Even during Question Period, it’s unusual for every seat in the Canadian House of Commons to be occupied. But, over four days in April, a not-for-profit organization called Equal Voice Canada held its second annual conference there and filled the chamber with politically active young women from every region of Canada. The taxpayer-funded event, entitled Daughters of the Vote (DotV), was intended to encourage women’s participation in electoral politics. After the youthful delegates took their places in the handsome chamber-room, with its ornate wooden panelling and stained glass windows, they were welcomed by the Hon. Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only female prime minister. (Campbell, a Conservative, served briefly in 1993 when she inherited a faltering administration from Brian Mulroney.)
The National Observer reported that, of the 338 young attendees, 146 “identified as a visible minority” and 39 were Indigenous. “Many of you,” Campbell acknowledged, “are activists…for issues about which you feel passionately…who want to make changes…to fulfill your vision for the country.” But, she warned, anyone serving in Ottawa must remember that everyone else there “had exactly the same right to express their views.” Civility, Campbell added, “is even more important in the age of social media.”
Within an hour of Campbell’s plea, approximately 40 delegates stood up at their seats and turned their backs on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to protest his expulsion of two female MPs from the liberal caucus the previous day. In March, Equal Voice had presented Trudeau with their annual EVE award for his “commitment to amplifying women’s role in public life.” Now, at an event he had made possible by sending tax dollars their way, young women were accusing him of ignoring misogyny, indigenous genocide, Inuit suicide, and Islamophobia. When Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer spoke, dozens of delegates walked out of the chamber. The Green party leader Elizabeth May, on the other hand, was greeted with loud hoots of delight.
The protesting delegates were dismayed to find themselves criticized for these actions in the media and by many of their peers. Six of them contacted the National Observer, an independent newspaper, which then shared their story in a lengthy and highly sympathetic article. The six women, the Observer reported, had experienced “a series of discriminatory encounters” at the conference “that left them feeling unsafe, unacknowledged, and traumatized.” Equal Voice responded with an apologetic message on its website, which read, in part: “Of the 338 delegates, it was clear that the majority had an overall positive experience…Equal Voice sincerely regrets that some delegates experienced harassment in person or online.”
But Equal Voice’s critics were not so easily appeased. Now, an even uglier episode has plunged the organization into an existential crisis, battered by accusations of racism and white supremacy that it is seemingly helpless to deflect. The newly hired executive director is facing a personnel and public relations nightmare. What follows is the story of a well-intentioned initiative ambushed from within by a radical minority of activists whose zealotry threatens to destroy a program set up to help women enter political life. To observers, this row offers a reminder that the greatest threats to progressive campaigns come not from the conservative Right, but from their own puritanical fringes.
Three New Hires
Equal Voice was founded in 2001 to assist Canadian women who wish to enter electoral politics and raise the proportion of female representation at all levels of government. Executive director Eleanor Fast describes the organization as “multi-partisan,” which she affirms means “supporting women of all political stripes.” It is not a large organization. In addition to a handful of staffers at the national office, there are nine regional volunteer-supported chapters, which help provide services like campaign bootcamps for aspiring female politicians. It is not a charity and can’t issue tax receipts.
After some lean years during the previous Conservative administration, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals turned the taps on after their return to power in 2015. Money rained down on Equal Voice—over five million dollars’ worth—to enable the Daughters of the Vote conference and other programs. Fast, an experienced non-profit administrator with a warm and engaging smile, stepped into the position of executive director on the eve of the 2019 DotV event. It was her job to oversee the newly-expanded staff and a host of ambitious—if abstract—initiatives, including the systemic change program.
Shanese Indoowaaboo Steele, 26, Cherie Wong and Leila Moumouni-Tchouassi, both 23, told the National Observer that “they were hired to help the organization become more equitable…[because] Equal Voice had a problem with racial discrimination.” Given their youth, they did not have extensive employment backgrounds but all had been very active at university. Moumouni-Tchouassi was a former vice-president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) and Wong had led the campus Green Party affiliate there. Steele was the Vice-President of Equity for the Trent University Student Association, where she proposed a speaker for an event entitled “It’s Okay To Be (Against) White(ness).”
