St. Albert isn’t immune to the type of gender-based attacks that made the news in Alberta provincial politics this week.
Just days before Wildrose leader Brian Jean’s comments about “beating” Rachel Notley were reported in provincial media, a comment on small forum at mybirdie.ca, also known as St. Albert’s Place, raised some eyebrows locally as well.
Dana Popadynetz posted a screen capture of a comment written by forum moderator Don Sinclair, in which Sinclair took aim at Coun. Cathy Heron’s wardrobe, saying it makes her “look like a 16 year old with saggy butt ‘n boobs.”
Heron said receiving this kind of criticism is nothing new. In her first term her political opponents often jokingly referred to her as “Coun. Barbie,” which is something she’s had to overcome in her position.
“I would say I was ill-prepared for it, but at the same time they don’t really bother me or affect the way I work,” she said.
Heron said she sees gender-based criticism as being indicative that the person making the comment has little to say about actual politics and policies.
“If the only thing they can attack is the fact I have blonde hair or the fact that I’m a woman, or the fact they don’t like the way I dress or that I’ve put on a few extra pounds, I feel way better about myself,” she said. “Those are ridiculous comments, and if they were really attacking me because they didn’t like my stance on something, I would actually have to pay attention and listen.”
Sinclair explained he had posted the comment as a joke, and removed it within hours when he realized the mistake he had made.
“It was misguided humour. It was late in the evening and I was getting ready for bed. A post popped into my mind, I posted it, and went to bed,” he said.
When he got up a few hours later, he saw some negative feedback on it and decided, “That wasn’t too smart on my part,” so he removed the post.
“I admitted I had made a mistake and it was now gone, and that was the end of it,” Sinclair said. “I just thought lesson learned, I’ll just slink away into the night and be done with it. That wasn’t quite the way it turned out.”
Sinclair blamed Popadynetz for sharing the post further on Facebook and Twitter, saying he had intended it just for his website’s audience, and questioned Popadynetz’s motivation for posting the message to social media.
Up until the beginning of this week, posts on the mybirdie.ca forum were open to the public to view. Sinclair has since set the forum to members only – 146 of them by his count.
“It didn’t further anything; it probably embarrassed other people,” he said. “If his point was to embarrass me, I have nothing to be embarrassed about on Facebook or Twitter. I didn’t put it there.”
He also took issue with the suggestion that women are disproportionately affected by this kind of attack, citing widespread criticism of political figures like Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau as a sign this isn’t a gender-based problem.
“People do it. It’s the Internet. I don’t see putting Notley’s face on a driving range as being anything that’s out of the norm that’s routinely done to males,” he said. “I don’t buy the special status about women in politics.”
As for an apology to Heron, Sinclair said he didn’t think one was warranted because he admitted the mistake and withdrew the remark. He also suggested Popadynetz was motivated by his own political aspirations when he shared the post.
Popadynetz said he posted a screen capture to Facebook and Twitter – after securing Heron’s permission to share it and talk about it – because it’s important to call people out on a kind of comment that he said is unacceptable.
“You can disagree with somebody’s policies, with somebody’s politics, but the minute you cross that line and start degrading someone because of their gender, or sexual orientation or race, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “We need to get beyond that.”
Popadynetz added what Sinclair wrote is in line with a lot of the anti-woman political discourse that happens within this province and across the country as well.
Jean’s recent comment at a town hall meeting in Fort McMurray, in which he made a joke about how he’s “beating the drum” in support of seniors’ housing, “but it is against the law to beat Rachel Notley,” has sparked widespread criticism.
Jean promptly apologized for his comment, but Popadynetz said he’s frustrated, not just as a politically engaged resident but also as a father.
“As a dad with a daughter, it just infuriated me,” he said. “I think there’s a tipping point in Alberta politics right now because we’ve had this pattern of behaviour.”
As for the suggestion that he was motivated by his own political aspirations, he said he had as recently as three months ago planned to run for council in 2017, but has since decided to postpone those plans until his young children are a bit older.
“I have no intention of running for office any time before 2021, when these tweets would be long forgotten,” Popadynetz said.
Dr. Cristina Stasia, a gender studies scholar at the University of Alberta, said she’s not surprised that women in politics are still dealing with this kind of criticism. Stasia is concerned it may prevent women from wanting to enter public life.
“You have to consider your life becomes very public, and criticism is fair game, but the difference is the criticism directed at female politicians is intensely personal,” she said.
She said it’s clear both men and women are often subject to personal attacks, but the difference is that it’s more common for women, and the attacks tend to be more vicious – and more likely to be directed at a woman’s personal appearance.
“There’s this mistaken impression that women in leadership positions owe people ‘pretty,’” Stasia said. “It’s just not true. We don’t expect it of our male politicians, and we shouldn’t expect it of our female politicians.”
St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud said she condemns both Jean’s and Sinclair’s comments, but isn’t necessarily surprised.
“It’s still out there, and typically women are the targets,” she said. “There’s a lot of body-shaming. I’ve certainly received messages that are very much like that.”
She praised Jean’s willingness to admit his mistake and apologize to Notley as promptly as he did, which was within minutes of making his comment. Such comments continue to be a big problem in Alberta, she said.
“What’s so sad to me is that if you so quickly and readily go to, ‘it was a joke,’ and ‘you need to have a tougher skin,’ that to me has always been such a symptom of the problem,” Renaud said. “It’s not a joke. Especially in Alberta, where our statistics are so horrific about (abuse towards) women and children.”
But not all women in politics feel the same way. Coun. Sheena Hughes said she’s never personally experienced gender-based criticism, and it didn’t much factor into her decision to enter into politics.
“When I decided to run, I realized I really wanted to represent residents and I didn’t think there would be negative ramifications because of my gender,” she said. “I realize the majority of politicians are male, but I’m comfortable working in a male-predominant environment so it didn’t affect my decision whatsoever.”
She said she feels that if you don’t make gender an issue, that goes both ways and others won’t make your gender an issue. She said hurtful comments aren’t acceptable regardless, but dwelling on it doesn’t improve the situation.
“There’s far greater issues that are facing governments at all levels that need to be the focus of both the people in government and the media,” Hughes said. “How are we moving forward?”