It is 1990. I am so young that my face looks like a blank slate in my official Legislature ID photo. I am so excited about this part-time job. I am a student of history and journalism, and being on the floor of the Legislature as a page will let me feel like I’m part of history being made—part of our province’s story being written.
Being a page is not glamourous. It’s a lot of fetching coffee for MLAs, and (in this era before the internet) looking up information and making photocopies.
It is also, I learn, an uncomfortable dance between being noticed, but not being groped.
Our MLA ‘mentors’ are helpful, friendly—but there are strings attached. We jockey to be the favourite of certain MLAs. We struggle to avoid others who are a bit too friendly. There is a whisper-network about who to avoid, why we should never be alone in a room with certain MLAs. I put up with hands resting on my bum in the Legislative chambers; my shoulders being massaged in the kitchen outside the chambers; men pressing themselves close against me, asking me for drinks, asking if I have a boyfriend and what we like to do together. This is normal. This is just the way things are.
I leave after a year. For a time, I tell myself I hate politics. What I really hated, though, was feeling like an amusement, an object for middle-aged white men from out of town to chase.
I don’t talk about it. I don’t complain to anyone. Why would I? As a 20-year-old woman, this is the world.
It is 1998. One of my social work mentors, a woman I love and admire greatly, has recently been elected as an MLA for the official opposition. At her urging, I apply for and get a job as the party’s health researcher.
I have never enjoyed a job as much as I enjoy this—not before, and not in the years since. I love the work. I love reaching out to people in the community to hear their concerns and bring issues to light. I love that I am good at it. I love knowing that my work made a critical contribution to not getting that budget passed, and a snap election being called.
I do not love many other things. The caucus office often feels like a frat house. Footballs are thrown. Often, they are thrown at me. Inappropriate jokes are told. ‘The Boys’ (any staff who are not female) are invited out for drinks after work. They are buddies with the MLAs. My female co-workers and I are not. We are not even informed these drink meetings are happening, and only hear about them after the fact. In politics, being left out means you are ‘out.’ Those on the inside have the connections, the information. My female colleagues and I are marginalized and fight for scraps of information. Frustrated, we watch our male colleagues get plum assignments and more senior positions not because of their ability, but because they had access to the decision-makers and information that we didn’t have.
I sit with a close friend and fellow staff member as she cries with anger and disgust after an MLA grabbed her and rubbed his crotch against her. More than once. And there is no one for her to officially complain to.
I stand outside a media scrum at the Legislature and ignore MLAs from another party who loudly discuss the length of my skirt, how I’m small enough to “put under an arm and carry to a back room.” They call me “Policy Barbie,” to my face.
At election campaign time, I listened to my female coworkers talking in low voices in the staff kitchen, negotiating who would travel with whom, so that no one would have to be alone with certain MLAs.
After the election, staff reductions were necessary. Many women lost their jobs. I was the only women left in research. My responsibilities increased, but my influence diminished. The frat house atmosphere worsened. There wasn’t even a pretence of including me in discussions (most of which took place in bars, at meetings I didn’t even know were happening). Within months, I left. On my last day, my manager (who went on to have his own career as an MLA) told me he’d seen what was going on, and apologized for not stopping it. I don’t recall how I answered. I probably said, “That’s OK.” But it wasn’t OK. It was not OK to see misogyny and to do nothing. It was not OK to watch someone who was passionate about her work and good at it just walk away in disgust and defeat because of the atmosphere of toxic masculinity.
It was not OK.
Should I have stayed and fought?
Who would have listened?