A photo of lawyer and independent Ontario 2022 provincial election candidate Naomi Sayers.
Lawyer and independent Ontario 2022 provincial election candidate Naomi Sayers. Credit: Naomi Sayers

In January 2019, Canada ranked 62 out of approximately 191 countries for its monthly ranking of women in national parliaments. Broken down, 90 out of 334 politicians were women at that time, or about 27%. In the 2018 provincial election, there were 49 out of 124 (about 39%) women elected to Ontario’s legislature. It was called a historic moment for any legislature in Canada. By May 2022, Canada moved up by three points to 59th place. Broken down, 103 out of 338 federal politicians were women, or 30.4%. There is minimal tracking other than media reporting for provincial legislatures about women’s participation in politics. There is a tracker by a feminist non-profit entity which at the time I drafted this did not include my name in my riding of Sault Ste. Marie. I emailed the entity to correct them. By publication, no correction has been made, nor has my email been acknowledged.*

Growing up in Canada as an Indigenous woman, seeing people like me represented in politics was uncommon. In fact, trust in the system was minimal at best. My grandparents did not vote, nor could they unless they gave up their Indian status, a legal status defined by the Indian Act and giving that up meant losing access to programs and benefits. My mom and dad were born in or around that time. They both went to Indian Day Schools, which sometimes allowed Indigenous pupils to return to their homes after school, but still had the abusive history similar to that of Indian Residential Schools. Given this reality, my family’s trust in Canada’s political system was fraught.

When women received the right to vote in Canada in 1917, it did not include Indigenous women, nor did it include Black, Asian, racialized, or disabled women. Indigenous women were unable to vote until the 1960s.

I understand why Indigenous people find it hard to believe or work in a system that was designed to get rid of the Indian in the child.

Since announcing my intention to run in this upcoming provincial election, I understood that I would likely experience some of the violence I have experienced previously simply by existing in the world as an Indigenous woman. I did not know how brazen some of this targeted harassment would be, however.

As some may know, the Ontario Liberal Party chose not to proceed with vetting my application to be their candidate. I provided a comprehensive file of materials that would be of interest to the party during this process – the exact same materials, plus more, that I provided to the Law Society of Ontario and the Law Society of Alberta in order to be called to the bar in each province (I am a fully licensed member of each bar now). Apparently, my disclosures were too voluminous, among other things, specifically referencing my over 200,000 social media posts, which is likely a reference to my Twitter. That same Twitter account has over 19,000 followers, with over 408,000 profile visits and over 1.77 million tweet impressions (accounts who engaged with my tweets) over the last 28 days as of Sunday, May 22. I decided to continue with my political candidacy as an independent because people in my riding are upset with being ignored, silenced and dismissed by politics down in Toronto, where our legislature sits. Most policy that comes out of Toronto also impacts larger urban centres, leaving smaller ridings like Sault Ste Marie feeling unheard, if not excluded from policy decisions.

Immediately after it was clear that I was not going to receive the support of a political party, accounts online began to cite defamatory articles discussing my tweets as some of the reasons. That would be speculation at best and at worst continuing the harassment because I was not given any specific reasons and I did not waste my time inquiring with that political party. I moved onward.

Then, came the private messaging from accounts belonging to males.

They start out with a simple “Hello.” But it became clear, soon enough, that they were not interested in talking about elections, nor my platform. The messaging has at one point become so intense that I have stopped engaging with males online directly and directed them to email my campaign email or my law firm email since it was unclear what they were messaging me about. Eventually, they would reveal their true intentions – they want to know if I am single.

This becomes demoralizing and tiring.

When I met my fellow woman candidate canvassing in my riding on Saturday, she asked me how I was. I broke down crying briefly and said I am experiencing sexual harassment.

I am used to it, sadly. Previously I would not engage and would simply block random men who add me to their social media. Many people think it is okay to sexually harass me, likely due to my very public background as a previous sex worker, or that I have some photos online that show my legs, or me at the beach. As a lawyer, I have received sexualized emails, saving years of photos enclosed with explicit emails sent directly to my law firm email. Past clients (past because I fired them) tell me they prefer to see me in a skirt. None of these situations makes sexual harassment okay.

Now, running a very public campaign, I have to think about what will happen to me if I respond in a way that men do not prefer – will they grow angry? Will they post my messages online? What about my physical safety?

Let me be clear, I do not believe all men are like this. I have engaged with many men since announcing my independent candidacy. I know that most men still care and want to engage with me and my platform in good faith, because many do. They ask me questions about issues, and I respond. I listen. I care about their perspectives and experiences.

My political campaign is not a Tinder profile, though. I am not looking to date, especially not as a result of my political campaign. I am looking at prioritizing voters, their concerns, their lives, and the issues that matter to them.

Researchers have found that women in politics experience many barriers, violence and harassment is one of these barriers.

There has been lots of discussion about a need to end sexual harassment in politics, but much of the conversation has been led by white women. While their experiences are valid, it’s harmful to Indigenous and other marginalized women when our experiences aren’t heard in the conversation. Our experiences are often disregarded because of a history of colonial violence–where our bodies are hyper-sexualized, and our opinions deemed less valid than those of men or white women. This is shown in the history I described above.

In 2020, former Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq chose not to run for a second term, citing a significant degree of racial profiling. Qaqqaq is a smart, composed, Inuit woman whose voice was much needed in Parliament. Unfortunately, it was clear that it wasn’t taken seriously in the current dynamics of our political system.

As Indigenous women, we have proved ourselves over and over again. We have to work overtime in order to be taken seriously. Myself included, a lawyer called in two bars who is well-published with both peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed articles, and past governance experience in-house at Ontario’s largest electricity distributer and transmitter and on a large feminist non-profit organization. So, when organizations that say they support women in politics ignore the voices and experience–or even the very candidacy of Indigenous, racialized, and marginalized women in politics, it is particularly hurtful because it means that we have to prove ourselves yet again to those who claim to be our allies.

I may not be running under a party banner. That wasn’t my choice, but it worked out for the better. That doesn’t mean I’m not a serious candidate. I am intelligent, an accomplished lawyer, and passionate about my community. I deserve to be given the same level of respect as any other person, of any race or gender, on the ballot.

*As of May 24, 2022, the feminist entity responded and indicated they do not track independent candidates.

Naomi Sayers

Naomi Sayers is a lawyer and Indigenous feminist, called to the Ontario (2018) and Alberta (2020) bars with nearly a decade of consultation experience. She regularly teaches at the university level on...