The UCP’s war on women (and why it might cost them the next election)

When Wing Kar Li revealed Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s personal connection to a private health brokerage that stood to benefit from decisions he was making as a minister, the United Conservative Party attacked her on social media. As the situation unfolded and threats started rolling in, Li began to worry that enraged supporters would find her home and seek retribution. 

While going after Jillian Ratti for a video she posted that was critical of Premier Jason Kenney and his caucus, Kenney’s ‘issues manager’ Matt Wolf linked to a photo of Ratti’s children. Ratti described having a senior government staffer draw attention to it while attacking her as “extremely distressing.”

Melanee Thomas did an interview in which she was critical of Kenney. And so the Premier went after her too, calling Thomas out by name in the legislature and attacking her academic credentials. 

And Stacey Speta was subjected to a flood of explicit online threats after she participated in a press event with NDP MLA Sarah Hoffman around cuts to students with complex needs and then criticized the UCP’s response to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assault rifle ban.

Each in their own way, Thomas, Ratti, Li, and Speta were targets in the UCP’s ongoing war against outspoken women in Alberta.

Wing Kar li, Dr. Jillian Ratti, Stacey Speta, Melanee Thomas. Photos supplied.

The untouchables

Jason Kenney and the UCP just can’t seem to stop themselves from abusing the platform of the provincial government to attack women who dare to criticize them.

"I have to be honest," wrote Thomas in a lengthy thread about being called out by Premier Kenney in the legislature, "to be directly targeted by a head of government is chilling."

When Dr. Ratti pointed out hundreds of postings on an international recruitment site for doctors, UCP attacks on her escalated from social media to the legislature. While Premier Jason Kenney vociferously denied issues with doctors leaving Alberta, Health Minister Tyler Shandro referenced Ratti twice when responding to questions about the postings. 

The attacks from within Alberta’s halls of power similarly shook Dr. Ratti. 

“These references in the legislature were like Shandro saying, 'We're watching you,’” said Ratti. “‘We know you're watching this. And we want you to know that we will keep the pressure up and use whatever tools we deem necessary to keep you in line.'"

Li and Speta also found themselves in the crosshairs of UCP ministers.

“Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange suggested that the parents who participated in an event around funding for disabled children that Sarah Hoffman coordinated should be ashamed of ourselves,” said Speta. “She basically said that we were all political props.”

The allegations slung at Li were even more vicious. In an eight-tweet thread, Health Minister Tyler Shandro focused on Li by name, accusing her of a "malicious attack."

"I simply raised genuine concerns about Shandro's part ownership of an insurance/benefit brokerage firm owned and operated by his spouse," notes Li. All of the information she shared was publicly available.

The response from concerned Albertans around the Minister’s attempts to push the province toward a privatized health care model that would benefit Vital Partners Inc. was overwhelming, and rapidly exploded in the media, especially when Shandro and his wife confronted a Calgary doctor in front of his family a few days later.

Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler was quick to exonerate Shandro and rejected calls for an investigation. 

For many of Shandro’s supporters that was the end of it. But a closer examination reveals serious outstanding issues. 

CBC investigative journalist Charles Russnell wrote about the now infamous driveway scene between Shandro and Dr. Mukarram Zaidi. Responding to a question about how Shandro could be removed from the operations of Vital Partners via a blind trust if he were responding to emails sent to the company from his government email account, Rusnell replied:

That is exactly the point made by political scientist Lori Turnbull. Unfortunately, I had to cut that section for length. Another section cut was that she said Alberta's conflict of interest act is "nothing." It may actually enable ongoing unethical behaviour because it's so weak[.]

Ultimately, the Ethics Commissioner only has as much power as the legislation gives them. All the Commissioner can feasibly do in regard to allegations of conflict of interest is to either confirm that the standards laid out by Alberta's Conflict of Interest legislation have been met or identify if they have not.

If, as Turnbull suggests, that legislation is essentially toothless and encourages unethical behaviour, the involvement of the Commissioner only serves to justify the UCP’s behaviour. 

By appealing to an external authority lacking the tools to apply any consequences, Kenney’s government ultimately reinforces mounting belief that no one is able to hold it to account and that attempts to do so, like Li’s, will be met with severe punishment.

