We are just two of many Sea to Sky constituents who watched in dismay as our elected official, Jordan Sturdy, laughed along with his colleagues as Jane Thornthwaite (MLA, North Vancouver-Seymour) made a series of comments insinuating that NDP MLA Bowinn Ma uses her physical appearance and flirtation tactics to achieve bipartisanship.
This letter intends to outline more clearly the intersectional layers of discrimination embedded in Thornthwaite’s remarks and her colleagues’ reactions, why Sturdy’s follow-up response was inadequate, and to advocate for zero-tolerance discrimination practices and accountability structures for all political leaders.
Ma, who won the first NDP seat in the North Shore since 1991, is young insofar as electoral politics goes, and the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. Whether we’re looking at sexism, ageism, racism (would Jane Thornthwaite have chosen to pick on Bowinn Ma if she was white? If she was older?) — this was the time for our MLA to use the privilege and power appointed to him to make a critical intervention. It is not enough to be passively against discrimination. Our political representatives must be actively anti-discriminatory.
Leadership should be the top tier example of equity and inclusion in the workplace and society at large. Now across the Sea to Sky, women — young Women of Colour in particular — have witnessed our leaders do nothing, or worse, laugh at us rather than speak up in a dignified manner. This is a punch to the gut.
This is also deeply problematic because Sturdy’s actions —or, rather, lack of action during the call — is the loudest portrayal of systemic discrimination.
Sure, Sturdy didn’t speak discriminatingly, but he did permit it through his choice to stay silent in that moment, which perpetuates the public display that discrimination is acceptable, and staying silent is reasonable.
So, was this an error of judgment for Sturdy, or a conscious decision to allow discrimination? We don’t know, because instead of accountability, what we got was a ‘hand in the cookie jar’ style of reaction from him - i.e. only after he got caught. Sturdy provided a few lame-duck excuses: 1) his mic wasn’t on - although he later clarified that it actually was; 2) he probably would have spoken up in a one-on-one setting; 3) he was distracted at the time preparing for his speech, even though this distraction didn’t prevent him from laughing along.
Sturdy then paired these excuses with the all-too-common ‘nice guy’ logical fallacy by introducing his own family. The ‘nice guy’ fallacy invokes the idea that because he respects other women in his life (daughter, wife, mother), he “obviously” supports gender equity. The nice guy fallacy works to excuse his silence and laughter in the moment and precludes a commitment to do better in the future through the creation of structures of accountability that can be activated when these moments inevitably arise again.
Sturdy’s response, while it reads as genuinely remorseful, joined a chorus of other false starts and non-apologies from the likes of Thornthwaite and others on the call, including Liberal party leader Andrew Wilkinson. The gamut of initial cookie jar responses missed the mark in what could have been a pivotal moment for honest repentance and a structural-level redress of latent and abject discrimination. Many will stumble on the road to anti-discrimination —that’s all but guaranteed — but these moments need to become transformative for change, not under rug swept.
It is clear that there are no rules to protect the people who look to Sturdy as a leader. The same goes for others on that call. Without accountability, systems, and policies that reflect organization-wide anti-discrimination practices, we will continue to witness the easy tones of casual offensiveness like these, and that is unacceptable.
Ultimately, stopping systemic discrimination requires a collective societal awakening coupled with sustained political will. This necessitates leadership that speaks and commits to discrimination in an ongoing way, not just when caught. We should be holding our leaders accountable for their actions, and not just as those actions affect us personally, but: as a societal collective.
Nadi (Jones) Fantastic, diversity, equity and inclusion educator;
Leanne Roderick, PhD political studies