Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth Marci Ien, and NDP MP Leah Gazan.From left to right: Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth Marci Ien, and NDP MP Leah Gazan. (Photos: The Canadian Press)

Why Canadian Politics Is Still Unsafe For Female Politicians

Online hate against Canadian women in politics is on the rise, and despite cross-party agreement that it’s a problem, little action has been taken on the issue. Here’s why.

“I PROMISE IT won’t be victim porn.”

That’s what I tell Calgary Nose Hill Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner as we end our chat on what it’s like to be a female politician in the face of an increasingly toxic political atmosphere in Canada. The 43-year-old has been a federal politician since 2011. My interview with her about experiencing online threats, hate and abuse is certainly not her first, and she is determined not to be framed as a victim.

“I have had this interview probably 150 times in 12 years. Why aren’t we evaluating solutions after all of that time?” Rempel Garner asks. “It’s not like people haven’t raised them…It's just that shit doesn’t change.”

She’s right: If anything, the online abuse—from threats of violence to denigrating, sexualized comments—has gotten worse for female politicians over the last few years. While there isn’t a bevy of quantitative data formally tracking the phenomenon in a Canadian context, I spoke to half a dozen current and former female politicians on the record, read through countless accounts of what online abuse looks like and looked through qualitative research on the perceptions of online abuse. The consensus: online spaces are becoming increasingly toxic for female politicians.

Though she’s cut from a very different political cloth than Rempel Garner, Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Leah Gazan similarly implores me to not have this story read like a doom-and-gloom piece. “I just don’t want this article, or these discussions to discourage people from fighting for a better world and joining in,” she says.

I’m cognizant of the conundrum of wanting to be simultaneously honest about what women in the public eye must put up with while also ensuring I’m not actively dissuading other women from pursuing public-facing roles. In late 2020, I resigned as the host of a Toronto talk radio morning show in the face of online hate and threats. As a racialized woman broadcasting her opinions, I had relegated myself to the reality that I would be met with threats and hate. But when I received an email from a listener that threatened my then one-year-old daughter with rape, I made the decision to resign from a job that I loved.

It’s not that online abuse is uniquely reserved for women in the public light—men receive threats and hate, too. But the abuse levelled at women is qualitatively different, often targeting who they are as a person and not just the work they do. Just compare the online toxicity hurled at former minister of the environment and climate change Catherine McKenna to that of her male successors in the role. From calling her climate Barbie to vandalizing her campaign office with the word c**t, the abuse and threats directed at McKenna was almost always gendered; the same cannot be said for her male successors.

“While it’s true that any woman in the spotlight is a mark for online hate, nobody is more public than politicians.”

For Black, Indigenous and other racialized women, that abuse will often hone in on race in addition to their gender. “If you’re a woman…experiencing negativity on social media, that negativity by far and away targets your social identity, in a way that’s not the case for white men,” says Erin Tolley, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Race, and Inclusive Politics and Associate Professor at Carleton University. “It’s not just general negativity about not liking their political position, it’s not liking them because they are women or because they are racialized women.”

Heidi Tworek, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia and a member of the federal government’s expert advisory group on online harms, echoes this sentiment. During the 2019 federal election, Tworek and her colleagues looked at online incivility directed at political candidates on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. She says the difference with the abuse targeting women is that “often the abuse will be directed at them as individuals.” And that misogynistic abuse is often compounded by threats targeting race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

While it’s true that any woman in the spotlight is a mark for online hate, nobody is more public than politicians. They can’t opt out of having a public profile. Being accountable and available to the public is an integral part of the gig. Politicians can certainly scale back their social media presence or walk away entirely from certain social media platforms—as Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo recently did with X, calling it a “gigantic global sewer”—but that doesn’t get to the root of the issue, providing a band-aid solution at best.

