A 4-part series looking at gender and politics in Niagara
Smile more. Be more friendly. Act nice.
These aren’t directions lobbed at a model during a photo shoot or an actor playing a part — they’re actual suggestions some St. Catharines female politicians have heard from their male colleagues, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
She’s a little bit of a b-tch. She’s kind of vocal. She’s cold. She can be manipulative. She’s cagey. She is conniving. A troublemaker. Mouthy. Difficult.
That’s how they’ve been described to others by their colleagues, say Niagara Regional Coun. Laura Ip and St. Catharines city councillors Karrie Porter and Lori Littleton.
All are serving their first term in their roles on their respective councils. Ip previously served part of a term on the 2010-2014 St. Catharines city council, filling a vacancy.
“We’ve all had different experiences in our lives with men and situations. Honestly, I haven’t experienced misogyny like this before until I got into politics,” said Porter. “I’ve worked for politicians. I’ve been political. I worked in construction. This is something else, and I honestly wasn’t expecting it. I thought I had experienced everything at this point in my life, until now. I’m just kind of stunned by it.”
The three women met recently, at Niagara this Week’s request, to speak openly about their experiences in politics after a week of online discourse on the subject. It all started with a social media post by Porter outlining the months-long harassment she had been facing by an online troll. The person behind the online account harassing her, she believes, is a man who lives in her neighbourhood who she has interacted with in the past, in-person.
When Porter shared her concerns in a post on Facebook, Ip and Littleton were quick to show support and share some of their own experiences.
“(Harassment) has been, for me, a near-daily experience since being elected, whether on social media, email or people calling me. Near daily. I’ve spoken out about it a few times, don’t talk about everything I get,” said Ip.
She’s found, when she has spoken out about incidents in the past — such as a video of a hateful online radio show segment filled with personal attacks posted by a local failed political candidate — that people rebuke her concerns, accuse her of playing the ‘victim card’ or say it’s part and parcel of life as a politician.
“I’m not asking for any kind of special treatment because I’m elected. I’m just asking for you to be civil. The bar is super low for what I’m asking for you,” she said.
In her early 20s, Littleton spent time as a sports reporter, covering the Ottawa Senators for her university’s radio station. She was a young woman working in a male-dominated industry and space.
“The crap I put up with was mind-boggling,” she recalled. “Because I dealt with that at such a young age, I thought that’s how the world worked. So now that I have this kind of stuff again, it just is the way it is. I’m not saying it’s OK — it’s not OK. It just doesn’t surprise me.”
Littleton doesn’t see the same type of online trolling the others have experienced; instead, she finds herself on the receiving end of aggressive, sometimes unsettling phone calls and emails. Residents reaching out about legitimate ward complaints who escalate their concerns to the next level.
“The problem is, they don’t actually want to look at the solutions, they want to abuse you. Lash out at you. Because after we’re done with that issue, then it’ll be another issue and then another,” she said. “Greg (Miller, her fellow ward councillor in Merritton) doesn’t hear from these people and I know why. They don’t think they can talk to him that way, but they will me.”
She said recently she’s received a series of nasty emails from a resident with a parking issue, sent late at night or in the early hours of the morning.
“I’m assuming it’s after he’s had a couple of beers … Would you do that to the mayor? Probably not. Would you do it to Coun. Miller? Probably not — because he didn’t.”
Porter said there’s an expectation put on women politicians, that they’re supposed to be available and they’re supposed to give time and attention to them.
“That’s why I find that they expect more of you than your male counterpart and when you try to put up a boundary, it doesn’t go well,” she said.
But when it comes down to it, it’s not just one thing or one person. Porter believes that when women get into a situation where they have a bit of power, that disrupts the natural order of the way things have been.
“Just by virtue of you being there, so you already face a bit of a struggle before you open your mouth, I find,” she said. “What I experience are little things and big things, and it all drives me crazy. It’s hard to ignore the little things, too.”
Trolls on Facebook and Twitter will go after politicians of all stripes and gender, but when they go after women, Porter said, it’s more personal. The same for people of colour or people within the LGBT community.
“We experience that; we want things to change obviously, but we need people to listen.”
Both Littleton and Porter said their ward mates, Miller and Mat Siscoe, have been supportive. It helps, all three say, when men in leadership positions use their voice to call out the misogyny or hateful behaviour. Ip said men are the best weapons against this type of behaviour because when the women call it out, there are claims they’re just blowing things up, but if a man does, he gets a different response. She’s found St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik and MP Chris Bittle both helpful in this way, showing support in private and public ways.
