On the eve of her preparations to address a mock House of Commons sitting, Taqtu Sabrina Montague received an email saying there had been “a misunderstanding.”
Montague says she believed she was on the roster of 30 young women scheduled to address the April 3 parliamentary session with Daughters of the Vote — a four-day event that invites 338 women, ages 18 to 23, from across Canada to sit in their respective MP's seat in the Commons. But, organizers told National Observer, after this article was published, that they had no email record of any such invitation to Montague.
This was the second time the biennial conference had been organized by Equal Voice, a multi-partisan group with the goal of empowering young women and achieving equal representation in politics. Montague and her Inuk friend Jaelyn Jarrett were the only two representatives of the Inuit community at the event and both were among the last to be accepted into the delegation. When they got in, they pushed to be able to address the topic of suicide among Indigenous people in front of the prime minister and Canada's top policy makers.
Initially, the two women were told that there was nothing the organizers could do to add them to a speakers list, which they said had already been finalized. Montague said that the additional spot was created after much discussion and requests from delegates and supporters in person and on the Daughters of the Vote Facebook page, a young woman gave up her time to allow Montague to speak.
That woman later made a point of letting Montague know she "felt pressured to give up her spot" and cried about it to one of the event organizers. The speaking time at the parliamentary sitting was extended to allow both Montague and this young woman to speak.
In a video clip of her speech, Montague wipes tears from her eyes and pulls her hair to one side. She looks down at the piece of paper on her desk, not making eye contact with any of the 337 women silently sitting around her.
She takes a deep breath.
"I never saw myself becoming successful, educated, and proud of my Inuit heritage," she says. "I also never saw myself living past of the age of 20 due to a constant feeling throughout my life to make the impulsive decision to commit suicide."
Crying, she urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to establish trauma healing centres and mental health training for Inuit people. "I am tired of living in constant devastation," she said.
While headlines lauded how Daughters of the Vote was a rewarding experience for young women with an interest in politics, six women reached out to National Observer to share stories that present a less-than-rosy image of the event.
After, Montague said she received faint praise from other delegates who seemed to have little knowledge of her experiences or awareness of her identity. One woman congratulated Montague for making a powerful speech and asked if she lived in an igloo. Another asked if Montague had a cold since she sniffled.
What should have been the most powerful moment in Montague's young life became one of her "most traumatic experiences."
This year's Daughter of the Vote made headlines across the country as it landed in the middle of a debate about female representation in politics. On the second day of the four-day conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expelled Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal government caucus for their roles in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Both woman had resigned from cabinet in protest, after Wilson-Raybould said that as attorney general she faced inappropriate pressure from the prime minister and some of his top officials to intervene to stop a criminal prosecution of the Quebec engineering giant for bribery charges related to contracts in Libya.
Trudeau struggled to say Philpott's name in his April 3 address to the women, in which he also touted that "diversity only works if there is trust."
A few dozen of the Daughters of the Vote delegates protested Trudeau's speech by turning their backs to him during his speech. One called him a "fake feminist." The minute Trudeau finished talking, the women turned around to ask him questions.
Dear @JustinTrudeau,— Deanna Allain (@deannaallain) April 2, 2019
We are here in Ottawa as young women participating in a conference and we wholeheartedly condemn you ejecting Jody Wilson-Raybould & Jane Philpott from caucus. Respect the integrity of women & indigenous leaders in politics. Do better. #cdnpoli pic.twitter.com/ntKHtoMmHt
While headlines lauded how Daughters of the Vote was a rewarding experience for young women with an interest in politics, Montague was among six women who reached out to National Observer to share stories that present a less-than-rosy image of the event. They describe a series of discriminatory encounters that left them feeling unsafe, unacknowledged and traumatized.
The six women called from an Ottawa hotel room where they spent much of four days hiding, crying, and trying to deal with what they describe as "a constant feeling of hostility."
These six women received messages on the Daughter of the Vote Facebook page calling them "disgusting" for being among 40 or so delegates who turned their backs on Trudeau in protest of his expulsion of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott. (National Observer has seen screenshots of the messages.)
These six women were among protesters who were called "characterless" by their peers for walking out during Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's speech to protest his ties to white nationalist groups.
And when they tried to get help and support from the organizers of the event, the six women say all delegates were told the event was “a safe space," that they couldn’t possibly feel threatened, and that the event wasn't the place to air any political grievances.
