Scarcely a week into a provincial campaign that once appeared to be his to lose, Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin and his Liberal Party find themselves mired in controversy after a young, female candidate said she was forced to step down over racy photos of herself posted online.
The premier’s office maintains that Robyn Ingraham — a barber and co-owner of Devoted Barbers & Co. in Dartmouth — made the decision to withdraw from the campaign herself, but the incident still opens Rankin and the party to accusations of hypocrisy and double standards for women at a time when the Liberals are trying to paint themselves as a party of inclusiveness.
The incident also comes just two weeks after Rankin admitted he had twice been charged with drunk driving in the early 2000s.
It’s a political controversy that is leading some advocates and activists on all sides of the political spectrum to ask: isn’t it time Canada’s political parties stop caring about candidate’s sex lives?
In a social media post Wednesday, Ingraham said she had disclosed to the Liberal Party the existence of the photos, which were posted on multiple platforms, including the subscription service OnlyFans, and that they were likely to surface during the campaign.
“I explained that I love to show off the artwork on my skin, and I have no problem taking boudoir photos alone and with my friends,” she wrote, adding that she explained to party officials that if and when those photos came out, it would be a “teachable moment” for the community and the province.
After passing vetting and being acclaimed as candidate, Ingraham said she received a call from a Liberal contact on the morning of her first campaign appearance with the premier during which the contact said the photos surfacing had “made ‘higher-ups’ worried.’” The Star has not seen the photos, which have not circulated publicly.
She said she was told to step down as the candidate for Dartmouth South and asked to blame mental health concerns for the withdrawal. She initially posted a statement doing just that on Sunday, the day after the election was called.
In a statement Thursday, Rankin did not confirm nor deny Ingraham’s account.
“I hope to have a conversation with Robyn to learn more about her story,” said Rankin in a statement. “I have tried three times to connect with her, and left another voicemail this morning. Respectfully, I think the right thing to do is to wait for that conversation to take place before addressing the issue further.
“What I can say is that the Nova Scotia Liberal Party embraces people from all backgrounds, and I think you can see that with almost 40 per cent women on our slate of candidates. I’m going to continue to advocate for equity and diversity and finding candidates from marginalized communities, different backgrounds and life experiences.”
For Lori Turnbull, associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Ingraham’s case says a lot about the differing ways women and men are perceived in politics.
“Women are sexualized in ways that men aren’t. When people are making comments about women who are elected, there’s so often comments about the way she’s dressed, how she looks, the sound of her voice, those sorts of things,” she said. “Women are treated differently in politics across the board.
“The Liberal Party is not going to tell Justin Trudeau to put a shirt on ever. Ever.”
To be fair, she said, that also has to do with his stature in the party versus Ingraham’s as a political newcomer.
But, she noted, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland — whose political resume is almost as long as Trudeau’s — often faces the kind of criticism that Trudeau does not.
“People have made comments about her appearance, about her voice not being strong enough. She’s talked about feeling like she’s always in the wrong place — when she’s with her kids she’s supposed to be at work, and the other way around.
“There’s this sense of having these impossible standards and expectations applied to women that don’t seem to carry out in the same way for men.”
People from both sides of the political spectrum have spoken out against Ingraham stepping down, arguing that, at the least, the presence of revealing images of her online, posted consensually by her, is irrelevant to whether she would make a good candidate. It may even be a benefit for political parties hoping to have someone at the table who understands the internet side of sexuality and consent.
“One of the things I love about this country is that we have more than two (political parties), and we seem pretty generally repulsed by the notion of prying into the private lives of politicians,” said Julie Lalonde, a women’s rights advocate based in Ottawa. “But there have certainly been moments where women are punished for things that happen in their private lives.”
She drew on the example of Manitoba judge Lori Douglas, who in 2014 faced an inquiry after nude photos of her were uploaded to the internet without her knowledge by her husband. Douglas ultimately agreed to retire early so the investigations into her would stop.
To Lalonde, Ingraham ending her candidacy illustrates the limits to which the Liberal Party wants to attract and include diverse candidates.
“To me it’s part of a tradition of pushing women, drug users, so many folks from trying to get their name on a ballot,” Lalonde said.
Her perception is that while parties want to show voters they are including more women on ballots, they don’t want a variety of lived experiences if those experiences could be something the party gets questioned on.
Lalonde herself said she’s been “informally” approached by party representatives from the provincial and federal Liberals and NDP about potential candidacy. She said she’s always told people about her online footprint — including past modelling work. No one ever explicitly told her that work would be a barrier to her candidacy, but it was always met with an understanding “oo” which she took to mean “that’s too bad.”
She hopes that can change — especially for the younger generation who may feel deterred from entering politics because they have shared a lot of their lives online.
“It’s so demoralizing to see how many young people have put themselves off from their potential because of what they have shared, nude pictures, or sexted somebody,” she said. “The standards that we set for women are so archaic and not of the times.”
Turnbull said the reaction to Ingraham’s statement means the situation is unlikely to get swept under the rug anytime soon.
“I think it is blowing up in their face. And they’re being politically accountable for the decision to terminate her candidacy. You know, because the reaction to it is very strong,” said Turnbull.
“You can’t tell us that you’re being inclusive and you’re committed to diversity, but then you’ve got stodgy opinions making all of the decisions about who gets to run for the party and who doesn’t. There’s a disconnect, it seems between that messaging, and then what happens here.”