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The Hill Times: Sexual harassment dialogue reveals cultural, systemic problems on Hill

Feb 13, 2015

 

 There should be a harassment code in the House Standing Orders and Parliament needs the type of mediation in place that “normal workplaces” have, says NDP MP Mylène Freeman. Along with other female and male MPs last week, Ms. Freeman publicly called for a process to deal with the issue after two Liberal MPs were kicked out of caucus for “serious personal misconduct.” The cases on the Hill follow the sensational sexual harassment allegations against CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi unleashed a floodgate.

“It needs to be external, it needs to be absolutely confidential,” Ms. Freeman (Argenteuil-Papineau-Mirabel, Que.) said in an interview.
 
The problem is the House Affairs Committee and the Board of Internal Economy are mandated to set up this type of system, she said.
 
“These are places where, in the past, this as a priority has been difficult to push. Hopefully, there will be a lot more reception to the need to put these processes in place in the future,” she said.
 
 The new national awareness of sexual harassment triggered by allegations against Mr. Ghomeshi has made its way to the Hill, with claims against MPs drawing attention to a culture and a system found wanting.
 
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) stunned the nation last Wednesday by announcing in a press conference that two Liberal MPs—Massimo Pacetti (Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel, Que.) and Scott Andrews (Avalon, Nfld. and Labrador)—were suspended from the national Liberal caucus over allegations of “serious personal misconduct.” He also announced that their candidacies for the Liberal Party for the next federal election were suspended pending the conclusion of an investigation.
It was later confirmed that the allegations of harassment came from two female NDP MPs.
 
Both suspended Liberal MPs denied the allegations and said they’re confident that they will be cleared in any investigation. The exact nature of the allegations is unclear and the identities of the two female NDP MPs are unknown. Media reports suggested that one of the incidents took place last year while the second was earlier this year.
 
In interviews last week, MPs and Senators said that the national dialogue that has followed the shocking stories about Mr. Ghomeshi has emboldened victims of sexual harassment to come forward and speak up publicly.
 
“Perhaps there’s this new ability to speak up. Women should always feel confident and they should also feel and know that they’re going to be believed and respected when they come forward because it takes great courage,” said NDP MP Irene Mathyssen (London-Fanshawe, Ont.).
 
Conservative MP Gordon Brown (Leeds-Grenville, Ont.) told The Hill Times that the Ghomeshi affair has encouraged victims of sexual harassment to speak up and all these allegations should be looked into carefully.
 
“People are feeling emboldened now that they’re seeing that these stories are out there. Obviously, the people who are being accused should get due process,” Mr. Brown said.
 
This hasn’t always been the case in a Parliamentary Precinct that has been slow to shed the perception of being an old boys’ club.
 
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.), who worked as a ministerial staffer in the 1980s, said stories of sexual harassment were common, though she didn’t experience it herself.
 
“The solution is to be able to talk about it, name it, and make sure that people who think they can harass either men or women know that they can’t,” said Ms. May.
Toronto Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth said that even after the Ghomeshi affair, it won’t be easy for victims of sexual harassment to come forward because of the stigma attached to it and the concern that people may not believe their stories.
“Some who are strong enough will. It takes guts, it takes a lot of guts to speak up,” she said.
 
Part of the problem is the lack of a clear system outlining whom MPs should be speaking up to.
 
Mr. Trudeau told the national media that he took the action after complaints about the alleged misconduct of the two MPs were brought to his attention late last month. He advised Liberal Whip Judy Foote (Random-Burin-St. George’s, Nfld.) to meet with the two NDP MPs and the NDP Whip. After the meetings, Liberals refered the issue to House Speaker Andrew Scheer  (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) to investigate the allegations. Mr. Scheer last week asked the Commons’ Board of Internal Economy to look into the issue.
 
More allegations have followed the initial Liberal suspensions. On Nov. 7, former staffer Fabiola Ferro filed a lawsuit against her former boss, NDP MP Sylvain Chicoine, claiming a colleague in the Hill office verbally abused her because of her gender and that she was fired after making an unsuccessful complaint. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) told reporters that Mr. Chicoine will not face any consequences as the issue in question is between staffers and a management-union committee had already resolved it. The allegations have not been proven in court.
 
Ian Capstick, a former staffer who first worked for the Liberals and later the NDP, told CBC that he was sexually harassed by two MPs when he worked on the Hill. He said that he never officially filed a complaint.
 
“Why did I do that at the time? Because I felt powerless,” said Mr. Capstick, who worked on the Hill from 2002 to 2008, on CBC’s Power and Politics.
 
“You feel absolutely without power to be able to report somebody who is 30 or 40 years, in some instances, your senior and is perhaps at a status where you just simply as a 21-year-old can’t challenge that person.”
 
He did not name the MPs in his interview.
 
The House of Commons has a process in place for dealing with accusations of harassment among its own employees and the House resources are made available to Members, if requested, said Heather Bradley, spokesperson for Mr. Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) in an email to The Hill Times. House of Commons employees refer to the approximately 1,500 people working in security, as pages and in House administration, but not the MPs or their staff.
 