A gendered phenomenon

Save for Minister LaGrange’s attack against Speta, each of these attacks involve powerful men publicly castigating women. And while the initial vitriol against Speta came from a woman, she says that most of the harassment that followed was at the hands of male political staffers.

Speta points out that progressive male activists on platforms like Twitter often deliver more pointed criticisms and yet never seem to face similar consequences as their female counterparts.

Thomas sees a similar dynamic play out in academia. The fact that she was an NDP candidate in 2004 was the primary argument used to undermine Thomas’ professional credibility and dismiss her arguments. Thomas notes that much more direct involvement with conservative politics by her male colleagues only seems to reinforce their academic bona fides.

The UCP’s broader policy decisions have disproportionately affected women, says Li. Funding cuts and political battles have been concentrated in health care and education, fields whose work-forces are disproportionately made up of women.

Li also also criticizes the UCP’s failure to take the women’s economic role into account when creating the province’s COVID-19 recovery plan, analysis that is shared by Kelly Cryderman in the Globe and Mail.

There were no contingency plans or supports for female caregivers when students went into quarantine from possible COVID-19 exposure at K-12 schools,” notes Li. “As a result, we are seeing many families (1000+ people in Edmonton and 1850+ in Calgary) go into 14-week or longer isolations. Caregiving responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, and I've heard from many moms who are taking leaves or even resigning from their jobs altogether, citing family care issues.

But it’s not just a rhetorical war against outspoken women, the UCP government has a clear track record of making policy decisions that make the lives of women materially worse. 

The UCP’s abysmal record on women

In March 2019, just prior to the election campaign, UCP leader Jason Keney was criticized for suggesting that female candidates were not as “tactical” as their male counterparts. And early on in its term, the UCP government struck a panel to explore the possibility of reducing the minimum wage for workers who serve alcohol, an outcome that would predominantly impact women. The government has sat on that report since its submission in February. 

In November 2019, MLA for Peace River and close Kenney confidant Dan Williams introduced Bill 207, the Conscience Rights Protection Act. William’s private members’ bill was fiercely criticized for providing doctors with the opportunity to deny women medical services such as birth control and abortion procedures. 

While the initiative was ultimately voted down in a committee meeting, it passed first reading in the legislature and many speculated its introduction had the premier’s blessing.

Just this past week, access to abortions wound up in the news again as UCP and NDP MLAs clashed over including access to the procedures in Alberta’s Public Health Act. While UCP MLAs argued that opposing the motion did not amount to opposing a woman’s right to access the services, NDP MLA Kathleen Ganley countered that women in Alberta had, “been waiting for far too long for this type of right.”

The UCP’s disregard for the health needs of women was also the subject of debate in February 2020 when an Ernst and Young review of Alberta Health Services described female-focused procedures such as tubal ligation, breast reductions, and carpal tunnel surgery as having “limited clinical value”. The review, which Health Minister Tyler Shandro accepted and asked to be implemented, also recommended consolidating maternity services in small hospitals, cut pay and benefits for nurses, and recommended moving several female-focused surgical procedures like mastectomies to private non-hospital facilities.

None of this has helped the UCP with women voters.

Jason Kenney and the UCP have always been more popular with men. But a recent Angus Reid poll notes, “a widespread dissatisfaction with this government’s handling of several core provincial issues[,]” including health care and education, that has caused particular rancor with Alberta women. 

“Men continue to prefer the UCP by a wide margin,” the polling outfit went on to observe, “while women are significantly more likely to support the NDP.”

So why are Kenney and the UCP attacking the very people whose support they most need to earn? 

Dr. Ratti believes the tactics arise from deep insecurity.

Women leading the pushback in Alberta

"I think a lot of this stems from the fact that conservatives in Alberta feel threatened and vulnerable for the first time," says Ratti.

Li agrees. 

“Women who have the capacity to organize are threatening,” says Li. “We can topple the UCP’s power when people come together to demand better. So they target women who have shown an ability to achieve those outcomes.

Speta takes the argument one step further.

“Women are organizing in a way that we haven’t before, and social media has given us a platform to do that. A mom from Beaumont twenty-five years ago wouldn’t have had the platform to do what I’m doing. So this government is being met with a level of opposition that hasn’t existed before.”

