Last night, the Alberta Government announced the winners of the "Her Vision Inspires" essay contest, which began in February and invited Alberta women aged 17-25 to share their vision for Alberta and what they would do if they were MLAs.

The third place winner has raised some eyebrows, with many people online criticizing it for harmful views. While the original webpage was taken down after heavy criticism, you can still read the essay through an archived link here.

Parts of the essay in question states that "women are not exactly equal to men," "to try to promote that women break into careers that men traditionally dominate is not only misguided, but it is harmful," and that it's important for Albertan mothers to give birth as there is a belief that "Albertan children are unnecessary as we can import foreigners to replace ourselves."

NDP Children's Services Critic and MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud Rakhi Pancholi said she couldn't believe this essay was chosen as one of the winners of the contest.

"I read the essay, and jaw dropping is the best way to describe my reaction, I was shocked. The essay is clearly misogynistic and sexist, it reduces women just to a role of reproducing, but there's also really clear elements in it of racism and white nationalist replacement theory ideology, and it's really disturbing," she said.

"Even more troubling is that this is an essay chosen by UCP MLAs as one that should be celebrated as a vision for women in Alberta, and that was the part that I think was the most shocking for me, that this is what they chose as a winning essay. How did this essay get picked when you think about what the goal of the contest allegedly was? How did they pick this essay?"

Minister of Culture and Status of Women Ron Orr, as well as UCP MLA Jackie Armstrong-Homeniuk did not respond to a request for an interview, but Armstrong-Homeniuk responded in a written statement. 

“The essay contest was intended to reflect a broad range of opinions from young Alberta women on what democracy means for them. While the essay in question certainly does not represent the views of all women, myself included, the essay in question should not have been chosen. Giving women of all ages a voice is something that I will always stand up for. To young women who aspire to one day have a career in politics, please keep using your voice and advocating for your communities,” part of the statement read.

Pancholi said it's everybody's right to hold their own beliefs, and free speech is something that shouldn't be taken away, but there are limits.

"I think sexism and racism is not an opinion that the Government of Alberta should be promoting and endorsing, and I don't think they should have to be told that."

"There are limits to free speech or free expression in Canada and actually any democratic nation across the globe. Nobody is trying to suppress free speech. Obviously there are people that hold views that many of us would find deeply distasteful, but there's no right to have your views celebrated or endorsed by the government, and that's what happened here."

Pancholi added hearing other opinions and healthy debate is important, but not if the other opinions are openly hateful.

"I'm really tired of that "both sides-ism" argument. We've heard the premier of the province use that argument before as well, that we have to respect both sides. When we're talking about hate, when we're talking about racism, when we're talking about sexism, actually, we don't need to value both sides of speech the same way."

"While there will be people who hold different views, that's their right to hold those different views and it's even their right to express them, but it does not mean the Government of Alberta has to endorse them, and that is what happened here. The UCP government has endorsed and celebrated views that are deeply, deeply harmful and insulting to women and to gender diverse folk and to people of color, to immigrants, to this country and province."

What is especially concerning to Pancholi is the fact that this essay was chosen as one of the winners of the contest. She said it's important that political leaders avoid celebrating opinions that are harmful.

"When political leaders, and those in political power, are actually giving faith and air to these kinds of views, that is incredibly damaging because that is going to be a signal to many people that these views are ok. Elected officials need to take responsibility for endorsing and giving space to these kinds of views. Because clearly we need to be giving more airtime and more space to views that are inclusive, that reflect our diversity, and that empower women to have true success and security financially, psychologically and physically in our society."

For Pancholi, this essay selection is not an isolated issue. She believes this was precedented by what she believes has been years of the UCP government not giving women the proper support they need.

"This is really a bigger issue that's been going on with this government for some time. Over the last three years they've shown they are not committed to the issues that will actually support women. They came out with an economic recovery plan through the pandemic that didn't even acknowledge that women were in the workforce. They aren't doing anything to support women in small businesses, as entrepreneurs. Women have been asking for accessible child care. The only reason that's starting to happen is because of the federal government, not the UCP. They have not taken any steps to expand access to reproductive health services."

Regarding the essay, she clarified there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a mother. She herself is a mother of two, and mentioned that she sits in a caucus which is almost 50 per cent women. The important distinction is that having children does not define a women's value or purpose. You can have children and be a mother, but also identify yourself in other ways.

"Producing a child is not the sole purpose of your identity and value. Of course I love my kids, I've been a fierce advocate for children and will continue to do that, but it is not the sole purpose of women just to have children, and we've come a long way to accepting that women are incredibly important around political and all decision making tables, the diversity of opinions and views they bring to the table are deeply important. I refuse to subscribe to the idea that it's mutually exclusive, that it's one or the other. It's very clear that men have been able to have children and excel in their businesses and their work. Women can do the same."

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