In a column two weeks ago, I ventured the heretical opinion that the politicians we elect do not receive enough appreciation for the hard work and long hours they put in and for the stress their jobs create for their families. Their task becomes especially trying during a pandemic.
The column generated a brisk flow of emails. While most readers were prepared to entertain my heresy, some informed me in no uncertain terms that I was a simpleton who did not understand the reality of politics – their reality being that politicians are overpaid, lavishly pensioned grifters who look after themselves and do not care a farthing for the citizens who entrust them with their vote. Some of the language was foul, but no one went quite so far on this occasion as to demand that all politicians be drawn and quartered or be hanged from a lamppost outside the nearest Walmart. Not quite, but you get the drift.
As I was pondering how to respond, a story appeared in the Waterloo Region Record that illustrated quite dramatically how COVID has affected one politician. It was a story about the new leader of the Ontario Liberal party, Steven Del Duca, who is touring the province in an uphill struggle to rescue the party from the train wreck of the 2018 election, which saw the Liberals reduced from a majority government (under Kathleen Wynne) to a third-place rump no longer recognized as an official party in the Ontario Legislature.
Given province’s COVID rules on crowd sizes and social distancing, no one expected to Waterloo’s Chesapeake Park to be absolutely jammed, overflowing, with enthusiastic Liberals excited to hear their new shepherd tell them how he proposes to vanquish Doug Ford and lead them out of the Conservative wilderness.
But no one expected that there would be no crowd at all. That’s right. No one came. Not a soul. Just a single Del Duca aide with a camera and a solitary print reporter who listened as the leader spoke for five minutes about his “action plan” for the provincial election, due in 2022. The aide dutifully recorded the event for video posterity.
The pandemic will end one day, crowds will return, and elections will be fought much as in the past. But there is one despicable, and worsening, aspect of politics that is bound to outlive the pandemic. It’s sexism, misogyny, whatever you want to label it – vicious, underhanded attacks on female politicians simply because they are women.
The Cape Breton Post carried a story the other day by reporter Nicole Sullivan about this cross that so many women in politics carry. Her story described some of the tribulations faced by Amanda McDougall, who was elected mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality last fall. McDougall is a working mom. She and her partner have two children; the younger one, Emmett, was born about three months ago with Down syndrome.
McDougall started to encounter personal attacks when she was first elected as a regional councillor in 2016, her attackers hidden in the anonymity of social media. Some used profanity, some wished her personal harm, one said they hoped she would develop cancer and die.
“This happens more often than anybody really knows,” the mayor told the reporter. “It's constant. … You have to laugh at it, or you would be completely bogged down by negativity.”
It was no laughing matter when her detractors turned on Emmett. As an elected official, McDougall was not eligible for parental leave. She cannot afford a nanny. When her mother is not available to babysit, she takes her son with her to the office.
She was devastated when a coward using a phony name posted this comment on her Facebook page: “HAHAHA I heard your baby has down syndrome. Serves you right you woke b-tch c--t.”
"I'm sorry, I am going to cry,” McDougall said. “I always knew somebody might try and use his Down syndrome against me. It just hurt to read it … Emmett's perfect. He's beautiful. … I knew in my gut someone might try to hurt me because my son is different. And it happened and the reality of that just sucked."
Yes, it sucks. It also helps explain why so many capable women avoid a life in elected politics. There are sewer rats there.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, retired recently from teaching political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].