Canadians mustn't be complacent about sexual harassment in politics

By Nancy Peckford. As published in the Ottawa Citizen on November 23, 2017.

#Metoo. It’s a famous hashtag being used by women on social media to share stories of harassment and abuse. More than that, though, it’s become a powerful movement of individuals who are speaking up, resisting, fighting back and reclaiming space in a post-Harvey Weinstein universe. 

And it’s absolutely terrifying for male politicians, including Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexual assault by at least five women (and counting). Whether it becomes the tipping point that Donald Trump’s behaviour was not isn’t clear – but the unrelenting emergence of women’s voices may finally start to turn the tables on our anachronistic political institutions.  

Canadians may be taking comfort in Canada’s less salacious political landscape. Not so fast. The disturbing element about the accusations against Moore is their common thread: a powerful man of repute targets young women. Many are aware or witness to this person’s terrible behaviour, but say nothing. 

Despite the differences between the U.S. and Canadian political systems, politicians and legislature here in Canada are no doubt wondering if they, too, will be broken open by courageous women, young and old, ready to tell more than a thing or two. Up to now, the odds have been in favour of badly behaving men with formal power who understood that too few would dare to challenge it.

What’s tragic is how this house of cards has held up for so long. Toxic masculinity, however, is nothing if not tenacious, particularly when supported by institutionalized power that has been more than willing to turn a blind eye. The effect? Pernicious harassment and abuse.

Unlike infamous entertainment mogul Weinstein, financial fortune is not the tie that binds in politics; relationships are. The trifecta of fierce partisanship, a commitment to civic engagement and a strong loyalty to an elected official has meant that countless women working in Canadian politics have endured far more harassment and abuse than we will ever know. The hushed stories in the halls of power are ricocheting off the walls but few are talking out loud. 

Regardless, their silence does not negate their experience or the urgent need to address the unfortunate proclivity for a minority of elected men, and their staffers, to abuse their power. A self-identified feminist prime minister (and opposition leaders) may offer some limited protection, as does proposed legislation to provide better recourse for Parliament Hill staff. But even the bold ejection of two male MPs from the Liberal caucus in 2014 for alleged sexual misconduct was only able to go so far.

Unfortunately, the major obstacle to addressing the phenomenon of male politicians who cross the line is that few women are professionally independent enough to risk it. 

In politics, more than anything, it is your relationships that matter. Confronting an egregious abuse of power has meant potential character assassination, employment instability and marginalization. Then there is the pain and humiliation that come with challenging someone who has made a mockery of your desire to contribute to the civic arena.  

It is entirely understandable that, for many women, addressing sexual harassment – and worse – was not worth their time or humanity. Our current complacency ultimately, however, rests upon their quiet dignity and more than justified reluctance. 

The result is that toxic masculinity, and toxic masculine political spaces, have not been confronted wholesale. Yes, some efforts among female premiers and others have had an impact within the confines of their influence. But such incremental change will not fully protect the hundreds of female staffers within legislatures where institutional power, often embodied by egotistical and unaccountable men, increases the chance of abuse. Nor does such incremental change do justice to past female political veterans who frequently were told that the price of admission was to “put up and shut up.” 

To truly turn the tide, men who serve in positions of power need to be held to account by their peers, especially other men who know better. Many assailants have been insulated by others vested in their power who have seen it happen time and time again.   

Getting many more woman elected who can shift the culture from within is also imperative. #Metoo, then, is not the only rallying cry.  So is #Me4MPP, #Me4MLA, and #Me4MP. With most legislatures being less than one-third female in their composition, and several provincial and a federal election on the horizon, electing a critical mass of women who can help set a radically different standard could make all the difference. 

Help us make it happen.

To continue to advocate and to organize, we need your help.
Your donation—whatever the size—goes to helping us continue get the message out.