When former prime minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation, one of her predecessors, Helen Clark, was among the first to note that the level of toxicity Ardern faced on social media was unprecedented. “The pressures on prime ministers are always great,” she said, “but in this era of social media, clickbait and 24/7 media cycles, Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country.”

With Canada sliding from 56th in the world for gender parity in politics in 2021 to, most recently, 61st, there’s a worry that the increasing online incivility directed at women will only make that ranking worse—especially given the current climate in Ottawa.

In November, former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer posted a picture of two female senators in the style of an old-timey wanted poster. With the senators’ work emails and office phone numbers listed, he encouraged his followers to contact the senators to ask them why they shut down debate on a bill that would see further carbon tax exemptions for farmers. What happened next was entirely predictable: Both senators were inundated with a barrage of calls, emails and social media posts on X, with one of the senators needing to leave her home after a man threatened to come to her house.


DESPITE CROSS-PARTY consensus that online abuse is unacceptable, there hasn’t been much progress on the issue in Canada. Political parties and other democratic institutions have at best stood somewhat idly by as the abuse of female politicians—particularly those with intersecting marginalized identities—has gotten perceptibly worse. While the House of Commons passed a formal Code of Conduct on issues of non-criminal sexual harassment of MPs in 2015, there is no official policy that deals with the harassment of MPs online.

Nobody is more acutely aware of the many institutional failures on this front than the former Liberal MP for Whitby, Ont., and author of Can You Hear Me Now? Celina Caesar-Chavannes. For much of her four years in office, Caesar-Chavannes was on the receiving end of a torrent of anti-Black racism and misogyny as the sole Black female MP at the time.

“So 2016 was my year of being tokenized, 2017 was my year of being excluded purposefully, and 2018 was the year that was the most violent. You know, I thought I was going to die in March of 2018. I think it’s the closest I have ever come to actually wanting to kill myself,” she tells me between tears. That month, Caesar-Chavannes told former Conservative MP and current leader of the People’s Party of Canada Maxime Bernier to “check his privilege” after he made a critical comment about a government anti-racism initiative. She was then subjected to a deluge of racist and misogynistic online hate—much of it made worse by how our overwhelmingly white legacy political media covered her for speaking out against anti-Black racism.

“The hate these politicians received was always exacerbated whenever the women garnered more public attention for speaking out on an issue.”

That abuse only persisted through the remainder of her time in office as an Liberal MP. “Instead of waiting for the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd in 2020 to jump on the race bandwagon,…[the] what was happening to me [in] seriously enough to have a conversation about race, to have a conversation about how Black women are treated in parliament,” she says.

As a former journalist and talk show host with a national profile, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth Marci Ien tells me the online anti-Black abuse she received as a journalist concerned her family. But she says it prepared her for the kind of hate that would be thrown her way as a politician. “My family was very worried and I thought this was preparation,” she says. “I thought, ‘Listen, what else can they throw at me? I’ve gone through the gamut here.’”

Gazan, Ien and Mississauga Erin Mills MP Iqra Khalid also say their own online experiences were shaped by the intersection of racism and misogyny, as the hate and abuse they received tended to factor in both. And much like Caesar-Chavannes, the hate they received was always exacerbated whenever the women garnered more public attention for speaking out on an issue.


MUCH OF OUR increasingly toxic political atmosphere can be chalked up to our online ecosystem. As former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt put it, “I think the exact same amount of people are annoyed at politicians as there always were, the difference is they no longer sit at their coffee shop and bitch about us. They now have the ability to confront us through social media.” Raitt adds that online platforms often incentivize people to be toxic toward politicians: “YouTube and TikTok and [Instagram] Reels…they actually encourage this kind of behaviour to get clicks.”

She’s right: The way that social media platforms are fundamentally designed has often led to divisive and potentially harmful content being disseminated at a much higher rate than other types of content. Facebook’s own internal reporting, for example, uncovered that its engagement-based recommendation algorithm effectively prioritizes divisive content. A 2019 investigation by the New York Times also found “YouTube’s search and recommendation system appears to have systematically diverted users to far-right and conspiracy channels in Brazil.” And research conducted by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that TikTok’s algorithm was promoting self-harm and eating disorder content to children.

