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‘Nothing is going to change’ unless Hill harassment training made mandatory, critics say

An online video on harassment prevention is too safe and fails to offer key examples that get to the heart of the power dynamics on the Hill, says educator Julie Lalonde.

Ottawa-based advocate Julie Lalonde said Parliament's harassment prevention training should be mandatory. Photograph courtesy of Julie Lalonde

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017 12:00 AM

The main tool to help educate MPs and their staff to combat harassment on the Hill is better than the nothing that existed before, but not good enough to deal with the unique challenges presented by the parliamentary environment, say advocates.

A year after the harassment policy governing MPs and their staff came into effect in 2015, an annual report noted targeted training sessions had been offered, with only one given. And, given the geographic spread of potential participants, the report said “classroom training was not ideal and the use of technology should be leveraged” instead through an online video.

After viewing the almost hour-long video, Julie Lalonde, an advocate for victims of sexual assault and safe workplaces, said she found the examples “very safe” and on the “low end” of harassment. It also put “100 per cent” of the emphasis on the person to resolve the problems themselves or set boundaries with the person harassing them—which she said “completely ignores the power dynamics” of young, often female, staffers dealing with their bosses.

“I think it’s certainly a step in right direction, but if this is the beginning and end to redress what is going on, then nothing is going to change,” she said, noting more time should be spent on handling disclosure given the fear that something could become Hill-wide gossip or be trotted out again during an election.

  

Training will never be as effective if it’s voluntary or removed from the back-and-forth classroom interaction that forces conversation on controversial topics, said Ms. Lalonde, who led a training session for the NDP a couple years ago.

Equal Voice’s Nancy Peckford, right, says the public needs more information about how harassment training is working on the Hill. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

About a quarter of the more than 2,000 people eligible have taken the training since the video was released in December 2016, according to House of Commons communications. Of the 620 total video views to date, it said 560 have been by MPs and staff, with 123 views specifically identified as MPs. 

“This online training session allows the House of Commons to deliver just-in-time training to eligible individuals anywhere in Canada, including in Ottawa and in constituency offices,” the communications office said by email, adding it sends out ongoing reminders about training and support services.

Feedback should be more than anecdotal: Equal Voice

Representatives from Equal Voice, which advocates for more women in politics, said the video can be a valuable tool, ideally if it’s used to supplement other forms of training. But they noted the tool has its limits and its viewing numbers suggest more needs to be done.

  

“For these things to work… people need to be aware of it, what their responsibilities are and who they should reach out to,” said senior researcher Grace Lore, noting she’s heard anecdotally from staff, mostly women, that they aren’t familiar with the policy, the training options or where they can access support.

“It can’t be used if people don’t know about it.”

That information should be more than anecdotal, Equal Voice suggested, pointing to the need for feedback to find out if it’s been useful or if other approaches are warranted.

“We want something that is effective, meaningful, and impactful, so I think the time needs to be invested to see if what’s been offered is working,” said Nancy Peckford, the organization’s executive director. “I don’t think we have enough information.”

  

Conservative MP Mark Strahl said he believes most in his caucus have taken the online course. The Hill Times file photograph

Conservative Party whip Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Hope, B.C.) said his party regularly reminds caucus of the online training and encourages members to make staff aware of it, too. 

“We have no enforcement mechanism on that but we do routinely encourage all of our members to make themselves aware of that and to participate in that training,” he said, adding that “we believe the vast majority of our members” have done so, though there is no way to track it. He said he thinks the situation on the Hill is improving, especially with a system in place, “but we still have a long way to go.”

Members should be accountable for their behaviour, he said, and comments like that of now-former Saskatchewan MP Gerry Ritz are “not representative of our party.” Mr. Ritz referred to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) as “climate Barbie” in a recent Twitter exchange.

“It’s unacceptable to make those gender-based stereotyping comments. It’s not helpful for a healthy workplace, healthy relationships or, quite frankly, healthy political discourse,” said Mr. Strahl.

The Liberals took a party-specific approach, according to a government source, with separate mandatory training for Liberal MPs and their staff this spring—the first time this sort of training had taken place. Human rights lawyer Cynthia Petersen headed both sessions, covering prevention, how to deal with disclosure, and supports available for those who have been harassed.

Ms. Petersen also led the investigation into then-Liberal MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews for “personal misconduct”—both denied the allegations—that kick-started both the MP-to-staff harassment policy and the MP-to-MP code of conduct, which came into effect in December 2015 and is currently undergoing a mandatory review.

It wasn’t clear if the NDP, which didn’t respond to questions from The Hill Times, encourages members to use the online tool or has had training since Ms. Lalonde led a session for MPs and staff in early 2015, around the time it became public two women NDP MPs said they had experienced sexual harassment from Mr. Pacetti and Mr. Andrews.

Since 2015 at least four MPs and one Senator have been the subject of sexual harassment allegations or accused of or admitted to having inappropriate sexual relations. That also includes former Liberal fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo (Nunavut), former Conservative-turned-Independent Senator Don Meredith, and most recently Darshan Kang (Calgary Skyview, Alta.), who resigned from the Liberal caucus and has denied two allegations of sexual harassment.

PMO spokesperson Cameron Ahmad said the government and caucus take harassment seriously.

“That’s why this discussion took place at our winter caucus meeting—to ensure this important issue remains top of mind for all members, and that we build upon our commitment in 2014 to promote awareness, education, and ensure resources are available to all members and their staff on this issue,” he said by email.

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times