Identity Work and Political Leaders in Canada

by Elise Maiolino, University of Toronto, Canada

The political climate of the last five years has been a fitting time to study identity politicking and new candidacies in Canadian politics. During this period, three of Canada’s most notable politicians, running for three of the county’s most notable political offices, were involved in electoral scenarios that required complex negotiations of their public identities. While many of the dynamics displayed are sociologically familiar, the scale and scope of the identity performances witnessed generate new insights for sociologists, in Canada and abroad.

On his path to becoming Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau threw more than his hat into the ring. Only months before becoming leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau fought a conservative senator in a boxing match. His masculinity was put on trial. Through a discourse analysis of 222 newspaper articles published on the match, my research argues that Justin Trudeau transitioned from precariously masculine to sufficiently masculine, which transformed his perceived leadership suitability. Trudeau’s case generates the concept recuperative gender strategies and illustrates how political leaders work to restore their public gender identities.

A year after Trudeau’s demonstration of grit and manliness, Kathleen Wynne asked Ontarians whether they were ready for a gay premier. She made history when she became the first woman and openly lesbian premier of Ontario. Based on interviews with governmental actors and social movement organizers in feminist and LGBTQ communities, my research reveals that even in the case of breakthrough political leaders, a politician’s identity and speech acts do not guarantee grassroots approval. Rather, social movements also place heavy emphasis on a politician’s ability to deliver consistent and concrete policy results. I offer a typology of words and deeds to argue that social movement actors’ evaluations of politicians’ alliance and allegiance messaging are dependent on identity, speech acts, and deeds.

At the same time that Premier Wynne was breaking through her own glass ceiling, Olivia Chow, a seasoned progressive politician, suffered a somewhat surprising and spectacular defeat in her quest to become the first visible minority woman to lead Canada’s largest city. After leaving her seat in federal politics to run for mayor of Toronto, Chow challenged former Mayor Rob Ford’s conservative agenda and was met with significant obstacles, blatant racism, and sexism on the campaign trail. Based on participant observation of twenty mayoral debates, my research highlights the challenge of identity work on the campaign trail, arguing that Chow as a minority candidate was required to negotiate and mobilize identity in ways that were different from her white male opponents.

The emergence of diverse candidates and a growing political and public consciousness of diverse identities have generated a plethora of identity performances that can impact governance and electoral outcomes. My research hopes to illuminate the obstacles for those seeking high office, but also to provide the beginnings of a blueprint for on-the-ground actors seeking to turn obstacles into opportunity.

Direct all correspondence to Elise Maiolino <elise.maiolino@mail.utoronto.ca>

Canada, Volume 8, Issue 1

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