Sexism and Sandra Masters’ city

Sandra Masters next the to the Chief of Police. They're both wearing red shirts that say

The City of Regina and its mayor Sandra Masters have been in the spotlight recently, but not for positive reasons. Photo courtesy of the City of Regina.

On March 16, Experience Regina made its debut as the name of the newly rebranded Tourism Regina. The same day, Experience Regina also rolled out a new promotional campaign that leaned heavily into sexual innuendo, calling Regina “The City That Rhymes With Fun” – a nod to the fact that it (sort of) rhymes with “vagina” – and calling on people to “Show Us Your Regina.” The organization reverted back to the name Tourism Regina on April 13 after public backlash.

The campaign, which Mayor Sandra Masters called “fun, genuine, and bold,” in a social media post, was widely regarded as sexist and in poor taste. University of Regina labour professor Sean Tucker pointed out on Twitter that if a City of Regina employee were to repeatedly refer to the slogans at work, their colleagues could have grounds for a harassment complaint. By March 19, Experience Regina CEO Tim Reid had issued an apology. Some critics of the campaign have even called for the resignation of Reid, who is also the CEO of the Regina Exhibition Association Limited. 

At the heart of the Experience Regina debacle is the question of how such a thing could happen. How could the capital city of the province that consistently has the highest rate of intimate partner violence in Canada roll out a campaign to position itself as “sexy” without anyone raising an alarm? How could a city led by a female mayor who has defended her female city manager against legal claims made by male councillors by saying those legal claims had “tones of sexism” lean into a campaign that equates vaginas with “fun”? 

While the official decision-making process that led to the campaign being launched – including who had the final say, what the mayor knew (and when), what kind of public consultations were held, and whether anyone raised objections – is not yet fully known, there are indications that the mayor’s commitment to democratic decision making and intersectional, anti-oppressive feminism may be lacking, and those indications have all played out in the public eye. 

A safe space for whom?

Although Masters said at an event she attended on March 18 that she “want[ed] safe space for everyone,” she has not gone out of her way to make city hall a place where the public can feel comfortable engaging with city politics.

“It’s kind of a vulnerable and scary thing to do,” says Regina organizer Alejandra Cabrera of her experience appearing as a delegation at a city budget meeting in December 2022. During the meeting, Cabrera had asked Councillor Bob Hawkins, who she says had been chatting with someone next to him, “if he could give me a moment to pay attention to what I had to say.” 

Footage from the December 14 meeting shows Cabrera asking Hawkins “can I get your attention?” As Cabrera made her request to Hawkins, Masters interrupted her, telling her that she [Masters] had just cautioned the previous speaker, Shylo Stevenson, against addressing councillors directly. Indeed, Masters is shown chastising Shylo Stevenson for similarly asking Councillor Terina Nelson to pay attention while they spoke.

But as chair of the meeting, Masters did not try to rein in Hawkins’ side-chatter herself, either. Nor did she call Councillor Landon Mohl to order when he was laughing with a city administrator as a delegate representing SOFIA House spoke about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

How could the capital city of the province that consistently has the highest rate of intimate partner violence in Canada roll out a campaign to position itself as “sexy” without anyone raising an alarm? 

“They expected us to be respectful of them and listen and not be loud, but when it came to them, they didn’t give us that courtesy,” Cabrera said. 

During the same December 14 meeting, Masters also interrupted Kale MacLellan, an Indigenous organizer from Regina, as MacLellan spoke on the lack of funding budgeted for ending homelessness. MacLellan described the omission of funding for ending homelessness as a decision that was made when “unelected city administration decided to ignore clear direction,” referring to the fact that council had voted unanimously to include funding for ending homelessness in the draft budget. 

Masters cut MacLellan off and said, “Drop the line that you’re taking. This matter has been settled with the courts. We’re clearly all aware of what happened.” Later, on February 10, 2023 MacLellan shared on Twitter “I’m a loud mouth on twitter but actually v[ery] soft spoken in person. It was jarring to have [M]asters publicly censor what I said.”

In addition to her public treatment of her colleagues and delegates, what may be less known is Masters’ confrontational treatment of reporters. 

While it was widely reported in the media that Masters claimed there were “tones of sexism” in the court filing  councillors Dan LeBlanc and Andrew Stevens made against city manager Niki Anderson after she failed to include funding for ending homelessness in the 2023 budget, despite council voting unanimously for her to do so, it is less widely known that Masters also openly criticized CBC reporter Alexander Quon’s line of questioning during an after-council scrum on February 8, 2023. Quon had asked LeBlanc, who was first to the mic, about accusations of harassment made against him. Masters said it was “a bit offside” for the reporter to ask LeBlanc about the harassment accusations before he asked Anderson. When Quon replied explaining he’d just learned about the accusations and hadn’t yet had the chance to speak with Anderson about them, Masters interrupted him, saying “but you’ve asked the dude in the position of power who used the court system about harassment, but you’ve never actually asked the question [to Anderson].” Anderson did not speak with reporters during this scrum.

At another scrum in December 2022, Masters implied that Quon’s reporting was biased by accusing him of “being friends” with LeBlanc and Stevens. Most recently, according to Quon on Twitter, he requested an interview or statement from Masters about Experience Regina on Monday, March 20. Masters’ office did not agree to an interview with CBC that day, saying that she would make a statement to the public after the Wednesday, March 22 council meeting. The next day, March 21, she appeared on John Gormley’s right-wing radio show.

Contradictory actions

It would be possible, if one wanted to, to wave away the concerns raised by members of the public about Masters’ treatment of delegates, citizens, and members of the press. Masters is the first woman to be elected mayor of Regina, the capital city in a province that is one of only three to have never had a woman premier. Criticism of her, particularly criticisms that centre on the tone she takes with the press and public and the environment she has created at city hall, can understandably be seen as sexist in and of themselves – a manifestation of the ways in which women in positions of power are routinely scrutinized and judged not by what they say and do, but by the manner in which they say and do it. 

