ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Non-binary Canadian politicians past and present are speaking out against death threats and harassment faced by a transgender woman running in the St. John's, N.L., municipal election who, if elected, will make provincial history.
Ophelia Ravencroft is running in the downtown St. John's electoral district of Ward 2, after finishing second in a byelection last October for the same seat. But this time, her campaign looks much different.
Though she had been widely known for her social media posts about policy, accessibility, affordability and inclusion in the city, Ravencroft's Twitter and Facebook presence has been muted in the past months. And unlike in October, there are few of her signature purple-and-black lawn signs around the city.
On Monday, she and her campaign manager, Shaye Murray, made a post on Twitter explaining why. Ravencroft, her campaign and the larger transgender community had been the target of "very graphic" death threats, both online and in person, to the degree that she was worried her supporters would be targeted, too, she said.
"We felt that our current and prospective supporters deserve to have a sense of what was going on," Ravencroft said in a recent interview. "It's been a couple of months of this now. I'm trying to take my life back, and I'm trying to take my campaign back, and I'm here for the people of the ward. I'm committed to this the same way that I was when I declared for the byelection … that dedication hasn't gone away."
A spokesperson for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary confirmed Wednesday that an investigation into the threats is ongoing.
Ravencroft works in public policy and said she first decided to run for municipal politics because she wants the city to better serve its residents. "I was annoyed that I couldn't walk around in the winter," she said. "I was annoyed that my friends who have accessibility needs, not having those needs met … I was annoyed that we had an affordable housing crisis."
She lost a byelection for the Ward 2 seat in October by 306 votes to Shawn Skinner, a former cabinet minister with the provincial Progressive Conservatives. Skinner isn't running again. If Ravencroft wins on Sept. 28, she'll be the first openly transgender and openly non-binary elected official in the province, and one of just a few openly non-binary people elected to public office across Canada.
Uzoma Asagwara, an openly non-binary elected official in the Manitoba legislature for the NDP, says people from marginalized communities and genders need to be supported by those around them who have more power and privilege. Elected officials in Newfoundland and Labrador — at the municipal or provincial level — need to speak up and condemn what's happening to Ravencroft, Asagwara said.
"These situations are a literal matter of life and death," Asagwara said in an interview Wednesday. "When people — especially people in positions of power and privilege and platform — are silent, that is clearly communicating permission for those who are inflicting violence on others to continue doing so. Silence actually sends a very clear message."
Estefan Cortes-Vargas was elected to the Alberta legislature in 2015 with the NDP and came out as non-binary after winning.
"We as trans and non-binary individuals belong in a political space just as much as everyone else," Cortes-Vargas said in an interview Wednesday. "We are here, and we will continue to be here … and every political level should affirm that."
The City of St. John's posted a statement to its social media platforms on Wednesday condemning the harassment. "We need people to run for council and they should feel safe in doing so," the statement said. "We must all stand together to end this behaviour."
Mayor Danny Breen did not respond to a request for comment. Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O'Leary said she responded to Ravencroft's social media post, offering support.
Cortes-Vargas, who uses they/them pronouns, said they had the support of their party when they ran. They added that the threats made against Ravencroft could provide an opportunity for St. John's and other cities in the province to figure out how to better support and protect candidates in municipal elections.
Ravencroft said though the harassment has impacted how she has chosen to run her campaign, she said she hopes things will change, especially after the massive swell of community support that arose when she went public.
"Please don't let this dissuade you," she said to queer, transgender and non-binary people hoping to follow in her footsteps.
"Look at how many people spoke out in support of me when they realized what was happening, and then understand that no matter where you are, you will have an army like that behind you, too."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2021.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press