Right now in the HoC, there are more women than have ever been elected in Canada’s history. They are speaking about the most pressing issues they want 🇨🇦 to address – climate change, reconciliation, jobs, and more. Thank you all for speaking up. We hear you. #DaughtersoftheVote pic.twitter.com/A0UVeHDUnG— Maryam Monsef (@MaryamMonsef) April 3, 2019
In a statement to National Observer, Equal Voice spokesperson Nasha Brownridge said that the organization was "aware that delegates had differences of opinion regarding the protest events on multiple speakers. Equal Voice supports the diversity of opinion, and is proud of all delegates who took part in the program, regardless of their opinions or whether or not they took part in protest activities. We do not condone bullying in any form, and took all possible steps to provide a safe environment for delegates."
"I am not aware of any Equal Voice representative telling delegates they should not protest," she wrote.
Equal Voice condemns all forms of harassment and bullying, and are extremely concerned with what some #DaughtersoftheVote are experiencing online. We encourage delegates to DM or email us.— Equal Voice (@EqualVoiceCA) April 8, 2019
'Every one of us has cried and felt unsafe at multiple times this past week'
Of the 338 young women who attended this year's Daughter of the Vote event in Ottawa, some 146 identified as a visible minority, 39 were Indigenous, 70 identified as LGBTQ and 16 identified as having a physical disability. Before their attendance, every woman was asked to sign an anti-harassment policy, which in the face of this year's experience, the six women who spoke to National Observer found ironic.
Serisha Iyar-Singh, an Ottawa-based policy analyst and daughter of refugees who left apartheid South Africa, said she had heard "awful" stories similar to the experiences she and her friends shared with National Observer before she joined the program. Still, she joined with "very high hopes" that her program experience would be constructive. "I was prepared for it, or at least I thought I was," she said. "But this program wasn't set up for people like us."
The organization did a good job of bringing a number of women from diverse backgrounds and from across the country to the event, all six women said, but they didn't do anything to constructively make them feel included in the proceedings. As a result, these six women found themselves banding together in an secret support group, despite the existence of various practices and supports at the event, including:
- A full-time equity coordinator on staff
- A full-time Indigenous coordinator on staff
- Anti-racism and anti-oppression training in advance of the event for staff, and on the first day of programming for delegates
- Support workers on site 24/7
- Elders on site 24/7
- A decompression room
- A prayer room
- An Indigenous forum
- A workshop conducted by Operation Black Vote
- Diversity of panelists and presenters
- Travel, accommodation and food provided at no cost to participants to ensure financial accessibility
- Dietary options for those with complex allergies or dietary restrictions
But the delegates who spoke to National Observer said that while these supports were available, they were inaccessible. Several of these women used the decompression rooms, only to have other delegates confront them while inside and criticize their decision to protest in the House of Commons. Those who reached out to support workers said no constructive action was taken. Autumn LaRose-Smith, a 22-year-old Metis woman from Saskatoon, recalls one support session where a white female delegate said she was "walking on eggshells" because there so many "upset" racialized and Indigenous members in the delegation.
LaRose-Smith also recalled that the Indigenous Forum was sponsored by Imperial Oil — inherently problematic when Indigenous communities in western Canada are protesting oil pipeline projects. (Equal Voice's Brownridge said Imperial Oil was one of the sponsors that supported the entire Daughters of the Vote event, along with a variety of corporate and community sponsors and the Government of Canada.)
In these secret support groups, these women shared how undermined they felt at the conference. On Thursday, their last night together, they, along with many others, sat in a room for six hours and cried over their experience, lamenting that they were leaving discouraged by what should have been an empowering experience.
At panels, questions about inclusion and succeeding as a racialized female were dismissed, they say, cut off for time. The presence of politicians such as Conservative MP Kellie Leitch and Senator Linda Frum, made these women feel uncomfortable, they said, because of anti-immigrant views they have shared publicly.
Hier, les #HeritieresDuSuffrage étaient dans @OurCommons aujourd'hui, c'est @SenateCA ! Les sénatrices @SenatorWanda, @LindaFrum @mivillej et Lillian Dyck, avec @DonnaDasko se joignent à nous pour notre séance de déjeuner. pic.twitter.com/UXBTVcCqkc— Equal Voice (@EqualVoiceCA) April 4, 2019
Every panel began with a note about how the event was "a movement for equality," LaRose-Smith, recalled. Yet the panels would have one token racialized or Indigenous woman.
Equal Voice's Brownridge said in a statement that "the program included panelists and speakers from diverse backgrounds, with diverse opinions and political views, consistent with Equal Voice’s mandate as a multi-partisan organization."
But LaRose-Smith said the organizations efforts to be multi-partisan may have taken away from making considerations for delegates like her who were made to feel uncomfortable.