Wong, who was hired as a policy analyst for the systemic change project, has stated that the new hires were not trying to create equality, but equity, an important distinction which focusses not on equality of opportunity but equality of outcome. “I literally need equity just to survive,” Steele told a local radio host after her dismissal. Despite their job titles, it is apparent that the young women were not given much, if any, autonomy in their roles and their remarks make it clear that their co-workers mistrusted their judgment, and, increasingly, their work habits. From their point of view, they were providing exactly what they had been asked to provide—strategies to overcome systemic barriers—and they were being ignored or shut down. “We were constantly being told that we don’t understand. That we [don’t] have enough experience on [Parliament] Hill,” Steele told the Hill Times, an Ottawa political newsletter.
The three young women felt thwarted over many of the details for the DotV event in April. They later said they had to fight to get a black-delegates-only panel, a designated safe space room, anti-racism and anti-oppression training sessions, and that many of their other requests were refused. Tensions continued through the spring and summer. As Wong later told reporter Fatima Syed, “We had literally been banging our heads against the wall.”
Increasingly dissatisfied with the performance and attitude of the three young women, Eleanor Fast did what any prudent manager would do—she increased her supervision of their activities and she laid out her expectations for them. She directed them to stop using Equal Voice equipment for outside projects, stop watching TV during work hours, and account for their time and activities. These reprimands were not well received. “My ancestors,” Steele complained, “did not survive 300 years of slavery to feel like I had an overseer.”
After a tense staff meeting in May, Moumouni-Tchouassi emailed Fast to complain that she was making “abhorring and generalized statements.” The three staffers were “faced with the most malapropos work practices.” The email called Fast’s competence and integrity into question. “[T]here is only so much harassment, mismanagement, and discrimination we will take.” She concluded the email with “Best regards.” The fact that she made her correspondence with Fast public can only mean she believes that anyone reading it would take her side in the dispute.
Moumouni-Tchouassi was hired as an engagement officer but, ironically, when she was a vice-president at the student federation at the University of Ottawa, she was accused of helping to create a toxic work environment and being an aloof and negligent administrator. Her modus operandi was to de-platform those she perceived as ideological foes. In 2017, she ordered the members of the Right to Life club to take down a public display. The club later received an unsigned but awkwardly worded email stating: “This email is to inform you of your club’s removal from the SFUO clubs system. This decision was made due to the ways in which your mandate is in contention with the SFUO’s principles.” She was successful in cutting off funding for the pro-life club, but not in her efforts to defund the University’s two Jewish clubs and to pass a BDS resolution.
“That’s Their Catchphrase”
This exclusionary approach is reflected in Cherie Wong’s indictment of Equal Voice:
Equal Voice is an organization that has refused to draw the line. Whenever policy or political ideologies are brought up—like, “why are you supporting this candidate who is blatantly racist?”—we don’t talk policy, we only talk about, “support all women in politics.” That’s their catchphrase: “we support all women no matter what they believe in.” And that has manifested into a kind of tolerance for white supremacy.
Wong had referred to a female candidate as a “Nazi defender” on one of her personal social media accounts and was warned by Fast, but Wong would not concede that libelling women was not appropriate for someone working in a multi-partisan organization. Equal Voice is a corporate entity restricted not by a mere “catchphrase,” but by its articles of incorporation, and it is therefore unable to draw a line to exclude the women Wong dislikes. Equal Voice was founded—and is funded—“to create public awareness about the under-representation of women…in elected political positions.”
Deviating from their mandate would not only defeat Equal Voice’s reason for existing but threaten its very existence. Furthermore, the executive director is responsible for ensuring that grant monies are spent for the purposes stipulated by the donors, and not on the political agendas of the staff. When I asked Fast if she had attempted to drill these basic, easily comprehensible facts into the head of her recalcitrant staffer, she declined to comment, citing privacy and confidentiality issues. Wong’s refusal to accept and abide by the foundational premises of the organization should have been grounds for dismissal. Instead, things took a much more personal and ugly turn.
