Appointing a gender balanced cabinet was a laudable gesture by the Liberals, and even more so that women were appointed to senior positions. It has the powerful effect of telling girls that being a justice minister or foreign minister is absolutely normal. It signals to corporations, academia, conference organizers and management teams that coasting along without women at the table is no longer acceptable.
So, what is the message that is being transmitted when a senior cabinet minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is demoted for no reason obvious to the public? What do Canadians make of that senior cabinet minister having her judgment and decisions questioned over and over again?
Let’s start by assuming that Wilson-Raybould’s gender was not a factor in how eight men and two women interacted with her on the SNC-Lavalin file while she was attorney general and justice minister. Let’s say that this was a case of the kind of hard negotiations that typically go on behind the scenes in politics. She is no stranger to that cut and thrust. Some in cabinet were new to this world, but this former BC regional chief most certainly was not.
The problem is that her story of the workplace is so darn relatable – and familiar. Women know what it means to be undermined, condescended to, overlooked and ignored in the workplace no matter how much they’ve achieved. This is true whether you’re a woman who drinks Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, whether you’re a “Zoey” or a “Heather.”
Wilson-Raybould recounted how she was approached over and over again by the clerk of the privy council, members of the Prime Minister’s Office, the prime minister himself, and the finance minister’s office. They wanted her to trigger a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based company facing a criminal trial. It’s hard to ignore the larger power optics at play in male-dominated Ottawa – as Paul Wells has noted, the circle of folks lobbying around this matter was exclusively male. Wilson-Raybould says she was warned that SNC’s lawyer, former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, “is not a shrinking violet.”
Those who approached Wilson-Raybould offered to hire an “eminent person” to advise her. (My experience is that most people described as “eminent” in Ottawa are men.)
“I said NO. My mind had been made up and they needed to stop – enough,” she said of one conversation with two PMO staffers.
That didn’t quite do the trick, though. In a meeting with the clerk weeks later, she was forced to underline again, “I am confident in where I am at on my views on SNC and the DPA [and they] have not changed – this is a constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence.”
No matter how many times she said she had made a decision, she had done her homework, please stop talking about this, it wasn’t enough.
And then suddenly she was demoted to the position of minister of veterans affairs.
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A voter might ask, at exactly what age or level of experience or position does a woman stop having to defend her judgment? Wilson-Raybould, 47, has been a Crown prosecutor in BC, a treaty commissioner, an elected band councillor and regional chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations. She became attorney general and justice minister in 2015, surely a position a prime minister fills with great care and research. And still.
That there is a different standard for women in the workplace is by now a banal subject. Women have to work harder to be recognized in the same manner as men. To dispute this is to not be paying attention to the way the world functions. The Pew Research Center recently published data that women in majority-male workplaces are less likely to see fair treatment.
I have strained to recall another occasion in the last two decades where a male cabinet minister was handed such a major demotion without there being a reason that everyone was clear on – leaving sensitive documents at the home of a girlfriend with prior biker ties, for example. I can easily recall, on the flipside, really smart women being demoted – Rona Ambrose in 2007 after being forced to sell a flaming pile of garbage climate policy.
Any woman in a leadership position I have met, who works in male dominated circles, has stories to tell of having her ideas and authority undermined, and being “mansplained” in an area in which she is clearly the expert. Add to this the typical put-downs that women contend with – too emotional, too aggressive, too abrasive, out of her league. Wilson-Raybould faced this as well, with a colleague publicly suggesting her father was “pulling the strings” and that she “couldn’t handle the stress.” If anything, MP Jati Sidhu is profoundly unoriginal when throwing shade.
Again, the eight men and two women who pressed Wilson-Raybould to change her mind, who ignored her entreaties that they were treading on dangerous ethical ground, might have treated a male colleague like Ralph Goodale or Marc Garneau precisely the same way. From my interactions with some of these individuals, I certainly have no indication that they are anything but respectful.
But perception is everything in politics, and the perception here of how this accomplished woman was treated is something the Liberals will have to work to repair. Wilson-Raybould’s sang-froid testimony was not one of a victim, but rather someone who wanted to be truly heard – a desire that women can understand.
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