A wave of criticism and controversy over a “ladies night” fundraiser with Justin Trudeau has left one of the event’s organizers dumbfounded.
Mary Ng, one half of the duo that organized the “Justin Unplugged” fundraiser held last Thursday, said critiques of the event — which was labelled sexist and patronizing — were blown out of proportion.
“There was never any intention to offend anyone,” said Ng, the acting director for the office of the president at Ryerson. “We deliberately wanted a lighthearted, creative invitation to create some interest and intrigue.”
The electronic invitation, or e-vite, featured colorful Andy Warhol-esque images of Trudeau around text inviting “ladies” to “really get to know the future prime minister. It advertised “cocktails, candid conversation and curiosity-inducing ideas.”
The e-vite led to an influx of flak online and offline. Niki Ashton, an NDP member of parliament for Churchill, Man., called the event and its invitation patronizing.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel showed her outrage on Twitter.
“What is the biggest issue facing women? This kind of crap,” she tweeted, mocking one of the questions on the e-vite.
But Ng, who volunteers with the Liberal party and has helped organize events in the past, said the e-vite was intended to be different in order to get all types of women.
The event was crafted to appeal to those who don’t typically participate in political fundraisers, interested in the event.
The goal was to make it look nothing like a standard political invitation.
“I like it. I’m proud of it,” said Ng, whose friend Lindsay Mattick designed the invitation. “I think people have read a lot into what is an invitation.
“This is an effort of women getting together to create an invitation to their friends, to their colleagues, their family, saying please come out. That’s all it is.”
Ryerson students differed in their opinions of the event. “I don’t think Justin Trudeau is being sexist by doing these cocktail parties,” said Rocco Scavtta, 21, a fourth-year engineering student. “I think he’s opening up doors for new opportunities for women.”
Allison Wilton, an 18-year-old first-year sociology student, said she found the invitation “confusing. I don’t know why he had to single out women,” she said.
Around 100 guests, mostly female, attended the fundraiser, with each person paying $250. The money from the event went to the Judy LaMarsh Fund, a Liberal organization which assists women seeking public office.
Throughout the evening, Trudeau answered a range of questions on topics like public policy, human interest and pop culture. Some of the questions came through the #askJustin PR campaign on Twitter.
One specific question that caused some controversy asked which country Trudeau admired the most. Trudeau said he has a “level of admiration” for China, sparking a frenzy of criticism from his political opponents.
But Kelly Aizicowitz, a senior consultant with StrategyCorp, and an adviser to Ontario’s Liberal party who worked on Kathleen Wynne’s leadership campaign, attended the event and liked what she saw.
“It was nice to be able to hear from (Trudeau) directly,” said Aizicowitz, who pointed out that women involved in or curious about politics, no matter what their political stripe, were welcome to attend the casual Q-and-A.
“He was unscripted. He was hearing some of the questions for the first time. It’s refreshing to have a leader who is willing to put himself out there like that.”
She said she doesn’t think the event or invitation were problematic, adding that the questions posed on the e-vite — such as, “what’s your favourite virtue?” and “who are your real life heroes?” — were ones most Canadians would ask each other.
“When you think about the goal of the whole night, which was to raise money for the Judy LaMarsh fund to support female Liberal candidates, I think it’s very hard to say an event that had that aim was sexist,” said Aizicowitz.
Patrick Gossage, founder and chairman of public relations firm Media Profile, said he is surprised by the intense media reaction.
“He has to practically walk on glass because he’s being monitored so carefully,” said Gossage, who was press secretary to former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
It’s a critical time for the Liberals because of the Toronto Centre byelection scheduled for Nov. 25, Gossage said.
With Bob Rae’s exit from the riding this past July, the Liberals’ Chrystia Freeland will have to battle the NDP’s Linda McQuaig to keep it.
However, Gossage doesn’t think the cocktail hour invite will undermine Trudeau in the long run.
“If this is the worst mistake he makes, let him make a few more.”
Tracey Raney agreed. The associate professor in Ryerson’s department of politics and public administration said Trudeau’s event was “strategically quite savvy.”
“I think he will probably do more of these type of events, meeting more Canadians. I think he’s trying to rebuild the Liberal party and find his own voice in doing that.”
Raney said the controversy of the event came from the Liberals’ opposition
“I think that the controversy that’s been drummed up mostly by the Conservative party is really just a distraction from the main issue, which is that the Conservative party is losing its appeal to female voters in favour of the Liberal party,” she said.
“If the Conservatives want to have a fundraiser where they charge $250 per person and invite only women, that’s certainly something they can do. The fact that the Liberals have done it, I don’t really see what the problem is.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 13, 2013.