In late July, Steele posted “my E[xecutive ]D[irector] is an ignorant white colonizer” on her Instagram account, and Moumouni-Tchouassi and Wong re-posted the comment to their own. Three days later, they were all were fired, reportedly for harassment of their colleagues at Equal Voice and defamation of Fast. A publicity nightmare swiftly ensued that shows no signs of abating. The National Observer responded to these developments with another sympathetic article by Fatima Syed, who had profiled the six DotV protesters, and the three former staffers lit up Twitter, with the most effective online attacks coming from Cherie Wong: “Very ironic in how I was responsible (& successful) to make systemic change happen for elected womxn, but fired for attempting systemic change in my own workplace.” She has also called out Equal Voice’s corporate donors and asked them to stop supporting the organization.
Convinced that racism was the reason for their termination—an accusation that Eleanor Fast emphatically denies—Steele claimed that Equal Voice had taken down the staff profiles from the organization website to hide the fact that there were no longer any women of color on the payroll. “That is absolutely untrue,” Fast tells me. She says the staff profiles were pulled down at the request of some of the remaining staff, who—owing to the negative coverage and the blistering social media campaign—were receiving abusive messages. “The safety of our staff is paramount.” Fast kept her own profile up. “I have continued to receive a lot of abuse online,” she says.
From the Right and the Left
The conflict between management and the young staffers at Equal Voice is not only an ideological divide, but a generational one, and the younger cohort employs a particularly dramatic lexicon. There is no such thing as valid criticism. There are only “attacks,” “bullying,” “blowback,” “gaslighting,” and “silencing.” People don’t go somewhere, they “enter a space.” There is no anecdotal testimony which may or may not reflect the truth of the larger picture, there is only “lived experience” and “our own truths.”
After days of being called white supremacists, and being outflanked and condemned on the Left, Equal Voice responded with another meek apology: “We know we can do better. We are committed to doing better.” Their soft answer did not turn away wrath, however, it only inflamed it. The passive voice non-profit jargon, with its talk of commitment and empowering and stakeholders and best practices, now seems out-of-date and particularly feeble in the face of the onslaught against the organization.
But Equal Voice also has its critics on the Right who believe conservative ideas and conservative women have gotten short shrift from the organization over the years. It was not only delegates of color who felt bullied at the 2019 DotV event. Hannah Dawson Murphy, a 22-year-old conservative candidate from Nova Scotia, admitted to me that she disapproved of the walk-out and described it as a “hissy fit.” Her disapproval brought a swarm of invective. “One girl came up to me and called me a racist for clapping for [a Conservative pro-life MP].” Other attendees insulted her weight and appearance, and told her she shouldn’t wear the little crucifix necklace she always wears.
There is evidence that some of the delegates gave as good as they got: an Inuit woman who complained of being bullied sent a (since deleted) tweet after a meet-the-politicians-event which read: “Please tell me why slimy white old men were made to “mingle” with the [delegates]?” Another delegate recently tweeted: “I said to another delegate after she went after me for ‘disrespecting our former prime minister.’ Why should I show respect to someone who makes me feel like less than a person on my ancestral homelands?” A Muslim delegate was the target of hundreds of anonymous abusive and frightening social media posts and comments, to which she responded with courage and dignity. But she could not resist playing politics, and tried to implicate Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, although she presented no evidence in support of her claim.
This youthful cohort are completely uninhibited about emphasizing their emotional fragility. They could benefit from studying the video of Kim Campbell’s adamantine strength under pressure when she walked out onto an empty stage to give her concession speech after the catastrophic 1993 election, when her party was reduced from 154 seats to just two. For this new generation of feminists, such stoicism is disdained in favour of being “in tears,” “devastated,” “literally weeping,” and “literally tear(ing) up in shock,” like the unhappy DotV delegates who “sat in a room for six hours and cried over their experience.” When Moumouni-Tchouassi suggested that alcohol be banned from the DotV event, a manager replied, “If [the delegates] can’t be around alcohol, they’ll never make it on the Hill.” This remark, Moumouni-Tchouassi told reporter Fatima Syed more than three months later, had left her “shaken.”
