The women running for Calgary mayor describe slurs, taunts, harassment

Jyoti Gondek says some of the messages her mayoral campaign have received have reduced staffers to tears.

The city councillor says she’s used to the racist, misogynistic slurs and taunts she’s endured for the past four years as the representative for Ward 3, but it’s been tough for her volunteers and supporters to see it for the first time.

“There are a number of volunteers and supporters on my team that have been exposed to things that they’ve never experienced before, and it shocked them,” she said.

“What I’m disturbed by is how quickly it’s ramped up and how much more emboldened people are to spew such hate and terrible personal things.”

Mayoral hopeful Jan Damery raised the issue this week during a virtual debate, so CBC News decided to check in with all four women who are running for the top job at City Hall to find out what they’ve seen, heard and experienced during the campaign, which has just over two weeks left.

“The abuse we take, the misogyny we take,” Damery told the forum.

Her team has since been posting short videos on social media reciting some of the messages they’ve received, and they’re not easy to hear.

‘Mean tweets’

It’s Damery’s version of a late-night TV comedy bit in which celebrities read “mean tweets” about themselves.

“What a two-faced bitch, lies, lies, lies,” read one staffer, who was quoting one of the messages.

“This broad is a lunatic,” read another.

“Shut your pie hole, you’re not a doctor and have zero business weighing in on any mandate. You are officially a mayoral hopeless,” read another.

Damery says she’s not deterred, but the comments do have an impact.

“I’ve always sort of tilted at windmills a little bit, kind of gone into territories where women traditionally don’t go, [so] I compartmentalize. And so I feel it, yeah, it hurts. But it doesn’t stop me, and it doesn’t crater me,” she said.

Campaign signs damaged, stolen

Grace Yan had to call the police after her vehicle was targeted by thieves outside her downtown campaign office. A back window was smashed and campaign materials were stolen.

Her big campaign signs, the size of a sheet of plywood, have also been damaged, defaced or stolen. She’s since embedded GPS tracking devices in some of them. She says her signs are targeted every day.

Campaign signs have been defaced in Calgary during the civic election. (Mike Symington/CBC News)

On top of that, there have been racist slurs and misogynistic and derogatory comments on social media.

“This stuff just keeps happening. And, obviously, the trolls on social media, they just keep, you know, it’s really something, it’s shocking,” said Yan.

She says all of this is happening when some people are going through financial, emotional and mental fatigue tied to the slumping economy and a devastating fourth wave of the pandemic.

“It takes a lot of courage to stand for mayor and for each candidate to be running. We just have to be understanding and kind to one another.”

Heightened vitriol

The founder of a local organization that advocates for gender equality and a woman’s right to be in politics hopes current and future candidates will not be deterred by these incidents.

Sarah Elder-Chamanara, who founded Madame Premier, says the vitriol “is heightened’ because the incumbent mayor is not running for re-election and people must decide “what kind of city Calgary is going to be,” she said.

“There are those who are running to maintain the status quo and then there are those, a lot of whom are women, who are running to change things, and that is scaring a lot of people,” said Elder-Chamanara.

A photo of mayoral candidate Grace Yan’s car that was broken into in August. Calgary police say they are investigating the matter. (Grace Yan)

She says harassing phones calls, texts, social media posts and sign damage are an intimidation tactic meant to “scare” women who are running for either councillor or mayor.

“You just have to keep fighting on because the people who are working against this effort to see more representation in politics, that is what they want. They want women to just be scared.”

Keeping candidates away

While Gondek and her team try to cope with the anger and hate from some constituents, she knows several people who opted out of the campaign because of the potential for harassment and abuse.

“I know of at least four candidates, who would have been amazing city builders, and would have been excellent candidates. And they will not do this. For the exposure that it gives to their family, first and foremost, is what they were worried about. And the toll it would take on their well-being.

“We are losing good people because of what’s happening.”

So far, Virginia Stone says she has no regrets entering the race for mayor, even though she’s encountered the same abusive and anti-women rhetoric as the other female candidates, but not to the same extent.

The born-and-raised Calgary entrepreneur and philanthropist says she was called out for a photo on her website that shows her wearing a men’s dress shirt with cufflinks. A woman told her that she liked her election platform but couldn’t vote for her because of the picture. 

“I lost her vote because she thought I threw women back in time by two decades because of the pictures on my website,” said Stone. 

“All I want to do, win or lose, is encourage more women to be brave enough to step up and to go to the plate and to fight the tough fight.… It’s not easy running in politics, that’s for sure. Every day, it’s a battle. 

Gondek agrees that it’s a battle.

“Of course, it’s personal. Someone just attacked you and you feel it. What you choose to do with how you feel is how people deal with things differently. I need to put it away,”

“I have an election to win,” she said.


Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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