Creating safe spaces for women in politics: Gooch

Creating safe spaces for women in politics: Gooch

Tiffany Gooch

Every so often, a politician makes a public statement that unreservedly merits an apology.

This week that moment came for Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

When presented with a question about transparency in land dealings for a Global Transportation Hub, he deflected with a question about the NDP’s approach to allegations of sexual assault within their party.

For Premier Wall to bring this up in parliamentary debate, not with the intention to help victims, but instead as a retort to a question he did not want to answer is reprehensible.

When pressed further Wall stated, “I make no apology for raising it. If we don’t, what other opportunity is there to do? For it to be raised?”

Respectfully, Premier, there are many opportunities where sexual violence and harassment in politics can be proactively addressed that do not include rebuttals to unrelated questions in the House.

Wall has since apologized on Twitter to Rylee Schuhmacher, the young woman at the centre of the case he referred to, but still, he refuses to apologize to the party.

Responding on Facebook Thursday (and shared with her permission) Schuhmacher made a statement ended with powerful words: “Stop politicizing my assault and my trauma. Full stop.”

Wall’s actions this week exemplify the risk of politicization that must be weighed in the decision to report sexual harassment and assault in politics. This is exactly the reason so few come forward with their cases — and this problem is not isolated to one party or one level of government.

In the absence of meaningful intergenerational dialogue addressing how political spheres uniquely perpetuate and protect this behaviour, the Young Women’s Leadership Network has taken up the charge in pressing the issue forward.

I couldn’t be more pleased to see these young women challenging the status quo and rejecting the notion that they should let sexual harassment roll off their backs. When presented with the “whisper network,” a young organizer I met last month inquired as to why it wasn’t the “shout it from the rooftops network.”

With these fierce young women in leadership, the future of Canadian politics looks bright.

Following the overwhelming wave of stories shared through the #MeToo social media campaign founded by Tarana Burke — detractors still question how widespread the problem actually is in Canadian society today.

An Abacus poll published this week further contextualized the issue, finding 53 per cent of Canadian women taking part in the survey have experienced “unwanted sexual pressure.” Further, 77 per cent of the participants did not believe their harassers faced any consequences for their behaviour.

This week, federal Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hadju released a report summarizing the results of public consultations on harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. The report revealed Canadians are less likely to report sexual harassment in the workplace for fear of retaliation.

There is a great deal of challenging work ahead ridding workplaces and political spheres of this behaviour and providing better support to survivors.

Recently a male friend and long-time political organizer approached me, in earnest, for advice on how he could be helpful in addressing this issue. He was mortified as he reflected on his own contributions to creating a culture that was disrespectful toward, and unsafe for, women in politics. He wanted to know how he could serve as an active and outspoken ally.

I didn’t know how to answer at the time. Not knowing the specifics of individuals victimized by his behaviour, no matter how much time had passed — my instinct was to ensure their well-being before he went about centering himself in the discourse. This wasn’t about him or the journey he underwent to wake up to how his behaviour was impacting the women he worked, studied, or organized alongside.

That being said, I’m glad he and so many men are waking up and looking for ways to help.

So, how does one effectively ally in creating safer spaces for women in politics?

While considering how you will or have changed, take it a step further — forget the “bro code” and actively work to call out inappropriate behaviour when you see and hear about it.

Support individuals and organizations carrying out the front-line work of supporting survivors or building campaigns.

Remove the stories shared publicly by the brave souls who choose to report sexual violence and harassment from your political arsenal.

Most importantly: believe survivors.

Tiffany Gooch is a political strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight, secretary of the Ontario Liberal Party Executive Council, and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics.

(As published in The Toronto Star on Saturday, November 4, 2017)