Fast told the Hill Times, an Ottawa political newsletter, that Equal Voice has since hired a “senior equity adviser.” “Senior” hopefully means someone older than 25.
Equal Voice is not, and cannot be, the kind of organization the three fired staffers and their allies want, and for the simple reason that it was not incorporated for that purpose. This was a lesson Moumouni-Tchouassi failed to learn when her radical agenda and high-handed tactics at the University of Ottawa helped lead to the destruction of the SFUO and its replacement by another student union. However, the lip service paid by Equal Voice to equity and diversity, and the emphasis on recruiting Daughters of the Vote from marginalized backgrounds has, quite understandably, laid them open to charges of hypocrisy and tokenism.
Amy Kishek, a former board member of Equal Voice, co-host of the “Bad and Bitchy” podcast, and a grievance officer for a government union, has publicly stated that the organization she formerly supported is now past saving. “You cannot fix a broken political system without disrupting the current social order,” she wrote. “You cannot bring more young women of colour and Indigenous women into political spaces without also doing the work of decolonizing these spaces.”
Michelle Rempel, a conservative member of parliament, is dubious about the premise of a multi-partisan organization and thinks that the organizers of Equal Voice have not always been representative of the full spectrum of Canadian politics. At a time when many women on the Left would deny that a conservative woman can even be a feminist, “we have to unpack the notion of feminism.” Good intentions are not enough. She thinks an organization should receive public funds only if it can demonstrate that it has “achieved the purported results—how many women have been elected?” Conservative MP Rachael Harder thinks Equal Voice is a “noble” idea, but she feels the leaders of the organization “have traditionally been quite left leaning,” as evidenced by “what we saw with DotV in the spring and the way those on the political Right were treated by the staff and by other girls within the program.”
The efforts of Wong, Steele, and Moumouni-Tchouassi to advance their own political agendas made a rupture inevitable. And perhaps the rupture and its loud fallout was not only inevitable, but intentional. As part of her vigorous Twitter campaign against her former employer, Wong asked the rhetorical question: “Why do we keep pouring taxpayer money…into an organization that upholds white supremacy and oppression? Why do we not give money to organizations that are engaging women meaningfully?”
Wong is now promoting The Young Womxn’s Leadership Network (YWLN) as the kind of organization that deserves support. As it happens, the YWLN was founded by Arezoo Najibzadeh, a friend and supporter of the three fired women, and a fierce critic of Equal Voice. As a delegate at the inaugural Daughter of the Vote event in 2017, she planned to protest the sexual harassment of women in politics by refusing to take her seat. As she recalls, the Equal Voice organizers (who at that time were mostly volunteers) would not cooperate with her plan to mount a campaign on the back of an event they had organized and paid for. As she told Desmond Cole when she appeared on his show with Steele, “As long as you were…going with what they had planned for you, [the organizers] were okay…but as soon as you started to build your own narrative and use that space to tell your own story…you were constantly shut up….I was totally erased from the narrative.” Two years later, a cohort of about 40 delegates grabbed the spotlight and hijacked the event.
#DaughtersoftheVote demand accountability from @EqualVoiceCa. Firing 4 Black, Indigenous, & racialized womxn is a part of the larger toxic culture of white supremacy and discrimination that runs in #NotSoEqualVoice #cdnpoli pic.twitter.com/xiUzVGn6js
— Arezoo/آرزو (@ArezooJaan) August 12, 2019
Equal Voice was established to teach young women about the ins and outs of politics. Instead, Equal Voice is getting schooled. As more and more former Daughters of the Vote go online to allege that their free trip to Ottawa was a horrible, traumatic, miserable experience because of the pervasive misogyny and racism to which they were allegedly subjected, they are showing an adeptness with social media and a facility for partisanship which rivals that of the most experienced old backbencher. Equal Voice, meanwhile, continues to respond to its critics’ fury with meekness—Eleanor Fast said she would “be happy to discuss” giving a political action grant to a group of young women who have accused her of gaslighting and traumatizing them. “We will advance change, with or without @EqualvoiceCA,” Wong has tweeted. “Either be the change, or be the obstacle that we destroy.”
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