“Have you ever done anything that could embarrass you or the party?”
The standard questionnaire put before the novice New Democratic Party candidate made Lenore Zann laugh.
In 2009, at the start of her political career as a three-time provincial NDP MLA, representing the constituency of Truro/ Biblehill/Millbrook/Salmon River, Zann was a left-of-centre recovering alcoholic, charismatic actress and twice divorced. Typing her name into Google popped up frozen images from the myriad of film and television programs she’d acted in over the years.
“It doesn’t embarrass me personally, but anyone wanting to attack me politically probably thought they’d hit the motherload,” she says.
Three hours after then-party leader Darrell Dexter announced Zann’s candidacy at a Truro luncheon, the Liberal party sourced a racy picture of Zann, taken out of context, from behind a pay wall. The love-scene snap from the gay cable drama The L Word was sent to the CBC supper hour news, which chose to run with it.
The ensuing media hoopla was Zann’s baptism by fire, she says, her welcome into the Nova Scotian political arena. Would a nude picture of a male political candidate have made the news? Unlikely, she says.
“This sort of thing only creates disillusionment in the public,” says former federal and provincial NDP leader Alexa Mc-Donough, who has known Zann since she was a child. Eventually the party leader offered to apologize, McDonough says, but Zann put him off, saying she would accept his apology in the House, if he got elected. “Have you ever seen such chutzpah?” Mc-Donough asks.
Dexter and the NPD stood by Zann. “The attention gave me a soap box from which to ask the question: What is wrong with depictions of naked bodies in art or in the media?” she says. “By the time they are eight years old, the average child has seen 6,000 murders, rapes and shootings on television.”
She adds, “Which is more destructive?”
Truro agreed, and stood up for their hometown girl. Zann won the riding not once, but three times in a row.
“My passions have always been politics, arts, drama and travel,” says Zann. “I grew up in a political family and from a very young age I was interested in social activism. And,” she adds, “I have always been aware of misogyny and the abuse of men trying to humiliate and control women. I don’t like it. Who would?”
In her 20s, Zann worked at stage or film and TV jobs and then bolted, travelling to other countries to absorb their political systems, cultures and spirituality traditions.
“When I was 24 I lived as a musician in Cuba for nine months, selling everything I had to remainthere for as long as I could, right down to my
watch,” she says. Cubans were aware the world mocked their old cars and shoddy buildings, says Zann, but one of Castro’s popular mantras — First penicillin, then paint — resulted in a society with universal health care and education systems envied by all.
Later, Zann travelled to Stockholm in a stage production, allowing her to live there for a year.
“There is a guaranteed income for everyone in Sweden, universal health care, free day care and free post-secondary education,” she says. “They pay higher taxes in Sweden than we do, but earn much higher wages. And,” she adds, “people live with less anxiety about the future there, and arehealthier than we are overall.”
At age 36 with a jet-setting career, Zann realized she had a problem with alcohol. She got sober and entered a period of selfreflection and recovery. At 40 she wrote herself a stage show about one of her idols, Marilyn Monroe, a self-punishing addict, called The Marilyn Tapes.
“On the one hand The Marilyn Tapes was a political play set in the McCarthy era, written 20 years ago, during the time when George W. Bush was gearing up for war,” says Zann. “I realized even then that just saying you stood for peace was a radical political act.”
The play was also about the difficult journey of learning to accept who you are and to love yourself, Zann says.
“It’s a deeply personal, feminist work about a little-understood woman, the iconic Marilyn Monroe.”
Zann says Monroe was an innovative artist trapped inside a dumb blond persona, typecast by agents and film directors alike. Shades of autobiography perhaps?
Zann shares the anecdote about how Monroe helped her fiance, playwright Arthur Miller, when he was being accused of un-American activities by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Monroe cleverly publicly responded, “A communist is for the people, right? I’m for the people. Arthur is for me.”
The Marilyn Tapes successfully premiered at Neptune Theatre in 2003. Zann took it to New York City, where it played off Broadway for an entire year, during which the successful writer and actress was becoming aware of a deep yearning to return home to Nova Scotia.
“I could feel that my interest in politics was taking over from my interest in acting and reading scripts,” she says. “I wanted to do more. I wanted to make a greater difference in the world, in a directly political way.”
Eventually, she decided to sell her out-ofprovince properties, bought a house in Truro and began volunteering, dedicating herself to empowering young artists — particularly young women — in the area.
Inevitably, with her family’s NDP connections, the party came calling. Zann consulted with her friend and mentor, McDonough, who told her, “It’s your time. I’m stepping down and we need you to step up.”
“I always knew Lenore would be something in the political arena if she chose to do it,” McDonough says. “It’s a rough and tumble business, but I knew that once she got elected, she’d be able to choose her own exit.”
