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women in politics

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Lost to some in the pillorying of Justin Trudeau over his bad behaviour in the House of Commons is an underlying theme that is familiar to women.

Mr. Trudeau behaved extremely poorly on Wednesday night – and that was pointed out again and again by opposition MPs. He apologized several times.

But there are whispers among some in the House of Commons and other political observers that it was not entirely his fault. For example, had New Democrat MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau not been standing where she was in the aisle at that exact time, she would not have been elbowed by Mr. Trudeau. She should have been in her seat.

So, really, it was her fault. Let's blame the victim.

There are also suggestions the NDP are good actors, and that some of the female MPs were overacting. Ms. Brosseau, for example, was hardly touched. Rather, her performance was worthy of an Academy Award, one person said on social media. Another congratulated the NDP for taking lessons on FIFA player dives.

"The aftermath of some saying the NDP caused the reaction of the PM, so she deserved it, has gender-like nuance," Conservative MP Lisa Raitt said. "Victims don't cause violence."

Ms. Brosseau would not be interviewed. An NDP spokesman said she was shaken by the events.

Ms. Raitt believes Ms. Brosseau's involvement has been minimized, questioned and mocked by those on the outside. This, too, is typical of how the roles and views of women in the Commons are diminished. With women occupying only 26 per cent of the seats in the Commons, it is no wonder.

"She's supposed to not complain because she caused it to happen through her own actions," Ms. Raitt said, "or he didn't mean to hit her, so it's okay, or she is faking what happened, so disregard it, or he apologized and felt badly, so forget it.

"Hard for women to come forward with complaints when that's the reaction."

The incident unfolded quickly on Wednesday night. The Prime Minister crossed the floor to pull Conservative Whip Gord Brown through a group of opposition MPs who appeared to be blocking his progress. Mr. Trudeau wanted Mr. Brown in his seat so MPs could vote on a motion that would have hastened a vote on the controversial bill on physician-assisted dying.

In the confusion, Mr. Trudeau, who some MPs say was yelling profanities, elbowed Ms. Brosseau in the chest.

As the Interim Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose sits directly across the chamber from the Prime Minister – precisely two sword lengths away, designed that way by men from another era to prevent MPs from stabbing each other.

It is a very male place – stark limestone walls, and a mace, once used as a weapon of war, sits on a heavy oak table, signifying the Speaker's authority – but it is a chamber that Ms. Ambrose has learned how to navigate.

What she saw on Wednesday, however, shocked her.

"It was about intimidation. It about yelling and pushing and it … was uncomfortable for a lot of women, especially," she said. "I feel unsettled by it. It was a really uncomfortable place to be last night. We should be proud to come to work, happy to come to work, happy to take on the day."

Like her colleague, Ms. Raitt, Ms. Ambrose said Ms. Brosseau is not to blame for anything.

"The important thing for me is that it's not for Ruth Ellen to fix," Ms. Ambrose said. "She did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. None of us did anything wrong. He has to fix it. He made a mistake and he has to fix it."

Like Ms. Ambrose, other women were upset by the imbroglio in the Commons.

Just after the event on Wednesday night, NDP MP Niki Ashton addressed the chamber. She characterized what happened as "deeply traumatic."

"If we apply a gendered lens, it is very important that we recognize that young women in this space need to feel safe to come here, to work here, to speak here," she said, adding that Mr. Trudeau's behaviour was "the furthest thing from a feminist act."

"This act, in and of itself, made … any woman, anybody who sits in this House, feel unsafe and deeply troubled by the conduct of the Prime Minister of this country," she said.

Ms. Ambrose said that, later that evening, she went home and sat in disbelief.

"I was actually almost in shock," she said. "I just couldn't believe that just happened in our House of Commons. … This is the worst I have seen. This is not good. … I don't know what made him snap like that."

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