Each woman’s location in the province is another small but relevant facet of why they may be under attack. Speta lives in Beaumont. Li lives in Spruce Grove. And both Ratti and Thomas are in Calgary. 

Conspicuously absent from the UCP’s reaction against outspoken women are any of Edmonton’s various vocal critics. Instead, the attacks have focused on women speaking out and organizing in areas where the UCP needs to maintain dominance to retain its hold on government – Calgary and the Edmonton suburbs. 

“I think what’s also challenging for them is that we’re credible,” says Speta. “We’re giving our personal stories, backed up by evidence and other people’s corroborating stories. Those stories are powerful. They cause people to become invested in a way that scares the UCP.”

In fact, the stories behind many of these women demonstrate the threat posed to the UCP.

“When I first got onto Twitter, I saw Jillian Ratti doing what she was doing, and it inspired me to think that maybe I could do that too,” relays Speta. 

Ratti, in turn, identifies that she was inspired to get involved in building Alberta’s progressive movement after she witnessed Rachel Notley’s historic win in 2015. 

Alberta’s female-focused shift

Alberta has seen its share of powerful women. Alison Redford, Danielle Smith, and Heather Forsythe come to mind. 

But the ascendancy of Rachel Notley in 2015 shifted Alberta’s political terrain. Not only did Notley present a new kind of politics in Alberta, but her government broke new ground for women in Alberta politics. 

One of Notley’s first moves as premier was to appoint a cabinet where more than 50 per cent of the ministers were women, and featured women in some of the most crucial roles. As Minister for the Status of Women, Shannon Phillips said that the NDP government would “build feminism in Alberta.”

Phillips’ declaration and the NDP’s efforts could not contrast more strongly with the UCP’s atrocious record. 

Notley’s $25 a day childcare program, which was expanded with federal money, made childcare more affordable and genuinely helped women join or rejoin the workforce. During the 2019 election, Notley had promised to implement a universal $25 per day program if re-elected.

When the  UCP decided to end the program, many woman spoke up, saying it would impact both mothers and Alberta’s economy. Calgary mother Billie MacFarlane commented, “'I find a lot of value in working, and a lot of my self-esteem and self-worth comes from being employed.”

Calgary Bow MLA Deborah Drever significantly improved women’s lives by authoring the Safer Spaces for Victims of Domestic Violence Amendment Act. In stark contrast to MLA Dan Williams, Drever’s private members’ bill sought to assist women fleeing domestic violence by allowing victims to break leases in order to escape unsafe situations. 

Drever’s bill received unanimous consent in the legislature.  

Another centrepiece of the NDP government was raising the province’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. As Public Interest Alberta noted in 2019, 62% of Alberta workers earning $15 per hour or less are women.

And the NDP demonstrated a commitment to women’s health and right to access abortion services free from harassment by introducing “bubble zone” legislation in 2018. The legislation created 50 meter safe zones around clinics in which pro-life activists were barred from protesting and abusing women accessing the clinics.

UCP MLAs avoided debating the bill and the entirety of the UCP caucus walked out of the legislature ahead of the vote following the third and final reading of the legislation.

As Official Opposition, the NDP’s most formidable bench-strength continues to be women. Lieutenants like Hoffman and Phillips regularly launch the most scathing and quoted critiques against the UCP, and they have been joined by able newcomers like Janis Irwin and Rakhi Pancholi.

Women have responded to Kenney’s assault with organized opposition that increasingly threatens and weakens the UCP’s stranglehold on Alberta politics. Kenney seems intent on doing whatever he can to silence and bully them. 

Will the UCP’s war on outspoken women achieve its desired outcome?

While the constant harassment faced by Dr. Ratti has caused her family to leave the province, others like Li and Speta are resolved to stay and are unwilling to back down.

“They keep targeting us, and they think it’s going to work, but it’s not,” says Speta. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, and we’re not going away.”

Scott Payne is a political writer and organizer based in Calgary. From 2016 – 2019, Scott was the Southern Alberta Director for the Alberta NDP Government Caucus under Premier Rachel Notley. You can follow him on Twitter at @scotthpayne.

Correction: The article originally stated that Premier Rachel Notley's first cabinet was gender balanced, it actually featured a majority of women.