personally chose not to resign and there was no electoral procedure in place to hold him to account.
And this doesn’t just mean that such an MP will get to represent thousands of women and sexual violence survivors who may have cast a completely different ballot had they been aware of the dropped sexual assault charge. It means that staffers and elected officials alike, many of whom may be survivors, will continue to be put in situations where they have to work with this individual, significantly affecting their ability to perform and lead. The example of Mr. Vuong, alongside Mr. Chiarelli and others, points to a systemic failure that can lead to young women losing faith in Canadian politics.
Unfortunately, this broader problem is no surprise to us at Platform. In 2018, Platform’s – then called Young Women’s Leadership Network – research, which interviewed youth affected by sexual violence, found that 80 per cent of respondents either left or significantly decreased direct engagement with political institutions. Rape, cyber-violence, gaslighting and verbal harassment all occur in Canadian politics, and drive away brilliant minds. Diverse women in politics experience rape culture at every step of their careers, normalizing it as a part of the job that they simply have to put up with.
Aside from the trauma of such experiences, rape culture demands that young women stay silent in the name of party loyalty or being a “team player,” making it difficult for them to report even when policies and procedures are there. Rape culture tells survivors in politics that the party’s electoral chances and a man’s career are more important than their own well-being, potential and career.
So how do we protect women and survivors in politics? Our civic institutions, including political parties and Parliament Hill, desperately need independent, trauma-informed and survivor-centred resources and reporting mechanisms based on transformative, intersectional frameworks and input from survivors. We need sexual violence support policies that understand the failures and shortcomings of the legal justice system and the fact that sexual violence is among the crimes least likely to be reported. We need survivors to continue to be engaged and hold onto their jobs while they seek healing.
We need to recognize that numerical representation isn’t enough; we don’t just need to elect more women to office or get more young women on the convention floor. We need bold voices that are actually empowered and supported in calling out intersecting systems of oppression that otherwise tokenize women and dispose of them when they demand better from their colleagues and workplaces.
We also need our electoral system to prioritize accountability, so that there are no more cases like that of Mr. Vuong’s. Women and survivors should be able to trust our democratic process. For that, our political culture should signal to future perpetrators that they are not welcome in our civic spaces. We need policies and procedures, including the Canada Elections Act, that prioritize integrity and truth – preventing questionable candidates from remaining on the ballot or carrying a party’s name even after their campaigns have been paused.
The time to hashtag #MeToo or to make half-hearted solidarity statements is over. We need to address rape culture and the systems in place that push women and survivors away. That’s how we can build civic spaces that not only welcome women in politics but enable them thrive and lead.
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