We also can’t ignore the role disinformation and conspiracy theories play in the dissemination of online threats and hate. When the disinformation or conspiracy theory in question is targeting groups that are already subject to hate, it ends up compounding the hate received. That’s why it’s imperative to stop talking about disinformation and online hate as two separate siloes, Tworek says. “It’s important for us to remember that they’re intertwined because so often we talk about them as if they’re different phenomena,” she says, “but in fact that’s really not how the dynamic works, and that’s especially true for women of colour.”

In 2017, Iqra Khalid learned an abrupt lesson in how disinformation interacts with online hate when she introduced a non-binding motion to condemn Islamophobia and religious discrimination, known as M-103. The motion called on the government to condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination via three main objectives: collecting data on hate crimes for further study, condemning Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination, and having the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage study the issue of eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination.

“I’m one of the very few people in our country who is a younger woman of colour and in a position of power, so I felt like I couldn’t complain,” MP Iqra Khalid says.

Motions are not bills, and as such, they do not have any binding effect. Once debated, a motion does not force Parliament to any specific policy or action. Despite this, the motion became the subject of much heated public debate. That debate came to a head on January 29, 2017, when a man hopped up on disinformation and the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, shot up a mosque in Quebec City, killing six men while they prayed. Khalid tabled M-103 a year before the mosque shooting, but the motion was only debated on the floor of the House of Commons in the aftermath of the shooting. That debate also coincided with the Conservative Party’s leadership race, prompting many candidates to choose political expediency over principles.

“I would see… other parliamentarians who know for a fact the difference between a motion and a bill who were actively spreading disinformation to raise money for themselves,” Khalid recalls. Correcting the record didn’t help: “As much as I went and tried to explain it, to clarify the facts, the worse the vitriol got.”

Khalid received more than 90,000 hateful emails within the first two months of introducing M-103. She also had police stationed outside of her house after her home address was broadcast on a talk radio show. Later, a member of the Three Percenters—a far-right, anti-government militia group that was recently designated as a terrorist entity in Canada—showed up at her office to intimidate her. In spite of that, Khalid kept her head down and kept working. “I’m one of the very few people in our country who is a younger woman of colour and in a position of power, so I felt like I couldn’t complain,” she says.

More recently, the 2022 Ottawa convoy exemplified how conspiracy theories and disinformation don’t just stay online, and how racialized folks are affected by the far-right activists and hate symbols like swastikas and confederate flags that peppered the protests. As Minister Ien put it to me, “Not everybody understood that it was scarier for some of us, more than others.” Khalid and Gazan agreed. “I had to walk through that every day and it felt unsafe,” Gazan says.

Canada has managed to stave off a lot of the more overt vitriol and corresponding political violence we have seen in other jurisdictions. But it’s unclear how much longer we will be able to do so, as polarizing and populist political communication becomes more commonplace and as conspiracy theories and fringe online movements are welcomed into the mainstream.


IF WE KNOW online abuse levelled at women is a problem that needs solving, why aren’t we doing anything about it?

Lisa Raitt tells me she believes everyone in Parliament is “seized with the issue.” Both Tolley and Tworek echo that sentiment, noting that the issue of online abuse is a systemic problem and must be tackled accordingly. This means dealing with the way our online ecosystem is currently structured and incentivized.

For far too long, Big Tech lobbyists are proponents of the idea that large online platforms like Facebook, YouTube and X should be free to self-regulate. Thankfully, this is starting to change. The Canadian government has stated it intends to table online harms legislation that will subject online platforms to act with a duty of care toward Canadians. That means Big Tech companies will have to demonstrate that they have considered the risks of their products, and then demonstrate that there have been steps taken by the platforms to mitigate those risks.

