N.L. finance minister speaks out about being body shamed, bullied online
Cathy Bennett told reporters that it is time to speak out against widespread abuse faced by women on social media.
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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador's finance minister says she has faced body shaming, death threats and suggestions that she kill herself, becoming the latest woman in Canadian politics speaking out against intense cyber abuse.
"I was bullied online and there was lots of language that I felt was inappropriate," Cathy Bennett said in an interview.
Some of the comments Bennett released Monday were so "vile and sexually exploitative" that she invited just a small group of female reporters to the legislature in St. John's.
"I wasn't personally comfortable having that discussion for the first time publicly with men in the room," said the minister, who's also responsible for status of women.
"I knew I could be brave but everybody has their limits. I'm happy to have that conversation with any male media on this issue now that I've been through it once."
Bennett did not release those particularly explicit remarks but shared several others without identifying the senders, who she said were overwhelmingly men. They included:
"This woman is a monster. She is endangering women."
"All Newfoundlanders should put a bounty on her head. She is a witch."
"I hope she chokes on her breakfast" and "You are simply a bad person. You should do the world a favour and kill yourself."
Bennett said she expected a backlash after delivering a brutal budget last spring that, despite sweeping tax and fee hikes, included spending cuts and a deficit now projected at almost $1.6 billion. The vitriolic onslaught far exceeded what she imagined.
"Have a disagreement with me about our policies. Don't vote for me in the next election," she said. "But don't abuse me online and say things to me that you wouldn't say in a public place."
Bennett said she is speaking out now before Wednesday marks her one-year anniversary as a Liberal cabinet minister in the province.
She joins a growing number of female politicians speaking out against cyber abuse.
In Alberta, Premier Rachel Notley, female cabinet ministers and other members have been threatened and harassed online since taking office in May 2015.
Sandra Jansen, the member for Calgary-North West who crossed the floor from the Progressive Conservatives to the governing NDP, stood in the legislature last month to read some of that cyber abuse. The province gave her extra security after that, which she described as a "precaution" that made her feel safer.
Like Bennett, Jansen urged others to expose social media attacks.
Nancy Peckford, executive director of the Ottawa-based Equal Voice, said online nastiness aimed at female politicians is especially vicious and can be isolating.
"Unfortunately, it is a pervasive phenomenon," said Peckford, who works to elect more women across Canada and to support those in office.
Peckford said many senders hide behind anonymity, making it impossible to say how many are men.
"It isn't that some women don't participate," in the abuse, she said. "Regardless of who's perpetuating the bullying and harassment online, it's rooted in a misogyny and a real discomfort with — and rejection of — women in public life."
Peckford said the ugliness may put some women off politics. Others want to be involved to help spur what she describes as a much-needed culture shift.
"These are very male-dominated work places," she said, noting just 26 per cent of federal politicians are women.
Across Canada, provincial and territorial female politicians range from 10 per cent in Nunavut to a high of 37 per cent in B.C.
Bennett stressed that she in no way compares her experience to victims of physical violence. Still, she said abusive words can escalate to more dangerous situations.
"Language that starts with the shaming and the insults and the verbal abuse is the beginning steps that lead to that," she said.
"I'm going to encourage all of us to no longer be bystanders."
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