Regional Councillor

Brampton Wards 1 & 5

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Regional Councillor Brampton Wards 1 & 5

Our Work to “Inspire Inclusion” Continues

Every year on International Women’s Day, I encourage women to take their place, own the space, and do it with style, humor, smarts, and grace. I want more women to aspire for leadership positions and to run for elected office. I want more women at leadership tables.

The reality is that women have to work much harder while balancing the needs of family and protecting ourselves from sexism, misogyny, and harassment. France Belisle, the first female Mayor of Gatineau, resigned due to the hostile environment. Her situation is not unique, as many women in leadership face similar challenges. It’s an epidemic that’s threatening democracy.

On Brampton City Council I am honoured to work alongside Councillor Navjit Kaur Brar. She is a trailblazer who is shattering expectations.  I am also grateful to our allies. I will continue to work hard for my city and community and raise my voices. My recent statement during Brampton’s Committee of Council is provided below. Thank you to the women who reached out to me, and the allies who provided words of support. 

Watch Councillor Santos and Councillor Brar make their statements in Brampton City Council Chambers at a recent Committee of Council Meeting.

Councillor Santos Statement to Brampton Committee of Council - Full Text

“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin.

You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass.  You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. 

You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time.  You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. 

You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.

But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.

You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.

It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. 

And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”

What I just shared is the iconic monologue performed by America Ferrera, from Barbie the Movie. It’s Iconic because it resonates deeply with so many women, including myself. Some days I do feel like, “I don’t even know.” This is the baggage we carry every day, especially as elected women.

Last year, in my remarks I spoke about building the pipeline of women to sit at leadership tables. We are doing that in Brampton. But as women in leadership roles, most of the time, already working 2-3 times harder just to constantly prove ourselves, it’s not just about doing the job.

Being the Chair of Community Services, Fire and Emergency Services, Legislative Services, Vice-Chair of Economic Development, an Executive Board Member of the TRCA, Board Member and Chair at FCM, organizing youth council tours, attending community events, meetings with residents and businesses, reading and being fully prepared for and actively contributing to Committees and Council Meetings, personally researching, writing and following-up on substantive Motions, writing articles, posting on social media, managing my staff…all of that… Doing my job is the easy part. And like many women in this role, we are so happy and proud to do our job.

But it is everything else expected of us.

The emotional and mental toll of dealing with the sexism, misogyny, prying, unwarranted attacks, harassment, hostile accusations, misinformation, judgement, rumours, lies and more. For women like us, elected women in particular, it’s getting worse. And as more women get elected, as we stand out with our ideas, action and voice, the more hostile it gets.

Just last week on February 22nd, Gatineau Mayor: France Belisle (the first woman elected as Mayor in Gatineau) resigned to “preserve my health for the future” and “preserve my integrity.” She told journalists, choked with emotion: “I wondered a lot about the price to pay to accomplish this demanding work, in a context, that is often hostile.” Bélisle said she was “a witness to comments and ways of doing things that concern (her). Personal attacks that go beyond criticism, elected officials who do not play their role in the right place or at the right time, death threats by certain members of the public.”

To those who say that this is the “nature of the job”… Clearly you don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in this role. In response to the complacency to such harassment, political science experts have stated “We are currently experiencing an epidemic of departures that are a symptom of neglect on the issue of harassment and intimidation and that constitute an important risk for our democracy.”

Every year, I say at International Women’s Day: Take your place. Own the Space. Do it with Style, humour, smarts and grace.

Women like former Mayor France Belisle, former Councillor Karen Ras, and so many other women have been taking their place as elected leaders. We have been owning the space. Working hard. Raising our hand. Putting our ideas forward. Taking action. Making room for others.

And often in rooms mostly full of people talking over you, we have to stand to be heard. But when we as women rise out of our seat, there are people who try very hard to pull the seat from under us, making us feel like we don’t belong. Hoping to watch us fall with ridicule, lies, rumours, harassment and personally mocking you, until you crawl out the door. Timely enough, today is pink shirt day.

I’ve experienced this since first being elected in 2018, and the hostility has escalated, like so many other elected women have described. Here are recent examples, subtle and explicit, of my experiences over the past 2 months:

  • In a recent letter addressed to me: “Despite all the issues, you still think it’s a great idea to support Visual Arts in Brampton – How Stupid Are You?”
  • In an email I was threatened that “these emails will be kept and read by people when it is time to point to the racist/sexist on the city council who’s narcissistic tendencies have her putting on photos of her half naked body on social media as a means to get herself sexual attention from men.”
  • In another email it was suggested that the only reason why a community leader received funding from the city, was because that person flirts with me.
  • And here is a message sent on Instagram:  “If you believe in God, go into work tomorrow wearing your most conservative outfit. Take a picture and say “I am all I need. #selfloveisgodslove”
  • I have seen social media posts full of misinformation, lies referencing my staff.
  • I’ve also received threatening messages that specifically reference my son.
  • Attending events and taking pictures surrounded mostly by men and getting social media comments suggesting that I’m sleeping with the person next to me in the photo.
  • I have been followed and harassed to my car with personal attacks, lies and misinformation.
  • In a handwritten letter, delivered to my office, an individual concludes to say “You are a piece of garbage who deserves to be RAPED AND KILLED (in all capital letters).”

This is just a sample. I have reported these threats and harassment to police. Sadly, my team has created a separate “harassment” folder to organize the messages I receive. Imagine staff having to monitor and read all of this? It takes a toll on them too. It is absolutely disgusting, insane, and repugnant.

When speaking to other women colleagues across the country, they too receive similar messages. I cannot even imagine what women like former Mayor Belisle and others, would have experienced, causing them to resign. After sharing only a few personal experiences common for all women in this role you might wonder why we even stick around.

Thisis why women do not choose to run. This is how they try to pull our seat away.

I join the female elected officials across the country and just yesterday in Quebec, Mayor Plante and Mayor Fournier, calling for a culture shift… one that supports elected women at the table.

In Brampton, allies like Mayor Brown, Chief of Staff, Babu Nagalingam, some of my other colleagues and members of staff, including my incredible team help to pull our seat back to the table. You are true allies and for that I am grateful. Our movement is grateful.

And we have organizations like Municipal World, where I was recently acknowledged, while also highlighting the amazing women in Brampton. And we have organizations like FCM who recognize women like me as trailblazers. Funnily, even as these acknowledgements appeared on social media, the first comment posted in response to the recognition was: “Her Husband must be so proud”… As if my husband had anything to do with it.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Inspire Inclusion”

Inspire inclusion is exactly this. Being ourselves and sitting here anyway. Rising up and speaking up anyway. Doing the hard work and leading anyway. Bringing our ideas forward and taking action anyway. Making room for other women anyway.

In Brampton, we have GBA+ training to inspire inclusion. We have a Women’s Empowerment Group to inspire inclusion. We have the Women’s Advisory Committee to inspire inclusion. We declared Gender Based Violence an epidemic to inspire inclusion. We have allies on Council who inspire and fight for inclusion. We have two elected strong women on Council who inspire inclusion.

Councillor Brar and I work very hard for the City and community we love. We go above and beyond and still go home to take care of our family and kids. Despite the harassment, the lies, unwarranted smears, backstabbing, we continue to inspire inclusion by taking our place. Owning our space, and doing it with style, humour, smarts and grace.

Happy International Women’s Day on March 8th and the entire month of March! Thank you to the women of Brampton who inspire inclusion. And thank you to our allies on Council and throughout the city who pull our seat back here at the table when others try to take it away.

Regional Councillor Rowena Santos, Committee of Council, February 28, 2024


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