As the federal government moves forward with regulating online harms, it should look to peer jurisdictions such as the U.K. and the E.U. Both have developed an approach to online harms that requires much more transparency from Big Tech in terms of how their algorithms work, as well as tackling the underlying incentives that lead to the amplification of harmful content. This includes mandated transparency reports and risk assessments, as well as algorithmic auditing powers by the regulator in both jurisdictions. Any online harms framework should also aim to bring Canada in line with the rest of the G7 and introduce intermediary liability, clarifying when platforms are liable for harms arising from content posted on their platforms by users.

There’s also plenty of work for political parties to do. As Tworek notes, political parties need to offer training and support when it comes to online abuse—and to do it in an equitable way, since some candidates are likely to deal with more online abuse than others. Tolley also points out that political parties could be smoothing the path for more female candidates by directing more party resources to them, so that female candidates have the option to hire security or even more staff to deal with online abuse.

“When you look at those financial returns you can see that when parties have an opportunity to direct party money to candidates, they tend to direct that money to white men,” Tolley says. According to reporting conducted in 2021 by CBC/Radio-Canada, three out of four candidates who ran in seats that were deemed safe for their party were white men, with white male candidates receiving 10 percent more in funding than other candidates.

Parliament can also amend election spending laws so that female politicians don’t have to choose between getting information out to voters or hiring security. Rempel Garner and her team seriously considered hiring security during the last federal election, but was told that the money spent would count toward her election spending cap.

“Parliamentarians need to be better examples of themselves than their constituents,” says Lisa Raitt.

Rempel Garner also says criminal harassment is often a gateway to physical violence, so the way Canada’s criminal harassment laws are currently structured should be getting a second look from Parliament. “For our criminal harassment laws, I think an area of study could be: are they structured enough to prevent things from happening? Or are they usually used after the fact, after something serious has gone wrong?”

And though it seems obvious, politicians need to start behaving better with one another if we’re to have any hope dialling down the temperature on our already-heated political environment. Raitt puts it bluntly: “Parliamentarians need to be better examples of themselves than their constituents.”


ADDING WOMEN TO change politics isn’t just some virtue-signalling hashtag. We need our political class to look like the population it serves.

Women comprise more than half of the Canadian population, yet make up just 30 percent of MPs. “For less diverse decision-making bodies, it’s not that they’re just undesirable in some esoteric sense, it’s that they’re also less effective,” Tolley says. “When you have more diversity in an institution, you get more effective public policy making because you’re taking in a range of perspectives and therefore going to be more responsive to the people that you’re serving.”

Unsurprisingly, having more women around the decision making table can have profound policy outcomes. A literature review conducted in 2020 found that, “in general, data links an increase in female representation with a higher propensity for women legislators to introduce and pass priority bills dealing with women’s issues,”wherein women’s issues are defined as issues that “directly and disproportionately affect women.” Traditionally, this has meant issues such as abortion and childcare, but this could also be reasonably extended to the issue of online harassment.

When Prime Minister Trudeau quipped “because it’s 2015” in response to a question about why he felt the need to put forward a gender-balanced cabinet, it became an instant viral moment. But eight years later, the environment for female politicians in Canada hasn’t gotten better—by some metrics, such as dealing with threats of violence, it has actively gotten worse.

That doesn’t deter Ien, Khalid, Gazan or Rempel Garner. All of them refuse to buckle in the face of online abuse hurled their way and speak of what an honour and a privilege it is to serve their communities.

As someone who opted out of a public facing role in the fire of online hate, I developed what can best be described as a resiliency contact high in speaking to these women. We owe it to them—and to the women we have failed, like Caesar-Chavannes—to make sure things are better for the next wave of female MPs.

Ultimately, the question isn’t one of what can be done—we know what we need to do. Rather, it is: Why aren’t we doing these things? After all, it’s 2023.