"Every one of us has cried and felt unsafe at multiple times this past week," LaRose-Smith told National Observer. "No one has checked in. No one has heard our complaints. And this is how we've all felt the moment that we got off the plane and arrived into this group. We've felt that our identity had to be pushed to the side and kept secret."
'The only thing that Daughter of the Vote has given me is real trauma'
When Trudeau took questions after his spech, Rubab Qureshi was the first to raise her hand and asked what "concrete action" he would take to address Islamaphobia in Canada. Would white nationalist groups be put on terrorist watch lists? Would leaders with ties to these groups face "actual consequences?"
A video clip of Qureshi (who represented Edmonton Mill Woods) spread quickly. Just as quickly though, the hijab-wearing 20-year-old psychology and gender studies student at the University of Alberta was subjected to online hate and discrimination from various right-leaning online groups.
Qureshi contacted Equal Voice to implore Facebook — who was a sponsor of the event — to take down hateful posts targeting visibly Muslim delegates. (The company launched the #SheLeads safety guide for women leaders in partnership with Equal Voice at the Daughters of the Vote event. It “aims to equip women leaders with the tools they need to use Facebook and Instagram effectively and safely during campaigns." One of these tools included learning how to ban and remove people directing abusive comments at them.)
The organizers told Qureshi they could take her biography and picture down from the Daughters of the Vote website (where all 338 delegates are listed with their photographs and bios) to make her "less visible" — an offer Qureshi declined. Brownridge confirmed that option was provided: Delegates were told they "can take down or re-post bios and photos at anytime, and that it was entirely up to them." Facebook was also investigating the posts, she added.
But the lack of an immediate and constructive response from Equal Voice when the hateful posts first started circulating was frustrating for Qureshi. It felt lackluster. Similar examples of online bullying were evident in the private Daughters of the Vote Facebook group, where some of the delegates shared a tweet by Georganne Burke, a senior member of Scheer's campaign who has been linked to alt-right and anti-Islam groups.
Burke tweeted during the House of Commons mock sitting: "Torturing myself listening to (Equal Voice Canada's Daughters of the Vote) speeches in (House of Commons). I'm afraid for our future. Some of the ideas being expressed are so shallow and poorly thought out that I'm stymied about the purpose of this event."
Torturing myself listening to @EqualVoiceCA #DaughtersOfTheVote speeches in @OurCommons. I'm afraid for our future. Some of the ideas being expressed are so shallow and poorly thought out that I'm stymied about the purpose of this event. #womencandoanything #politicsisforanyone— 🇨🇦 GeorganneB 🇺🇸 (@georganneb) April 3, 2019
One of the girls who shared Burke's tweet told Montague, specifically: "Maybe if you didn't throw a tantrum and leave while the leader of the official opposition was speaking you wouldn't be subjected to these types of statements."
When LaRose-Smith spoke to an organizer about the hateful comments she and other women who had protested were receiving, she says the organizer told her that she had to learn to work with people who disagree with her. She says another organizer told she'd be reprimanded if she kept complaining and if they created secret groups, separate from the delegation's official support groups.
Equal Voice spokesperson Nasha Brownridge said that "at no time did Equal Voice reprimand, or say they would reprimand, delegates for voicing their concerns," and found the comments on the Facebook page "deeply concerning." Because it was a private Facebook group just made for and used exclusively for the delegates, Equal Voice staff could not view the activity and "were unable to moderate comments or posts," she wrote in an email statement. "Equal Voice unequivocally condemns bullying and harassment in all of its forms."
But delegates like Qureshi say they were reproached by organizers and bullied for the remainder of the event. "There were all these uncalled-for accusations about how we weren't showing professionalism and the characteristics of politicians," she said, noting that, previously, members of government have been loud and banged constantly on their tables to disrupt House of Commons procedures or speeches. "We were silent. There was no disruption. It was powerful. And the point was to be disrespectful."
LaRose-Smith said she hasn't been able to eat all week because she's been too overcome with fear of being bullied or reprimanded. "If we tried to help them understand why we turned our backs on Trudeau, they thought we were threatening. If we were to seek acknowledgment, that was threatening," she said. "If we were upset for a very valid reason, such as feeling unsafe and being pushed out and attacked by members and being called disgusting, we were threatening."
"I feel like I've been tricked into coming into something that would empower me and instead I've been emotionally and mentally attacked every single day," LaRose-Smith said, crying on the phone. "The only thing that Daughter of the Vote has given me is real trauma ... Otherwise they have offered nothing, nothing at all."
'I'm leaving with imposter syndrome'
Megan Linton was one of the few delegates who identified as a disabled women. She said didn't have access to proper accessible transit for the entiriety of the trip. At one point she was "trapped" on Parliament Hill for two hours waiting for transit that hadn't been arranged.
