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The playing field is tilted against Jody Wilson-Raybould

The former attorney general has extensive political skills. As an Indigenous woman she is also navigating a system that’s still stacked against her.
Jody Wilson-Raybould leaves a Justice committee meeting in Ottawa, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Each time something new drops into public view on the Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin affair, it seems to render the present version of the story virtually unrecognizable from that of the previous day or week.

The former attorney general’s cooly thunderous testimony before the House of Commons justice committee last week had been arguably the most dramatic twist so far, but Jane Philpott resigning as Treasury Board president on Monday, citing her “lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter,” clocks in a tight second. And with two more key players—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick—set to testify this week, the ground seems destined to shift again.

But there is one central fact that is both nearly invisible by its obviousness and impossible to ignore, because it forms a lens through which to parse everything else, and that is the identity of the person at the centre of these events: an Indigenous woman.

In the concluding passage of her remarkable opening statement before the committee, Wilson-Raybould explicitly invoked her “lived experience” and sense of personal history.

“I was taught to always be careful of what you say, because you cannot take it back. I was taught to always hold true to your core values and principles and to act with integrity. These are the teachings of my parents, my grandparents and my community,” she said. “I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth-teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House. This is who I am and this is who I will always be.”

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And as the National Post‘s Tristin Hopper pointed out on Twitter recently, it’s possible that we wouldn’t know about any of this if she were someone else.

To Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science specializing in gender and politics at the University of Calgary, Wilson-Raybould painted a convincing portrait of the this-is-just-how-we-do-politics status quo encountering someone with plenty of experience with being underestimated, who simply refused to play along.

“They run full-tilt into an Indigenous woman who has developed extensive political leadership skills in Indigenous circles. I’m not surprised that this is where you meet your match, where she’s just like, ‘No, this is a line in the sand,'” Thomas says. “So when she says, ‘I looked him in the eye and I told him,’ she’s had to do that a lot.”

On Friday, B.C. Liberal MP Jati Sidhu opined that the former attorney general “wasn’t a team player,” “couldn’t handle the pressure” and that someone like her father must be behind the scenes “pulling the strings.” His remarks drew such immediate and furious blowback that he apologized within hours.

Even if he was an outlier, Thomas says it’s difficult to imagine a politician with a different demographic profile being slammed rather than lauded for the same stance. “If you had a minister of justice who was a man—especially who was a white man—standing up and saying, ‘This is a legal principle, and this is the hill I’m going to die on…,’ there would be more people coming out and talking about the excellent legal record, or that this is exactly what you would expect from an impressive jurist,” she says.

One central underlying issue is that stereotypes about what it means to be feminine are fundamentally at odds with what we think of as strong leadership, says Erin Tolley, an assistant professor of political science who specializes in diversity in politics at the University of Toronto. Psychology research uses the term “agentic” to describe the traits we think of as leadership material—rationality, assertiveness and taking command—and those qualities are stereotyped as masculine. Women, in contrast, are assumed to be “communal,” which means sacrificing themselves in order to help others.

“They start behind every other political aspirant because the men that they’re competing against are viewed as naturally possessing these agentic qualities—even if they don’t,” Tolley says. “We believe they’re leaders, and when we look at women, we don’t believe that, so women have to convince people that they’re leaders.”

A recent Canadian Press story in which Wilson-Raybould was described by anonymous Liberals as a “thorn in the side of cabinet,” difficult to get along with and “in it for herself”—comments Trudeau later condemned and apologized for, along with some sexist and tone-deaf editorial cartoons—can be seen as a manifestation of this tension.

“She was portraying these agentic qualities of being in command of her portfolio, of not bowing to pressure, these sorts of things,” Tolley says. “But when women portray these characteristics, they morph from being agentic characteristics into being difficult or a thorn in the side.”

That tension between how women are supposed to behave and how they may choose to act creates what’s termed an “expectancy violation,” she explains, and people react harshly to that. Both genders can fall prey to these, Tolley says, pointing to the opposition portrayals of Trudeau as fluffy, light and emotional in his early days as Liberal leader. But for women, it’s a particularly “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario because people are supposed to be tough and assertive to succeed in politics—exactly the characteristics women are not supposed to possess.

“The range of behaviour that women are permitted to exhibit in politics is just more narrow than it is for men,” Tolley says. “And when women violate those norms, they are judged more harshly.”

Of course, in real-life political situations—particularly a complex and subtle one like this, where key facts are still emerging—it is impossible to disentangle legitimate criticism or performance issues from judgments based on gender or racial bias.

That is where research illuminates things in isolation of messy real-world variables.

One 1993 study that’s a classic of the discipline asked participants to rate how well a range of traits described a “good” politician. They found a preference for masculine traits such as being assertive, tough and self-confident, compared to stereotypically female traits such as being warm, sensitive and talkative. That was particularly true for politicians at the national level, as opposed to those running locally or for legislative positions.

“Our findings do not suggest that women cannot gain national office,” the authors wrote. “Rather, they imply the existence of a bias against candidates who lack masculine traits. From this perspective, female candidates can win national office if they convince voters that they possess masculine traits and are competent on ‘male’ policy issues.”

A 2017 paper tested how voters would react to politicians criticized for failing in the areas that gender stereotypes dictate should be their strength.

The study used mock newspaper articles to present stories about opponents slagging a politician who “just does not have interpersonal skills needed to work with other representatives toward our policy goals’’ or “just does not have the confidence to speak up and pursue her ideas in policy.” A second pairing asked about bungling education versus security files. In each set, the former criticisms “violate gender-role expectations” for women, while the latter would do so for men. The researchers manipulated the gender of the faux-candidates to see the effect on voter support.

Female candidates were particularly vulnerable to attacks based on either set of personality traits, the study found, though being slammed for lacking supposedly feminine characteristics was especially damning. Male candidates were less susceptible to both kinds of attack. In terms of how voters react to candidates fumbling certain files, the authors found both genders suffer, but women are punished more harshly if they screw up in a stereotypically “feminine” policy area like education.

“Violating expectations about femininity has a more pronounced effect for women,” they conclude.

The response to Wilson-Raybould is inseparable from her Indigenous identity, too, Thomas says, and from some sense that her role as attorney general was a “gift” for which an appropriate level of gratitude and deference should be shown. “I think that there’s going to be a question, ‘We’ve given you this great position, so you should pay us back, what more could you possibly want?'” she says. “I don’t think that anybody would do that to Bill Morneau.”

Women and racialized politicians navigate political institutions that simply weren’t built for them, Tolley says, pointing out that Indigenous women didn’t have the universal right to vote in Canada until the 1960s. In the present situation, of course, political traditionalists would argue that cabinet solidarity matters and if you sit around that table, you get in line, Tolley points out—but insisting on that ignores the reason Wilson-Raybould came into politics in the first place.

“If you’re going to recruit somebody into politics because they bring this different perspective, then you have to be prepared that they are going to push back against some of these conventions, and they might say things that aren’t always falling into line,” she says. “Because (if you’re) going to capitalize on having diverse representation in your cabinet, having diverse representation in your caucus, really promoting all that you’ve done to get women and racialized people into politics, then you need to be prepared that the institution you are bringing them into is going to have to change a bit.”

Because, after all, it’s now 2019.