Content warning: discussion of sexual violence.
This month, a series of scandals in the federal and provincial governments led to three high-profile resignations. On the federal level, MP Tony Clement resigned from the Conservative caucus after admitting that he had been blackmailed for sending sexually explicit messages and photographs.
On the provincial level, Andrew Kimber, one of Premier Doug Ford’s key aides, and Jim Wilson, a cabinet member, resigned from their positions after staffers accused them of sexual harassment. Wilson also resigned from the Progressive Conservative (PC) caucus. Incidentally, and embarrassingly for U of T, both Clement and Wilson are alumni who served as members of the university’s Governing Council.
An old and timeless narrative
These incidents reveal a serious problem: men in positions of power continue to engage in sexual misconduct and harassment against women. This is especially concerning given that that we elect such men to govern important affairs in our society, yet they lack the character and ethical compass to respect women.
The abuse of women by powerful men is, unfortunately, an old and timeless narrative. These controversies follow uncomfortably close to the resignation of former PC leader Patrick Brown — yet another U of T graduate — after he was accused of sexual assault last winter.
On the provincial level, the resignations of Kimber and Wilson are particularly harmful to a government so recently elected. Ford has had to suddenly reorganize his cabinet and supporting staff, which severely undermines confidence in the ability of the ministers to fulfil their duties and manage the province.
What is another blow to the integrity of the PCs is that Ford’s initial response was to concoct a false story and omit the real reasons behind Wilson’s departure. To hide important information from the public contradicts the premier’s favourite slogan, “for the people,” which calls for transparent and accountable government.
For a party that so recently gained power, blatantly lying to the public erodes civic trust. We, the citizens, have a right to know information that bears significance on how and by whom the province is being run.
Though these specific incidents all concern conservative figures, sexist harassment or violence by men in politics is by no means exclusive to one party. Under the previous Liberal government, former premier Kathleen Wynne revealed to the public that at least two Liberal MPPs had had allegations of sexual harassment made against them. Hence, this issue speaks more broadly to a culture of entitlement and misogyny in which powerful men are grounded.
However, because conservatives frequently allege that their ideology is grounded in the maintenance of family values and morality, incidents of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault reflect hypocrisy on the part of these politicians.
From punishment to rehabilitation
In the cases of Kimber, Wilson, Clement, and Brown, decisive and immediate action was taken against these men. It would seem that allegations of harassment or assault against women is treated as a serious matter. And yet one has to question how severe or lasting these consequences are.
Over the past year’s #MeToo movement, many women have come forward to speak out against the abuses that they suffered at the hands of powerful men, many of whom face some kind of punishment — for instance, the prosecution of Bill Cosby.
Yet many of these men are quickly rehabilitated. In January, Patrick Brown resigned as PC leader following a number of allegations of sexual misconduct. Just months later, in October, he was elected as mayor of Brampton.
Clement resigned from the caucus but retains his seat as an independent. Wilson resigned from his cabinet position and caucus, but not his seat, and had his resignation initially framed exclusively as a self-care issue. He was briefly approached with sympathy and well wishes from within the party and from the public.
Some men are not even punished to begin with: despite credible testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and widespread public outrage, Brett Kavanaugh was still appointed as a Supreme Court Justice in the US.
It is disillusioning that a man’s ill treatment of women is not enough to seriously impact public opinion — that he remains regarded as capable and worthy of holding positions of political power. It points to a societal disregard for women’s safety and well-being, and what we’re saying is that one’s treatment of women is not indicative of the constituency of one’s character.
Barriers to politics
Women already face significant barriers to working in politics. Despite making up half of the population, we are consistently underrepresented in government. Only seven of the 21 members of Ford’s cabinet are women.
Even when women are able to secure positions in politics, they are often met with mockery and disrespect. Consider that the allegation of sexual harassment against Kimber came from his female coworkers within the PC party.
Misogynistic rhetoric is to be frequently found in political debates, as was made clear in the public debates between Ford and Wynne as well as between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, where underhanded comments about the women’s appearances or temperaments abounded.
That women continue to be met with disrespect and have their boundaries violated by the men working with them is appalling, and only reinforces the gender barrier in politics.
As citizens, we have a right to a transparent and responsible government that takes incidents of gender-based harassment within its ranks seriously. We must hold these men in power accountable for their actions and ensure that women can safely access politics.
As students and youth at U of T, we are of a class that is currently making its way into the world as the leaders of tomorrow. It is up to us to craft a future that is grounded in transparent and ethical government and in fair and respectful treatment of women. It starts by not letting injustices like this slide by unnoticed and unaccounted for.
Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.