Nova Scotia community services minister Joanne Bernard is joining female politicians speaking out against verbal abuse. And the province is taking it one step further by tabling new anti-cyberbullying legislation next year.
Female politicians across the country are standing in unison against a kind of bullying that attacks the core of who they are.
When Bernard first entered politics three years ago she was shocked to receive death threats, homophobic slurs and body shaming comments. Now, nothing surprises her.
“You get to a point where it becomes part of your norm,” she said Monday.
It may have lost its shock value, but that doesn’t mean she deserves to see these comments regularly. That’s why she, along with other prominent female politicians, are opening up about their own struggles with bullying.
Sandra Jensen, MLA for Calgary-North West, got the conversation started when she stood in the legislature last month to read some of the cyber abuse she has been subjected to.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley opened up about being threatened and harassed online since taking office in May 2015.
And just last week, Newfoundland and Labrador finance minister Cathy Bennett said she has faced body shaming, death threats and even suggestions that she kill herself.
“I think when we speak, we are authentic in our experiences and very supportive of each other,” said Bernard.
She isn’t the only Nova Scotia MLA sharing her experiences of abuse. Karla MacFarlane, Tory MLA for Pictou West, and Lenore Zann, NDP MLA for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River, have also taken a stand.
“For women in this province the political becomes very personal, very quickly,” said Bernard, also the minister for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
“And for some reason, female politicians are subject to more comments about their appearance . . . it just seems to be more apparent, and certainly more vicious, when it comes to female politicians.”
She said mysogyny is prevalent and female politicians are viewed as stealing a role that once belonged to white males. For example in the 2016 U.S. election, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was subjected to insults from voters and politicians, the most talked-about coming from opponent Donald Trump, who called her “such a nasty woman” in a debate. Women around the world have taken those words, meant as an insult, and turned them into a rallying cry for equal rights.
And insults like these aren’t necessarily hurled because a woman makes a policy decision that residents don’t like. About a month ago, Bernard said, she was at a new restaurant in Dartmouth North, where she was invited to promote the business. Her promotion was instantly followed by a litany of fat-shaming comments on Twitter.
“That’s not a policy decision. That’s celebrating the success of a new business in my riding. That’s how personal it gets,” she said.
These comments are not just reserved for politicians.
“Women in any leadership role often find themselves subjected to ridicule and insults and demeaning comments about their abilities linked to their gender,” she said.
The most popular way to hurl these comments is from behind a computer screen.
A new report from Statistics Canada, published Monday, says almost one in five young Canadians have been a victim of cyberbullying or cyberstalking. That equals about 1.1 million people ranging from 15-29 years old.
Nova Scotia’s anti-cyberbullying law was ruled unconstitutional and struck down earlier this year. But it’s now being redeveloped by justice minister Diana Whalen.
Bernard said that new legislation will be tabled in the new year. But in the meantime, she hopes that more women start speaking out about their experiences.