Ip hasn’t found the same kind of support at the regional level.
“A lot of men on regional council don’t even acknowledge that men are treating me the way they do, but even when they do acknowledge it, (their response is) like ‘well, maybe if you weren’t so controversial’,” she said. “I’ve worked in politics before, been involved in things that were male dominated. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I never cease to be amazed at how vicious people can be … Going after my kids, calling them genetic trash or saying racial things about them.”
One male councillor, Ip said, wanted an ombudsman investigation into her personal life after all of council received an anonymous email about allegations involving who she was seeing. When he emailed the request to all of council, Ip responded and fellow councillors told her just to ignore it.
“I can’t let that sit there, though,” she said. “Other councillors will see hateful comments (about me) on Facebook or Twitter and will like them.”
Porter said it doesn’t help when colleagues look at things at an individual level, when it’s actually the system and those male councillors who aren’t recognizing their role in it.
Littleton said she’s posted in support of Porter and Ip before and, now, she’s determined to do it more often.
“I’m just going to call it out. I’m just going to let them know, I’ve got their back. As long as they’re OK with me commenting on it, I’m going to.”
Silence plays a large role in perpetuating the behaviour. Porter said she was hesitant to post about her online troll and instead, dealt with it by herself.
“You don’t want to feel victimized by it. So, you don’t talk about it, you don’t want to focus on it and you try to ignore it. You’re going to get some backlash. But then it got to the point where I got really concerned about it for a number of reasons, and I thought I had to stand my ground here,” she said.
Sitting with it alone, she said she started to question her own sanity and believes that was the intent. To chip away at it and having someone checking in, affirming that it is wrong helps with that.
“It’s partly about getting you to question your sanity,” Ip agrees, “but also it’s to inflict maximum pain. The intent is there to just completely unsettle you so you cannot be effective in your role.”
It takes a toll on not just the politicians, but their families as well. Between the three councillors, they have seven children ranging in age from 10 to 16. To varying degrees, they’re aware of what has been going on. They overhear frustrated phone calls or hear their parents discussing troubling messages and, in the case of the older children, see the messages posted publicly on social media.
Porter said one never knows what kind of politician they’re going to be until they get to the table. For her, it’s not about making friends or keeping certain people happy. Since taking her seat at the council table, she said there are certain things she has less tolerance for — and bullying is one of them.
“I’ve decided I don’t actually care about the next election and I don’t care if I lose. It makes my decision-making more pure, and I think that bothers a lot of people,” she said, later adding. “It’s been freeing to say ‘I don’t care’; I have to do what’s right in my heart and my brain. I’m not going to respond to bullying. I’m not going to be bullied into a decision and I’m not going to pander either. That’s been freeing.”
Ip is unsure about whether she’ll run again but said, even through all of this, she still has women sending her messages asking for advice on how to run, and she’s more than happy to help. Change is needed across Niagara on its councils to better represent the demographics of the region, she said.
“I have never ever said there should not be men or older men in politics. I’ve never said that, but they definitely shouldn’t be the majority. I should not, at 44 years old, be one of the youngest regional councillors by a significant margin. That should not be,” she said. “We should not have a political environment in the Niagara region that is made up entirely of white people, and I think entirely of straight people. I don’t know, there might be people who have not disclosed. As far as is public, it’s all straight people, all white people.”
When Littleton leaves her seat, she said she will spend all of her energy pushing up the next group of women. She plans to get into the weeds with them and get it done.
“I’ll do it now. This isn’t about me. I ran to help my community, literally; it sounds so naïve, so postcard-friendly; I just ran because I thought I had a skillset that might be able to help my community. I’m a feminist; I want to see more women at the table,” she said. “I don’t have an ego that says I need to be on city council for 40-something years. Because I just feel that it’s got to be what’s always best for the city.”
Despite the negatives, all three say they continue to serve because people entrusted them to, and the work is rewarding.
“It’s an honour and a privilege for sure,” said Porter. “I find lots of joy in it, and I find tons of rewards. You learn so much … and you get to work with staff who are professionals in their respective fields.”
Littleton said she’s been able to learn so much about her community and get to meet a lot of awesome people, and Ip sees it as an honour to have thousands of people put their faith in each of them to make these decisions.
“I’m going to stay in politics or leave, depending on what happens. But I am going to run again,” said Porter. “We want to attract more people to politics: more women, more people of colour, people from the LGBT community.”
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: With online discussions taking place over women in politics and how they’ve been treated locally, Niagara this Week wanted to speak with some councillors to see what it’s been like for them and shine a light on the behaviour.