Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet MLA Cathy Towtongie: “In this day and age, cyber-bullying is a reality, especially during elections.”
photo courtesy of the Government of Nunavut

Many politicians espouse Pink Shirt Day and its associated anti-bullying message.

Some of those politicians themselves are subject to harassment, particularly online.

“In this day and age, cyber-bullying is a reality, especially during elections,” says Cathy Towtongie, MLA for Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet.

There have been occasions when not only was she attacked on the internet – often by anonymous individuals – but her family members were made victims as well.

“That is painful,” she said, adding that such aggressive tactics have periodically made her reconsider remaining in politics. “Other times, defamation of character is used. At times, lies appear to be the whole truth. There is a cost to running in an election. It seems, we cross an invisible border – then we become a target, like (a) free for all. Nunavut is so small – it can ruin a person’s life.”

Towtongie has raised the issue in the legislative assembly, searching for ways to ensure people cannot unfairly smear political candidates online without having their names appear alongside their posts for the sake of accountability. The cost of anonymous vilification can be that some would-be candidates won’t run due to intimidation, she added.

“I wonder how we can unmask some of these virulent attackers who would be forced to reveal their names if they attack candidates anonymously behind a keyboard, or to have comments only with real names during candidate forums and questions, which I would prefer,” Towtongie said in the legislative assembly last September.

Dustin Fredlund, Nunavut’s chief electoral officer, responded that Elections Nunavut monitors social media but it’s the responsibility of the RCMP to conduct investigations based on complaints from the public.

Fredlund explained that the Nunavut Elections Act prohibits candidates from telling lies about their political competitors “and that’s basically where it stops.”

“If a candidate or someone in the community believes that someone is spreading lies about another candidate, that is against the law and those people can definitely either call our office and we will help them with the forms to fill out or go directly to the RCMP to lodge the complaint. The RCMP was very helpful during the election of doing the investigations,” said Fredlund.

MP defies detractors

When she became Nunavut’s member of Parliament at age 25, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq heard from all kinds of detractors eager to tell her that she wasn’t ready for the job.

“Anyone can make an account. Anyone can go online and troll you… not everybody’s comments and conversations are worth your time,” she said, admitting that that she was once too wrapped up in reading comments and had to take a step back.

But part of her finds a sense of fulfillment in succeeding despite the naysayers.

“There’s an immense amount of satisfaction to be standing there in a place (Parliament) that was meant to kill you and your people, and still tries to with all these people that don’t look like you, making decisions for people that do look like you and do have the same types of experiences in life. It’s powerful to know that we’re still here,” she said. “For me, it just adds fuel to the fire. It just makes me want to turn around more and say, ‘Watch me.’ And then I prove it.”

Since being elected in October 2019, Qaqqaq said she has kept a distinct line between her professional social media accounts and her personal ones – the latter have been neglected, she added, because she just doesn’t have the time for it.

She also now has staff who help filter much of the content that she reviews. She added that social media can be a useful tool to help politicians stay in touch with constituents, when legitimate issues are raised.

“I love my supports and my circle,” she said of her large social media following, many of whom offer compliments and reinforcement.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster, Iqaluit’s deputy mayor, said she sometimes receives uninvited personal messages from random men, but she hasn’t had many issues online.

“Overall, I think because I don’t engage, most people don’t attempt to bully me,” she said.

There was a time during a Qikiqtani Inuit Association election, however, when she noticed that a large campaign sign at roadside promoting a female candidate was defaced with the words “No women president.”

Brewster returned to the scene with a graffiti-removing wipe to obscure the “No.”

“Women presidents everywhere, please,” Brewster encouraged.

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