Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland: women's voices critical for Canadian democracy
Last November, two Liberal MPs, Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti, were suspended because of sexual harassment allegations made by two NDP MPs. In the midst of the unfolding Jian Ghomeshi scandal, the initially vague response to these charges against leading politicians took Chrystia Freeland, MP for Toronto Centre, by surprise.
"There was no formal process to deal with this, which is a really bad thing,” says Freeland. “In every other workplace that I’ve been in, there was a very clear, very well-known process in place for dealing with harassment."
Prior to her election to Parliament in 2013, Freeland spent over 20 years as a journalist and media professional— from working as a Ukraine-based stringer for several newspapers to serving in high-level positions at the Financial times, the Globe and Mail and Reuters. She still writes geopolitical analyses, most recently penning an editorial on Russian Premier Vladimir Putin for the UK-based magazine Prospect.
Given her background as a successful professional, she was surprised to find that Ottawa’s environment for female politicians is less progressive than she’d imagined.
“This is still an institution that’s designed for older men who look the way we imagine leaders should look and who have stay-at-home wives. That’s what Parliament is built to accommodate,” she says.
Women in politics crucial for Canada
It's women's voices that are most frequently heckled in Parliament. Maybe this makes women shy of running for MP.
So far, 39% of Liberal candidates running in the next election are women, she said, and that's good, but it needs to be better.
“I think that’s a great number, but we’d like it to be 50%” she says. She credits her colleague, MP Carolyn Bennett, for inspiring more women to run. “Carolyn Bennett is an amazing champion of very many issues – among them feminist ones - and she has worked really hard to get to that number.”
“It’s important for Canadians to be represented in Parliament. More than 50% of Canadians are women, so we need to be here."
She adds, “There’s this whole canard that women don’t help other women and that in organizations it’s actually the women that hold more junior women back. I’ve never thought that that was true. I have always loved having women bosses and I have been very positively surprised and delighted by the strength of the women in the Liberal caucus.”
Fortunately, Freeland says, "we've learned a few things" as a result of the NDP MP sexual harassment allegations. "I’m glad Parliament is working to fix it."
Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau hired a third-party investigator, Cynthia Peterson, to lead an investigation into the allegations. As Trudeau said at the time: "It's 2014, it's time this workplace, like other workplaces across the country, had a process whereby these issues can be aired and dealt with."
Knows from experience
Last year, Freeland was attempting to raise an economic issue during question period. As she tried to read a quote from a report, the heckles from opponents grew. Many journalists took to Twitter to defend Freeland, among them the Vancouver Observer’s own Matt Millar.
Relatively new at the time to the instant medium, Millar tweeted, "Put your big girl voice on for #QP @cafreeland…the Hon Members water glasses are shattering…#cdnpoli"
Millar said he didn't mean to offend Freeland with the "big girl voice" phrase, but he did. Other women were offended as well. Millar deleted the tweet and apologized.
“I thought when it came to sexism, these were my mother’s fights or Nellie McClung’s fights, but they turn out to be our fights too,” Freeland commented last week, as she reflected on what had happened.
"It was a regrettable mistake, and something I've taken deep responsibility for," Millar recalled. "I've learned a lot since then - and it's opened my eyes to how rampant sexist behaviour has been 'part of the wallpaper' and so blindly accepted unchallenged in the halls of Parliament.”
"The ‘big girl voice’ thing was a complete surprise. I was glad that a lot of people took issue with it right away," Freeland said. "But I think there’s something there. Women’s voices do get more easily drowned out and more easily dismissed in the a lot of places, including the House of Commons, and we have to make sure that doesn’t happen."