Only the House has the authority to resolve disputes between members, which requires them to rise on a point of privilege. The matter could then be taken up by the Procedure and House Affairs Committee.
 
Former Parliamentary law clerk Rob Walsh told The Hill Times the other, more private, option would be to have the parties involved agree to have the incident investigated by a third party such as a retired judge.
 
Ms. May said the incident has pointed out how there isn’t a proper place to go with this type of complaint.
 
“We could find a route that gave anyone—I’m going to say man or woman, especially given Ian Capstick’s comments—a place to go where they know their employment is secure even though they bring forward a complaint. I think that’s the key thing,” she said.
 
NDP Status of Women critic Niki Ashton (Churchill, Man.) told The Hill Times that the recommendations in the Status of Women Committee’s study of sexual harassment in the federal workplace weren’t taken seriously by the government.
 
“It was pretty glaring that Parliament has nothing to work with so there has to be a policy, there has to be a process put in place,” said Ms. Ashton of the new allegations.
 
The committee called attention to the unique environment in Parliament, as being one of three government workplaces “for whom normal policies and complaints procedures are either not accessible or not effective.”  The other two are foreign staff in embassies and corrections officers assaulted by inmates.
 
The protocols for staffers are left up to each MP to govern as the employers. But there is no mention of what MPs’ options are if they were to experience, or be alleged to have committed, harassment themselves.
 
At the time, the two ministers responsible both rejected the recommendation of Parliament raising awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace through Status of Women Canada. 
 
“We recognize the value of improving awareness of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace among parliamentary staff, however this recommendation deals with matters that are within the responsibility of the Parliament of Canada and, as such, not within the purview of Ministers to address,” said Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), the minister of Labour and for Status of Women Canada, and Treasury Board President Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) in a June statement responding to the committee’s report.
 
Ms. Ashton said sexual harassment is “a societal issue that requires leadership from the federal government.” 
 
NDP MPs last week lambasted Mr. Trudeau’s handling of the issue, saying that he should have kept it confidential and notified the two NDP MPs about his actions.
“Imagine you’re at home in the morning, imagine you’re one of these women and you wake up in the morning and you check Twitter that says the Liberal leader is going to have a press conference around an issue that has happened to you. Imagine what that would feel like. I cannot believe they would come out and do this without seeking consent from these women, without asking them what it is they want to do,” NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie (Halifax, N.S.) told reporters last week.
“For the women who are involved, they came to us when it happened, so we have protected them. That’s our job and the first thing you do is you ask, ‘What do you want us to do?’ ‘What’s the next step?’ For them, they said clearly, ‘I want this to be private, let’s take the steps that we need to take.’ It’s not about the NDP or the Liberals, it’s about these women. Don’t you think that he should have given the basic respect to them to say, ‘I’m going to go public with this.’”
 
When pointed out by a reporter that Mr. Trudeau has not revealed the names of the NDP MPs, Ms. Leslie said that after the Liberal leader’s suspension announcement, people are curious to find out.
 
“But you work here, I work here, I know your name and you know my name, we all know each others’ names, this is a small work environment. Do you know how many emails I personally got saying, ‘Was it you?’ Can you imagine being that woman scrolling through ‘Is it you?’ That is not the way we do things here,” said Ms. Leslie. 
NDP MP Jinny Sims (Newton-North Delta, B.C.) in an interview with The Hill Times agreed and added that the issues related to harassment should be dealt with head-on but in a respectful way.
 
“We have to shine the light on it but we have to shine the light on it in a respectful way and the victim cannot be shunted aside.”
 
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) said in media interviews last week that by handling the harassment allegations publicly, the Liberals have “revictimized” the NDP MPs.
 
Liberal MP MP Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Que.), who has also been a regular member of the national Women’s Liberal caucus for about 15 years, complimented Mr. Trudeau’s handling of the matter.
 
“He acted quickly, he acted clearly, he acted openly,” the five-term Liberal MP said. 
Prof. Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.), wrote in a column for The Globe and Mail on Friday that the Senate expenses scandal, campaign violations by MPs and the suspension of two Liberal MPs have “cast a shadow over Parliament.” He said Parliament should come up quickly with a procedure to address these issues quickly. Prof. Flanagan questioned whether, even if the two suspended Liberal MPs are cleared of wrongdoing, they would ever be able to undo the damage to their reputations.
 
“In a democracy, a political career has to be based on electability, which in turn is founded on personal reputation. Can the damage to the reputations of Mr. Andrews and Mr. Pacetti ever be undone, now that their leader has lent credibility to accusations of sexual misconduct? The headlines, now lodged all over the Internet, can never be called back.”
 
According to a 1997 Angus Reid survey of more than half of all the women sitting in Parliament and in provincial legislatures found that one-third of Canada’s female politicians had been sexually harassed by their colleagues. Sixty per cent said they had been subject to inappropriate or demeaning remarks related to their gender. Twenty-one per cent said they knew of female colleagues who had used sex to advance their careers.
 
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The Hill Times

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