Mayor Nicole Read is back running Maple Ridge council following a security scare that kept her away for five weeks.
While the threat has diminished, the issue of harassment and bullying of female politicians remains, and Read wants to keep the discussion going.
It’s not a matter of being a politician and growing a thick skin and just having to take the abuse and threats hurled your way, she says.
No one should put up with intimidation, whatever role they’re in.
“This was really hard to go through,” said Read. “It’s not OK for this to happen to anybody, not anywhere.
“I think in this social media age, we’re dealing with a lot of specific challenges for women with all of this online hate on social media.”
According to a 2016 study from Switzerland, sexism, harassment and violence against women in politics is widespread.
The Inter Parliamentary Union reports that 82 per cent of women politicians in a survey reported psychological violence.
Female MPs in Ottawa have also recently recounted harassment.
Read first heard of the threat against her from the Ridge Meadows RCMP sometime in mid-March.
“I did not alert the RCMP, the RCMP alerted me,” she said.
“This was not a social media threat.”
Police responded by asking her to curtail her public appearances for a few weeks, and accompanied her whenever she appeared in public.
Police have assured her that the risk is now low and Read is awaiting completion of a safety plan at city hall that will improve both the safety of the mayor and councillors. With that plan in place, she hopes she’ll be able to talk to the media and public about issues without having to fear for her safety.
Meanwhile, the police investigation is continuing, although no one has been charged.
“There were measures put in place to ensure the safety of the mayor and her family,” said an RCMP spokesperson, who cannot be named.
Since being elected mayor, Read has had exchanges on social media about various issues and doesn’t mind people disagreeing. However, at one point, comments were made online against her while she was in a restaurant with her family.
That and other comments caused her to cut back her presence on Facebook. She is no longer posting on Nicole for Maple Ridge Facebook page.
“Social media is out of control,” she said.
“Their intent is just to demean me, so what’s the point anymore?”
Read is OK with dissent, and she’ll have strong opinions on issues and express those.
“The challenges that we face are people who step over the line.”
Sometimes people say that she shouldn’t talk to the media about homelessness because it encourages so much hate. That’s concerning because that’s saying she should no longer have a voice because people can’t control themselves, Read said. It would be expedient to do that, but not addressing the issue would mean Maple Ridge wouldn’t be able to make any progress on those issues.
“But I think that’s what we’ve seen in the past. It doesn’t get us forward.”
Former Maple Ridge school board trustee and city councillor Cheryl Ashlie has faced similar issues and says no one should have to accept the abuse that takes place online.
Ashlie had to deal with one man with mental health problems who was showing too much interest in her when she was serving as chair of the school board in the early 2000s.
Police became involved and she dealt with the issue privately.
“You do need to, when you’re dealing with people, is to not give it legs.”
On two other occasions when she was constituency assistant to former MLA Doug Bing, Ashlie had to deal with angry, unbalanced guys who had been let into the office.
“Until you’re looking in the eyes of crazy … and you can tell what you’re looking at is not thinking rationally, it is a very frightening experience,” Ashlie said.
“At one time, I didn’t know whether I was going to be hit or not. It was quite concerning. Managed to talk him down and get him out of the building.”
But Ashlie says women also bring their own skills that can de-escalate conflict.
She added that women are naturally programmed to look out for their own safety, even when just leaving the office for the night.
“Women are always having to scan the environment because we are the ones most likely to have an assault. So we are trained to always be on guard. You never stop that.”
And until something actually happens, it’s difficult to predict how anyone would react.
“Nobody can be judged for how they can respond to that. Because you don’t know until you’re faced with it, what your own personal response will be, to that kind of threat.
“No matter who it is, it’s unacceptable.”
Marjorie Cohen, professor emeritus with SFU’s department of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, said she hopes that the rest of Maple Ridge council will support Read.
“This is the kind of thing women in the public eye have to deal with, particularly when they take strong stances,” she said.
“When people are threatening, what they’re trying to do is shut you down.”
It’s hard, she added, for outsiders to know what happened.