Linton is a towering figure who uses a cane in her day-to-day life. She is in her final year of studies at the University of Winnipeg.
Brownridge, Equal Voice's spokesperson, said in an email statement that "accessibility needs were communicated in advance to all venues throughout the program, having been identified and discussed multiple times ahead of delegates arriving in Ottawa", adding that they "understand, however, that accessibility needs were not always met by all venues, and are committed to ensuring such instances do not happen at future events."
"Equal Voice is taking the necessary steps to meet with venue operators, including the House of Commons and Senate, to communicate the absence of certain accessibility measures and are committed to working together to ensure we improve for future programs," Brownridge wrote.
Linton believes the organization didn't value accessibility needs, as evidenced by the fact that they invited Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod to speak a the Autism Awareness Day (April 2) dinner with all 338 delegates.
Linton, who is neurodivergent, recalls that she decided to protest MacLeod's speech on Autism Awareness Day (April 2) by holding up a poster that said "Fund Autism" in black marker.
MacLeod has been under fire for weeks for proposed changes to autism services, which she has since scaled back. According to Linton, some 50 girls walked out of MacLeod's speech to protest of Doug Ford's cuts to education, autism and more. (Qureshi said some delegates, like her, boycotted it entirely.) But when Linton held her protest sign up, an organizer rushed over and told her that she couldn't protest because the dinner was "a safe space," and that the delegation was "above protest" — implying that the event was neither threatening, nor a place to air any grievances.
"It didn't make any sense because they're the ones who gave (MacLeod) the space. They gave her a literal platform with three stairs leading up to it to share her opinion, and which I could not personally access," she said. "If you are going to give someone a platform to speak who has been actively oppressing my community then I'm going to have the right to speak as well."
The organizer told Linton that she would arrange a meeting with the minister, Linton recalled. When MacLeod did indeed approach her after her speech, Linton refused to shake her hand. MacLeod told her that the Ford government was providing an additional $350 million for autism funding. Linton asked her if she was consulting members of Ontario's autistic community, but MacLeod was ushered away by the organizer before she could answer.
Later, Linton says an organizer yelled at her that she wasn't being respectful and that the event was not a space for protest. The organizer told Linton she needed to be civil.
Afterward, MacLeod touted on Twitter that she was "proud" to be a founder of the organization.
"I don't think she's proud of all of us because she certainly was not proud of me," Linton said. "We were most certainly not proud that she was there and that we fundamentally reject her as a person who continues to oppress marginalized voices every single day in her job and in her government."
"In the application process they asked for strong, focused, independent women, and when we got there they basically told us to shut up and sit down and go through with the program," Qureshi said. "I didn't come to shut up and sit down. None of us did."
Jaelyn Jarrett, an Inuk, Black woman from Nain, Nunatsiavut, who helped Montague get on the roster to speak in the House of Commons, said that after everything she has witnessed and experienced at Daughters of the Vote, she "leaving with imposter syndrome, that I don't belong in any of these spaces and nothing was done to address that."
She said she watched women complain to board members that Montague's request to speak was taking away from other people's experiences. She shared screenshots of all the hateful messages she and her friends had received for merely asking for time to speak.
Brownridge explained in her statement that both Jarrett and Montague were "late registrations to the program and joined after the speaker list had been selected and confirmed." The vast majority of the delegation wanted to speak in the House of Commons, so the selection process "was extremely difficult," she said, "and took into careful consideration linguistic, ethnic, and racial diversity and geographic representation."
"After these delegates communicated their concerns with staff, Equal Voice deliberated and added additional speaking spots for these delegates (one in the House of Commons and one in the Senate)," Browridge said.
But Jarrett, a fourth year law and Indigenous studies student at Ottawa's Carleton University, said Equal Voice staff gave them "no support whatsoever" during the process, and "no tools as to how to move on" in the wake of the backlash from their peers.
"They kept just telling us that this whole thing was a safe space so we shouldn't be protesting and we shouldn't be upset but like it was not a safe space for us," Jarrett said. "We signed their anti-harassment file, but it didn't count for the oppressive statements we received."
"For me, freedom of democracy is that we are able to freely criticize our government regardless of how we do so," Iyar-Singh said. "And the fact that we did so in an organized manner, in a respectful manner, by protesting silently, and faced such heavy criticism and backlash...to me it makes it seem like this was all for nothing."
Editor's note: this article was updated on April 12, 2019 at 3:30 p.m. with additional information from Equal Voice organizers who said they had no email record of inviting Taqtu Sabrina Montague to address the Daughters of the Vote event, despite her statements that she believed she had received such an invitation.