International Women’s Day Event – Round table with Prominent Women

March 8, 2023

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Thank you, Reepa, for giving us the opportunity to see this very important qulliq. It is wonderful to see so many female leaders and also women representing their countries and other positions that are so important to us. It is a wonderful day for all of us to get together, to have a discussion.

I would like to welcome you on this International Women’s day.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe people who have lived on and cared for this land for thousands of years.

As I said,nakurmiik, Reepa, for lighting the qulliq and for your leadership and advocacy for mental health and wellness. You have done so much for our people in Ottawa and in the North. I’m so pleased that we’re able to light this specific qulliq, which comes from my home region of Nunavik, near the community of Inukjuaq, in its new home at Rideau Hall. The qulliq is a physical connection to my home and my culture. How appropriate that we’re lighting it for the first time as part of this important discussion on the importance of women’s leadership and of working together to ensure safe spaces for respectful dialogue. The qulliq not only provides light and warmth, it also symbolizes Inuit women’s strength, care and love, which has been passed on from generation to generation.

Welcome all of you to Rideau Hall for this important discussion. I’ve been looking forward to this for a great while.

Today is International Women’s Day. Around the world, people are celebrating the contributions of women. And there is so much to be thankful for, as society has come a long way working towards equality for women and girls. But in no way is the work done yet.

We need to acknowledge some very hard truths.  

Some of you may have heard that we recently shut down the social media comments sections on all our online platforms. We took this unprecedented step because of the specific misogynistic and racist vitriol we received.  

I’ve always welcomed constructive criticism and feedback.  Yet, every day, we were bombarded with harmful words—attacks against my identity

as a woman,

as a woman of a certain age, and

as an Inuk.

And I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing this.

Unfortunately, I know very well I am not alone.

There are statistics that show how many women experience online violence around the world every year. This has devastating impacts to civic engagement, confidence and mental health, and can limit woman’s professional pursuits.  This is in addition to the verbal and physical threats woman endure in their daily lives. The breadth and depth of these numbers are staggering.

But it’s the stories that stay with me. Stories that have a familiar cadence: a woman rises to prominence, misinformation and social media scorn begin—far beyond what is respectful—leading to resignation or acknowledgement of damage to mental health. And our mental health, as we know, has a direct relation to our physical health.

Some recent names that come to mind:

  • Melanie Mark, the first woman from a First Nations community to serve in the British Columbia Legislature.
  • Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland.
  • Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand.
  • Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland, who is the world's youngest serving state leader and the youngest prime minister in Finland’s history. She has dealt with the media scrutiny brought on by youth and gender. I had the great privilege of speaking with her during my State visit to Finland last month, and she inspired me with her passion, kindness and knowledge.

And there are those in the room today, like myself. Many, if not all of you, have experienced ongoing and wholly unnecessary challenges of being a woman in the public eye. Every person deals with public reaction and its impact differently. Some would say to just ignore the comments or don’t look at them. To rise above them. 

That’s harder to do in practice.

What is certain? Being subjected to online harassment, no matter the reaction, chips away at our identity, our resilience, our very self. It can erode our confidence and can lead us to limit the scope of our ambitions.

When one of us is attacked, we are all attacked.

We need a common, global approach to making safe, online spaces for women and girls. A place we can share information without misinformation. A place where our next generation of leaders see hope, not hopelessness. Only together can we create the momentum for change.

It is by working together that change is possible.  And change is necessary. 

…It is necessary to change mentalities.

…It is necessary to involve men.

…It is necessary to foster greater access of women to high-ranking positions.

I’m fortunate to have had the chance to speak to so many women leaders who are making a difference. Just this morning, Her Excellency Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and I spoke about the courage and resilience of women and girls around the world.

I’m especially inspired by the younger generation who are more likely to stand up against the largely anonymous online harassment. Just take the example of Greta Thunberg who recently “won the Internet” when she took down a misogynistic commenter. There is a growing leadership from younger women who are creating change today. They are growing up as digital citizens and have a clear understanding of the impacts of online violence. They have high expectations for how they should be treated, especially by their male counterparts—equality should be a fundamental human right. I know all of us here share these expectations.

Throughout my career, when I was fighting for Inuit rights, I often found myself in a room surrounded by men, overlooked, ignored and underestimated because of who I was. Other times, I was talked down to, as if my opinions didn’t matter or I didn’t understand the issues at hand. I had two choices in these instances: sit down and take it, or stand up and be heard.

I stood up.

I spoke up.

It was necessary for Inuit and other Indigenous peoples and it was necessary for every woman who followed me. And it was a necessary step towards reconciliation. Consider that when Indigenous women and girls are harassed online, with racist and stereotypical language, it damages the reconciliation process.

In this room, I see people who have faced similar challenges and paths.

Many of you have done the same, stood up for your individual communities, for your cultures, for your countries, for your career and for the truth.

That’s not so easy to do when faced with criticism that you cannot confront directly, face to face. Many of us had to learn very quickly, and are still learning, how to tackle new technologies and the dangers of online echo chambers. 

During our conversations today, I encourage you to share your experiences and to share your ideas of how to move forward. We owe it to the next generation, to nurture their ambitions and mental health with respectful discourse. Our society, and our world, needs their insights.

As governor general, I represent all Canadians, and I expect and want to hear criticisms and differing points of view. But I will not stand by and let a lack of respect and human decency be the future of our communication and of our relationships with each other.

This is our mission, it’s our responsibility, andI look forward to continuing work in this space.  I want to engage youth, who are learning early in life that they will need the skills and resilience to leverage these communications tools in constructive ways. I want to contribute to raising awareness through the sharing of lived experiences. I want to support and elevate diverse female voices to help change people’s perspectives. 

Thank you to the Women Heads of Diplomatic Missions in Ottawa. Your presence today, and your commitment to dialogue, has filled me with positivity and purpose.  I know everyone here looks forward to our discussions.

On International Women’s Day, let’s leave a lasting legacy of change. Let us chart a path to a better, safer and more inclusive world for women and girls.

Let’s get to work.

And above all, let’s work together.

Thank you.