Violence and harassment against women in Canadian politics

How barriers to participation for women and underrepresented people weaken democracy

House of Commons Chamber (December 2015)

Photo: © 2015 Library of Parliament / Martin Lipman

After the 2021 federal election, women held 30% of the seats (103 of 338) in Canada’s House of Commons. While that’s the highest percentage the country has ever had, since this story was first published in March 2022, Canada has moved even further down in ranking from 59th in the world for women’s representation in national legislatures to 61st (Rwanda is first, followed by Cuba). To help understand why this is, Tracey Raney, professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University, is studying how violence and harassment act as barriers that keep women and underrepresented people out of politics—and the effect this is having on people, politics and democracy.

“Public policies and decisions made on behalf of Canadians are better if there’s a diversity of voices at the table, but those voices are being silenced,” says Raney. “We need to look at how to change that.”

Listening to women’s voices

After allegations of sexual harassment and assault surfaced in Canadian politics in 2014, Raney began to consider how violence and harassment serve as barriers to women in politics. In 2017, the second wave of the #MeToo movement put a global spotlight on the continued problem of sexual assault in the workplace. Legislatures and constituency offices are workplaces, too—and as more women and Black, Indigenous and people of colour candidates and elected officials came forward to share their experiences, Raney realized there was a lot of work to do in this area.

“Past research on the underrepresentation of women in politics looked at everything from the role of political parties and the electoral system to the way women and men are socialized into politics,” she explains. “I wanted to dig deeper into the ways violence and harassment are unique deterrents to women’s political representation in their own ways.”

Photo: © House of Commons Canada

Raney is now exploring this issue with the support of three SSHRC grants. First, through a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant, she worked with the not-for-profit Equal Voice to review the prevalence of violence against women in legislatures around the world, and what different countries are doing to address the issue. Second, with Cheryl Collier from the University of Windsor, she received a SSHRC Insight Grant to study responses to sexual harassment in provincial and territorial legislatures. For her current project, also funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant, Raney is analyzing the Senate of Canada’s rules and norms from a gender perspective. That includes looking at the Senate’s response to Bill C-65, which seeks to address violence and harassment in federally regulated workplaces.

Real impacts on Canadian democracy

Through her research, Raney found that women (and especially racialized women) are disproportionately targeted by violence and harassment. What’s more, the problem is ubiquitous throughout Canadian politics: it happens at every level of government and in every party, regardless of political affiliation.

The targets are also varied. While candidates and elected officials experiencing violence and harassment get the most media attention, the problem extends to everyone in the political space, from journalists and election workers to staff members at riding offices and volunteers knocking on doors.

Raney has found that, not only are there individual consequences for people and their families, there is also real damage being done to democracy when women and people from underrepresented communities are discouraged from entering or staying in politics.

“When this harassment occurs in a public space, particularly on social media, it sends a message to all members of that group, whether women, Black or Indigenous, that they are not welcome in politics,” she explains.

Spreading the message

Raney hopes her research will increase awareness and influence policy related to this important issue. She has already provided expert advice to decision-makers in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia on developing policies to address violence and harassment in their parliaments. With Collier, she has co-edited a book, Gender-based Violence in Canadian Politics, now in the process of being published, and has co-authored a Canadian-focused chapter of Gender and Violence against Political Actors, an edited book that provides a global review of gendered violence in politics, and is due to be published in May 2023.

“I think it’s critical work,” Raney says. “When all citizens can’t participate on an equal playing field due to gender- and race-based violence, the democratic process is weakened.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Raney’s work, visit her website or read her articles in Huffington Post Canada and The Conversation. For more about women in legislatures, read the report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.