After she was elected for a second term in 2013, a nasty cyber bullying incident happened when a young male high school student tweeted a topless picture of her.
“I refuse to be a victim,” says Zann, who turned the cyberbullying into a teaching opportunity. “I said ‘you can attack me for my politics but don’t attack me for my personal choices, for my sexuality. I live alone. I am a woman first. I am not my job. I don’t deserve this. That is harassment. That is abuse.’” Zann says she will always fight for victims of injustice. She has stood in solidarity with historically marginalized women’s groups, and Indigenous and African-Nova Scotian communities taking stands on contentious issues in the province. Many see her as a flawed person with nothing left to hide, and, therefore, someone not likely to judge them or their problems, which works in her favour.
Cut to the present: post Jian Ghomeshi; post Harvey Weinstein; post #MeToo campaign.
Zann says she is thankful the old boys club attitude of entitlement — within the legislature and within Hollywood circles — is finally being challenged.
“There will be growing pains,” she says, “but the 21st century is no place for these dusty old attitudes to reign supreme.” She adds, “That’s why #TimesUp.”
Some say that institutionalized patriarchy is quivering in fear. Media moguls and politicians at all levels of government, powerful men accused of various sexual transgressions, are dropping out of public view weekly. Others are concerned with the speed with which one accusation can ruin a long career, implying that today’s so-called feminist witch hunt is no different than the political feeding frenzy of the McCarthy era.
“I highly doubt that the companies, or political parties to which the powerful men now toppling like dominoes belong would
simply remove the man from his position or ask him to resign,” says Zann, “unless they believe the woman, have seen or heard enough proof of the allegation to see the truth or have been aiding and abetting his behaviour for some time. They are likely afraid if they don’t cut him loose they will lose more than just their CEO, star actor, or political leader.”
Zann is quick to say that while she believes in the rule of law when it comes to these cases, it is not the public who is deciding who should be fired or who should resign, it is the powerful institutions for whom they work. “And that says a lot,” she adds.
Within this tumultuous climate however, women are still being criticized for having waited too long — decades in some cases — before stepping forward to make accusations after suffering a humiliating assault or being raped.
Recently, while working on anti-sexism legislation in the house, Zann suddenly realized that she was one of those women.
“During my time as a young actress in Hollywood, I was assaulted by an agent who held tremendous power over my career. Before that, I was also raped by a director,” Zann says, “and that doesn’t even include suffering untold degrees of generalized abuse over many years in the business.”
Zann says she buried the memories of the assaults, the abuse she felt she couldn’t do anything about at the time.
“Coming forward is important,” Zann says. “It can take years to admit to yourself that you were a victim of abuse, as I was. As I did. I was in my political body that day in the house,
but then I suddenly realized, from the point of view of having been an abused woman, I needed to say something.”
The political resignations last month give Zann hope that things are finally changing, she says, that the behaviour of those who take advantage of others in the workplace will no longer be tolerated.
“Men who have used the power of their position within an organization to force others to do something against their will create a toxic, unhealthy and dysfunctional working environment.”
“There is no place for discrimination, sexual assault, harassment, intimidation or bullying of any kind in the workplace,’ says Zann. “Any workplace. So it is imperative to support those who come forward with complaints and take their allegations seriously.”
Zann is convinced that in order to create sustained societal changes we need to continue to encourage more women to run for office, as she has done.
“But intersectionality is also vital,” she says. “Embracing diversity is more important than ever. While it may take some adjustment at first, with some discordant notes the diversity of many women’s voices harmonizing together is the most important ingredient needed to create a more peaceful and truly just society.”
Adds McDonough: “The women’s movement is no more divided than it ever was. I blame the advent of television in the political arena, which has not been there long. There is so much media focus on conflicts, controversy, sensationalism, which makes it a cheap ride and is not at all helpful or healthy.”
In Nova Scotia, only 17 out of 51 ridings havefemale MLAs whereas, not surprisingly, in Scandinavian countries like Sweden,
gender equality in the political sphere runs higher than a third.
Currently Zann is the NDP spokesperson for five portfolios: Status of Women, Environment, Advanced Education, Aboriginal Affairs and Agriculture.
To inspire more women to enter politics at a recent women’s march at City Hall in January, Zann and members of a Truro youth group held up a banner that read, A Woman’s Home . . . is in the Legislature.
Zann’s predictions for the future? Women will soon be fighting harder for equal pay legislation in the province.
It’s not likely that Zann will need to step down any time soon for reasons of sexual impropriety.
“No kidding!” says McDonough. “What a disgrace.”
A male political colleague recently asked Zann when she was going to cut her hair, because women of a certain age should keep their hair short, implying that politicians should be more demure.
“I just looked at him and said, I don’t think so!” says Zann. “Like any actress worth their salt, I refuse to take bad direction.”
-BY LISA COCHRANE