Ontario election’s female candidates discuss their challenges in the political arena

More women are running in Ontario’s June 2 election than ever before.

Before it’s over, however, they will be bogged down in an increasingly toxic political landscape.

Yet that’s not stopping them.

For all the stories about sexist discrimination and social media muck, the women seeking elected office aren’t giving up. For no matter how much trolls and troglodytes might put them down, they cannot keep them down.

That message resonated when four rival women candidates, from Ontario’s four main political parties, came together to talk about what made them run — separately and apart. Their latest advice for young women students who seek public office in their future?

Women, more than men, need “thick skins” to fend off the misogynists trying to get under their skin.

Racialized women, more than white women, need a suit of armour to fend off the racists trying to get at their skin colour.

Those were just some of the lessons learned when the aspiring women politicians spoke to inspiring women political science students, while a male political columnist took careful notes. Ryerson University’s “Women in the House” program had asked me to sit in — perched in the moderator’s chair, to be precise — for a political panel and primer.

The answers, like the questions, may surprise you, as they did me (full disclosure: I am a Visiting Practitioner in Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts):

How do you deal with public judgment? How do you put up with patriarchal parties? How do you fend off “impostor syndrome?” How do you tune out Twitter toxicity?

How can you be supportive of a shared cause while opposing women from other parties? Is partisan pugnacity more off-putting for women? How do you juggle it all?

Good question. Great answers.

“Do you have any advice for women who wish to run for politics who may fear public judgment, but have something important to bring to the table?” asked student Nardos Tedros.

“Use the fear to motivate you,” answered New Democratic Party candidate Andria Barrett without missing a beat.

“We’re all being judged in this day and age, every moment of the day, every tweet at a time,” added Barrett, a Black entrepreneur and investor running in Brampton South. “I tried to come to grips with that — that’s just how it’s going to be.”

Chi Nguyen, the Liberal candidate for Spadina—Fort York, is running after years of studying politics. Her first claim to fame is co-founding the Women in the House program at McGill University, which helped her land internships and jobs on Parliament Hill before launching a career as a community activist.

Along the way, she watched women from all backgrounds — and impressive careers — try to find their way:

“What really struck me was that women and women of colour came so hyper-qualified … It’s not easy to run as a woman. It’s doubly, incredibly hard for racialized folks,” added Nguyen, who is of Asian descent.

“We’re still operating in a system that’s inherently patriarchal that was built a long time ago by men of a certain class, power and background.”

For Jane Kovarikova, the Progressive Conservative candidate for London—Fanshawe, politics isn’t an especially safe space, but neither is the real world. Like Nguyen, she is a graduate of the London School of Economics who also served as a political staffer.

Kovarikova isn’t racialized, but she had to overcome a language barrier as a child of immigrants. Raised in foster homes, she later fought for free tuition for hundreds of others who “age out” of foster care without support.

“I’ve had a lot of people say a lot of horrible things to me growing up,” she recalled. “Just toughen your skin up a little bit, because the world isn’t really a safe place necessarily.”

On Twitter torment, the candidates offered similar advice: Tune it out, because voters are more real than the virtual reality of social media.

“I don’t think you can let that get under your skin — it’s noise,” argued the Liberals’ Nguyen. “I just think about the hundreds of conversations I have at the door with people who want to talk about affordable housing … and the economy.”

The NDP’s Barrett agreed that past encounters have prepared her for political encounters.

“Being a Black woman running in politics now is really no different than being a Black young woman in school or Black young women in the workforce. I have a thick skin — I don’t let it distract me,” she replied.

A candid question from student Selingul Yalcin struck a chord: How do you deal with so-called “impostor syndrome” that plagues people with self-doubt?

“We all deal with impostor syndrome,” Barrett replied, adding that she draws inspiration from Black women trailblazers and gives herself an “inner pep talk.”

For all the challenges, the payoff is not so much personal but political, said Kovarikova, reflecting on her previous staff work.

“When you see, on the other end of it, that you’ve now been able to pass legislation to reduce youth homelessness, there’s just nothing that beats that. To me it doesn’t matter what the level of hardship is.”

The rival candidates also talked about the tension of running against other women from competing parties despite the temptation to forge female alliances.

Green Party candidate Dianne Saxe, who is running in University-Rosedale, was the province’s independent Environmental Commissioner and recognized as one of the world’s top environmental lawyers on corporate liability. When Premier Doug Ford eliminated her office, Saxe decided to make the leap from nonpartisanship to political action.

She reached out early to her NDP opponent in the riding to clear the air:

“When I was first nominated I called Jessica Bell, the NDP candidate and sitting MPP, who was very distressed about me running against her, for obvious reasons, just to say that it’s not personal, and I would never stoop to a personal attack — this is about what’s best for the province.”

It can be hard for women who want more women in office to run against another woman in an election. But with more women running, it’s harder to avoid.

“That doesn’t change the fact that we have to run hard against each other,” Saxe says.

One consolation for the students, after hearing these four hard-driving women candidates talk about their campaigns: Coming from four different ridings, they are at least not competing against one another.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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