International Women’s Day

March 8, 2024

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Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe peoples. Land acknowledgements are a way to show respect to those who have been on this land since time immemorial.

Gestures like these can lead to greater understanding and respect between peoples, no matter who they are or how they identify. This is a lesson we can all take to heart and one that can inform our discussions today, on International Women’s Day.

I would like to thank the Canadian Club of Ottawa and the Women Heads of Diplomatic Missions for inviting me to address you here today.

On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the accomplishments of women here in Canada and around the world. In every field and industry, women are contributing. They are innovators, champions, advocates, artists, entrepreneurs, public servants and more.

We have many women in attendance today – women who are actively building a better country and world … women who are creating opportunities and pushing for progress. And we have other allies with us as well, those who are working towards gender equality. It’s a privilege to be here with all of you. 

Women in leadership play a vital role in shaping a more inclusive and equal society. The importance of women in leadership cannot be overstated. Women bring different perspectives, diverse voices and lived experience to the table which then contribute to more inclusive decision-making and problem-solving, building a better future for all.

Women leaders also serve as role models who can inspire the next generation of women and girls to strive for excellence and pursue their aspirations. Gender should never limit one’s potential or ambitions in any field or industry.

Throughout my career, I have seen women in leadership inspire and mentor other women, helping develop skills, build confidence, and navigate career challenges. Personally, I have been inspired by many of you in this room. And I know that you have been mentors and inspirations for so many throughout your careers. It’s important to pass down our knowledge to the next generation, and to invest in the future of women and girls.

As governor general, I want to use my position and my voice to help others and to shine a light on some of the issues still impacting women and girls, particularly in the area of digital respect.

Years ago, I would often be the only woman in the boardrooms. I would find myself surrounded by men, overlooked, ignored and underestimated because of who I was. Other times, they would talk down to me, as if my opinions didn’t matter or as if I didn’t understand the issues at hand.

I had two choices: 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 would come after me … every woman who would be in these rooms and who deserved to be heard. The cause—of reconciliation, healing, respect and understanding—was too important for anything less.

Today, with so much of our lives happening online, attacks have evolved and expanded from the boardroom to digital platforms. Social media provides spaces to share opinions and ideas, but, as with any technology, the impact on society depends on how we use it. It is one thing to offer a different point of view or perspective, but when comments become personal and hateful, and in some cases violent, that is where we must draw the line.

More and more, we are seeing racist, misogynistic and violent anonymous comments online. These comments particularly affect women—especially women in leadership positions and racialized women, Indigenous women and girls—who are experiencing increased harassment and abuse.

We see the stories: women who leave their positions as a result of the overall decline in respectful discourse, notably on social media.

Women everywhere have become targets, myself included.

Since the beginning of my mandate nearly three years ago, I have been the target of online personal attacks. It was not my views or my actions being attacked. I was attacked as a woman … as an Indigenous person. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated issue, but a pervasive one, affecting women and girls from all walks of life.

These attacks are not harmless. They silence powerful voices, discourage participation in public discourse and create a climate of fear and insecurity. For me, these comments were having a direct impact on my mental health.

It was important for me to speak out about this issue. I decided to use my platform and my voice to shine a light on my experience and the experiences of other women who have similar stories.

I did so because I wanted people to understand the impact that online abuse has on leaders and future leaders.

For many in these positions, too much time and energy is being spent on defending themselves from abuse or misinformation. This cannot continue. As I said, we are seeing women leave public service and choosing to step away at a time when we need more women in leadership positions, not fewer. It is heartbreaking.

Young girls who witness these awful attacks on women leaders may reconsider their aspirations to become public figures, or they may decide to stay silent.

This would be devastating for our society. We need a diversity of voices who can share different points of view and share the challenges faced by every identity and every community.

It is vital for women, for men, for the 2SLGBTQI+ community, for Indigenous peoples, for all peoples, to have a platform, to have a voice. Only when everyone has access to equal rights and opportunities, can we build stronger, more peaceful and prosperous societies.

And so, I am standing up and speaking out. Over the last year, we have done what we can to raise awareness. This includes:

  • Shutting off the comments on our social media platforms after months of personal and hurtful attacks. Not an easy decision or one taken lightly.
  • Gathering women heads of mission and many others for a discussion at Rideau Hall, on International Women’s Day last year. Some of you here with us today were there and will no doubt remember the passion and emotion everyone spoke with.
  • And we are working to bring together different groups to speak about the need for digital respect.

Some of you may remember the video we released on this day last year, sharing some of the worst comments I received on social media. We struggled with whether to release it, whether it gave more attention and reach to those who were spouting this vitriol.

In the end, I’m glad we did release it, as it encouraged so many other women to reach out to our office, share their experiences and voice their concerns.

It showed me that I was not alone. There is strength in that unity.

What can we do now to continue to raise awareness? What can we do to care for ourselves and others?

We know this is a complex issue, one that requires sustained effort, collaboration across sectors and a long-term commitment. We are inspired by the countless women who are already speaking out, despite the threats they receive. Women and other allies who are using their platforms to advocate for change, and who are refusing to be silenced.

But when the load becomes too much for one person, or when those threats expand to reach children and families and whole communities, there is no shame in seeking out help. It takes strength to ask.

And help is out there.

For the past year, I have been encouraging people to build networks of resilience.

This takes two forms: the first is a support system for those struggling. This could include family or friends. It could include co-workers or others who have had similar experiences. Find and create a trusted circle where you can share freely, without judgement. Where you can feel safe and supported … where you can rebuild your sense of self and your confidence.

Above all, you must make sure to care for yourselves and your families. 

The second is found in collaboration. We must work together to minimize the impacts of online attacks, to acknowledge each other’s experiences and to identify or develop solutions. This is something we can all work towards.

The solutions will come from all of us working together, learning about what others are doing and applying that to our own lives. It will come from women, men and gender diverse peoples—everyone who are allies. It will come from gatherings like this one, where you have the opportunity to speak to others, to see things from different points of view.

It’s important that we approach this issue with a broad scope and with many differing perspectives. We will arrive at solutions when we are inclusive in our discussions and decisions, and when we understand that different communities may have different problems. I encourage us to find allies as we confront this challenge. Women, men, people of all identities and ages—we need you all to speak up.

It is through this awareness that we can, and will, create an environment with digital respect.

For my part, I will continue to tell my story and to shine a spotlight on this issue. I will also continue to promote the creation of networks of resilience: connecting women and allies with each other to keep this conversation going. Next month, for example, we will be holding a digital respect symposium at Rideau Hall, where people from all experiences and all walks of life will gather to discuss this important issue.

I encourage all of you to speak up and to be part of the solution. Together, let us build a better, safer and more equal world for all women and girls.

I wish you all the very best today and in the future. I encourage us to continue this important work.

Thank you.