By Jenn Watt
Published March 19 2019
When broadcast journalist Robert Fisher first began reporting on Queen’s Park politics in the late 1970s there were only six women MPPs out of 125 seats. Women were the majority in the province but represented a small minority in the legislature.
He had decided to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from Carleton University and the gender disparity led to his thesis project about “the majority’s minority” – profiles of the six women MPPs.
In his four decades of reporting on provincial politics Fisher has observed the struggles women have faced in pursuing positions of power.
On Wednesday he spoke to a sold-out audience at the Your s Outdoors speaker series at the HHOA Fish Hatchery in Haliburton about his observations of provincial politics including women’s experiences in the legislature.
In the early ‘80s Fisher said he found himself reporting on Sheila Copps.
Copps was a Liberal MPP from 1981 to 1984 before running successfully for a federal seat where she held several prominent cabinet roles.
“Ms. Copps was young and brash and was forced on a daily basis at Queen’s Park to deal with the Conservative pushback from a backbench that wasn’t that busy in those days” Fisher said.
He described a type of harassment where pages would be used to send Copps envelopes with clippings from the Toronto Sun.
“They would cut out the Toronto Sun Sunshine Girl … and they would invariably write across the photograph of a young woman in a bikini for example ‘are yours this big Sheila?’ And they would send it over to her and again trying to get her off her game to upset her. It did I think to a certain extent but she was tough and determined to plow through” he said.
Sexism wasn’t contained to any one party he said describing the uphill battle Liberal leader Lyn McLeod faced during the 1995 election from her own party.
Members of the press noticed that McLeod’s campaign stops were skipping entire ridings.
“It turned out these Liberal males were telling the party I don’t want to have to tell my constituents I report to a woman” Fisher said.
Women have continued to seek provincial office but obstacles remain.
Fisher said he was disappointed to see key women cabinet members in the Ford government becoming cheerleaders for party policy when they obviously brought much more to the table.
He commented on previous accomplishments of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP and Labour Minister Laurie Scott.
“Ms. Scott I’ve always thought of her as a very caring individual. I think of the legislation that she pushed through the house on dealing with the child sex trade in Ontario. I mean you have young girls 12 13 years of age being forced into prostitution and she was determined … to begin to attack what is a major problem” he said.
Fisher who has worked for both CBC and Global TV as a reporter and commentator since the 1980s expressed concern about the culture at Queen’s Park today which he described as stifling and at times anti-media.
It’s getting harder for the general public to decipher legitimate news stories from ones produced by special interest groups or the government itself through Ontario News Now he said.
Ontario News Now is a taxpayer-funded Conservative initiative that produces video segments crafted in a similar style to what you’d see on TV promoting the government’s policies and announcements.
An audience member asked about Ontario Proud a non-profit with a robust Facebook following that disseminated anti-Liberal messages through the last election.
Fisher said the group had played a “critical role” in ousting the Liberals and he worried that some people might not distinguish whether they’re reading authentic journalism or politically motivated messaging.
He advised that news consumers need to be critical of what they’re reading or watching.
“Let’s not look at one source…. Look at a couple of others. Then look who the reporter is or look how long that reporter has been around” he said.
And it’s also important to support journalism in all of its facets in order to continue receiving real news as newsrooms are cut across the country.
“This is a concern; it should be for all of us” Fisher said. “You need this kind of journalism quality journalism.”