But Masters has undermined the democratic process in ways that are much more tangible and much less open to interpretation than her public behaviour, and those ways have, coincidentally, been ones that have direct and negative consequences for women.

A widely covered example of this is almost certainly the controversy around excluding funding to end homelessness in the 2023 draft budget. Although council voted unanimously to include such funding in the draft – which would not have guaranteed this funding would be provided, only that the mayor and council would have to publicly vote for or against its inclusion in the actual budget – when the draft budget was released, no such funding was listed. 

“We were standing up for the democratic process and to get some funding to get some people off the streets. And [LeBlanc and Stevens are] accused of sexism for that? Was she clutching at straws?” 

This exclusion was blatantly anti-democratic. People elect city councillors who are expected to represent the wishes and interests of their constituents, and the elected council voted unanimously to include funding for ending homelessness in their draft budget. Instead of doing so, however, a budget was presented in which such funding was absent; the mayor and city council thus avoided having to publicly vote on whether or not to fund efforts to curb homelessness. There is no cogent argument for not including this line item in the draft budget. If councillors felt that ending homelessness was an expense they didn’t want to pay, they could have simply – and publicly – voted against it. 

In response, councillor Dan LeBlanc, on behalf of councillor Andrew Stevens and local activist Florence Stratton, made an originating application to the Court of King’s Bench that would have required Anderson to include the funding in the draft budget. In response, Masters said she believed there were “tones of sexism” in their decision to take the city manager to court, without providing any evidence to support the claim other than that Anderson happens to be Regina’s first female city manager. 

Notably, when Masters levelled her accusations of sexism against Stevens and LeBlanc, at a press scrum where she was visibly angry, tapping her fingernails on the podium and calling the court filing “disgusting,” she did not mention that Stratton, a woman, was named in the originating petition. 

Stratton pointed out the contradiction inherent in Masters’ exclusion of her from discussion about the court filing. “I was very happy to be part of that court case. I said, ‘yes’ immediately when I was asked,” she said. “We were standing up for the democratic process and to get some funding to get some people off the streets. And [LeBlanc and Stevens are] accused of sexism for that? Was she clutching at straws?” 

Anderson’s gender was convenient for the narrative that the court filing was not made in good faith. Stratton’s gender undermined the narrative, so she was not considered in the mayor’s public accounting of her response. 

Sexism and the city

For full disclosure, I have direct experience of Masters’ weaponization of gender as a tool for shutting down valid criticisms, which she discards when convenient. I have also seen how she rejects nuanced feminist arguments that centre justice for poor, marginalized, and oppressed women over a feminism that reduces the structural and material impacts of sexism and misogyny on women and queer people into a mere dichotomy of men versus women. I was one of more than 100 women and non-binary people who signed an open letter to the mayor arguing that “It is not sexist to expect that our elected officials remain accountable to their commitments. It is not sexist to expect that unelected city officials follow the direction of elected representatives when making life-and-death decisions that deeply affect vulnerable residents of our city […] Ending houselessness is feminist. Sheltering women in positions of power from discomfort at the expense of women for whom the consequences of their inaction are lethal, is not.”

Masters flatly dismissed those of us who signed, saying, “my opinion of that hasn’t changed,” indicating she stood by her claim that there were “tones of sexism” in the legal filing made by LeBlanc and Stevens. This is a dismissal of the collective voices of women and queer people as well as a cogent argument about why it is feminist – not sexist – to hold women in positions of power to account and to respect the democratic process. 

At the same time that Masters was refusing to listen to our voices, she was making accusations against, if not us, then people like us, explicitly telling council in a February 8 meeting that the reason the city wasn’t hearing from people expressing support for the removal of the budget line to end homelessness was because “the hate and vitriol on social media” discouraged people from publicly stating their support for its removal. While she claimed that she had heard from citizens who supported LeBlanc’s removal from the committee, she declined to name them, either in person or in camera because she “had concerns about breaches of confidentiality from members of council.”

In Masters’ Regina, gender is something to be wielded strategically, to reach particular ends. Remediating the systemic impacts of sexism – higher rates of poverty, domestic violence, and sexual assault for women than for men – is less important than the hollow symbolism of (white) women attaining positions of power.

While the situation was apparently so dire Anderson said she wouldn’t be alone in a room with Leblanc, the city did not follow its own policies around investigating harassment, and Stevens and LeBlanc say there has been no independent investigation into the allegations of harassment made at LeBlanc by Anderson.

Asked about the accusation of harassment against him, LeBlanc said that “allegations of harassment against bosses are a very serious thing that should be taken very seriously by the employer, which is [city council]. And I think the way an employer takes that seriously is by having an impartial investigation into it. And that hasn’t happened.” 

But not only has the city not launched an independent investigation into the city manager’s accusations of harassment against a councillor, it’s also currently involved in a court battle alongside the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board against CUPE 21, fighting to prevent civic workers who are subject to sexual harassment at work from obtaining financial damages. 

While it’s still baffling how the highly sexualized “Experience Regina” campaign made it through quality control, viewed in the context of the city Sandra Masters is building, it’s unsurprising that such a campaign would receive her support. In Masters’ Regina, gender is something to be wielded strategically, to reach particular ends. Remediating the systemic impacts of sexism – higher rates of poverty, domestic violence, and sexual assault for women than for men – is less important than the hollow symbolism of (white) women attaining positions of power.


Alex Birrell is a writer, settler, and socialist from southern Saskatchewan.

Keep Reading