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Liberals to hold ‘open and frank’ closed-door meetings with MPs, staffers to discuss sexual harassment on the Hill, #MeToo movement

By Abbas Rana      

•Chief government whip Pablo Rodriguez, and deputy whip Filomena Tassi are meeting with MPs on Feb. 28 on Parliament Hill. The date for the meeting with staffers was yet to be determined as of deadline last week.•The sexual harassment file is 'rapidly' unfolding as the House currently is examining Bill C-65, an Act to Amend the Canada Labour Code (harassment and violence), the Procedure and House Affairs Committee is reviewing the MPs’ Code of Conduct on sexual harassment, and the chief human resources officer is going to start in-person training sessions for MPs on sexual harassment in the coming weeks.•Male Liberal MPs who talked to The Hill Times on not-for-attribution basis said the recent stories of sexual harassment allegations were changing the culture on the Hill and MPs from all parties are wondering 'who is next.'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured in this file photo at a national caucus meeting on the Hill. Liberal MPs are holding a special closed-door meeting on Feb. 28 to discuss sexual harassment.
The Hill Times file photograph

As the #MeToo movement continues to unfold on the Hill, chief government whip Pablo Rodriguez says he and deputy whip Filomena Tassi will hold two special closed-door meetings with MPs and staffers to seek input on how to make Parliament Hill a harassment-free workplace.

“It’s something we’re preparing at the whip’s office, we want to consult the whole caucus on how we could do more, or better with everything related to harassment,” Mr. Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.) said in an interview with The Hill Times last week. “We also want to make sure we hear [about] best practices, personal stories on how we can do better, or more together as a team. It’s going to be an open and frank discussion.”

Mr. Rodriguez and deputy government whip Filmomena Tassi (Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, Ont.) are meeting with Liberal MPs on Wednesday, Feb. 28 on Parliament Hill. The date of the meeting with staffers had not been scheduled as of late last week.

In the two-hour caucus meeting with MPs, the House chief human resources officer Pierre Parent will make a presentation to Liberal MPs about the current sexual harassment policies in place. After that, MPs will be able to offer their views on the subject. The meeting was originally scheduled for this Tuesday, Feb. 13, but the date was changed because of the short work week, and the busy House agenda, Ms. Tassi told The Hill Times. The House is not sitting on Friday, Feb. 16 because of the NDP national policy convention in Ottawa, and as a consequence will be a four day work week. Ms. Tassi said the date was changed to ensure MPs have enough time to adjust their schedules and all could make time to attend the meeting.

Chief government whip Pablo Rodriguez is meeting with Liberal MPs on Feb. 28 to discuss sexual harassment. The Hill Times photograph by Rachel Aiello

Ms. Tassi said the sexual harassment file is “rapidly” unfolding as the House currently is examining Bill C-65, an Act to Amend the Canada Labour Code (harassment and violence), the Procedure and House Affairs Committee is reviewing the MPs’ Code of Conduct on sexual harassment, and the chief human resources officer is going to start in-person training sessions for MPs on sexual harassment in the coming weeks. She said the closed-door caucus meeting would help MPs understand this issue better, and as a result will be able to participate in the review of C-65 in the House and committees in a more meaningful way.

“We’re aware of the rapid nature with which the whole area of sexual harassment and harassment is unfolding, particularly sexual harassment,” said Ms. Tassi. “It is clear we need a renewed focus on this and that’s what this is about. This is about responding to the needs for a renewed focus and ensuring that that response is thorough, well informed, so that at the end of the day, we can come up with the best possible process, and procedure that can be attained.”

The recent tsunami of sexual harassment complaints against men in senior positions has rocked work places in all walks of life. Numerous powerful men from a variety of fields have seen their professional careers end abruptly, and their reputations ruined in the face of explosive allegations. A number of powerful politicians at the federal and provincial level from all major political parties have faced the same allegations, and the rumour mill has run wild with innuendo that more powerful politicians could face such allegations in the coming weeks and months.

Liberal MP Filomena Tassi is the deputy whip of the Liberal caucus. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

All three party leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), were questioned about their own conduct by the media two weeks ago, and whether they might also face similar allegations.

“I’ve been very, very careful all my life to be thoughtful, to be respectful of people’s space and people’s headspace as well,” Mr. Trudeau told CBC’s The House.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina Qu’Appelle, Sask.) also responded in the negative, saying he doesn’t go out much in the evenings as “nothing good ever happens in Ottawa after 8 p.m.”

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, a lawyer by training, said that “we all have things that we can do better in our past” when asked the same question on Parliament Hill.

Male Liberal MPs who talked to The Hill Times on not-for-attribution basis said the recent stories of sexual harassment allegations were changing the culture on the Hill. Sources said that MPs from all parties were “concerned” and wondering “who is next” to face the accusations.

“They’re not sure where this is going,” said a Liberal MP

“It’s not why we got into politics. We got into politics to make our communities better.”

Liberal MPs said that they are now extremely careful in how they conduct themselves, and who they hang out with in an attempt to minimize the possibility of being the target of any accusation. These MPs said that some don’t socialize with their staff, and are careful about spending time with MPs from other parties.

“They are not sure who to trust anymore,” a second Liberal MP said.

“As I heard many times before ‘There’s no friends in politics.’ It’s the opposition and it’s something they could use, perhaps they would, some innocuous comment that you thought might have been funny they could take it out of context, or put it in a way that makes you look very bad.”

A third Liberal MP said that he tries not to hug people anymore, as it could be misconstrued, and is always watchful with what he says.

“It’s changing the whole culture on the Hill,” said the MP.

Several opposition MPs also told The Hill Times recently that the #MeToo movement has “scared” men in powerful positions who think that they could be next facing allegations of harassment, sexual harassment, or making inappropriate comments.

“[#]MeToo has scared the heck out of everybody,” said Conservative MP David Tilson (Dufferin-Caledon, Ont.), in an interview with The Hill Times, two weeks ago, adding that every man working on the Hill is now more cautious than ever before about what he says or does.

“Let’s say somebody that you worked with and you’ve done something, or said something, they’re annoyed. And you haven’t done anything, but they say you have, what’s the due process? Your career is over,” said Mr. Tilson.

Liberal MPs pictured at a national caucus meeting on the Hill. The Hill Times file photograph 

Just last week, two cases of sexual harassment surfaced involving a PMO staffer, and a cabinet ministerial staffer. In the first one, Huffington Post Canada reported the resignation of senior PMO staffer Claude-Éric Gagné after he sent inappropriate messages to Myriam Denis, who had applied for a job in the Prime Minister’s Office, but did not get the job. A former provincial ministerial staffer, and the federal chief organizer for the party in the 2015, Mr. Gagné has denied the allegation. The PMO called an independent investigation into the incident in November, which was concluded recently, but the outcome was never made public.

Ms. Denis wrote a blog last week for the Huffington Post in which she recounted details about this incident, and another one with Vahid Vidah, a former policy adviser to Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.). According to her post, Mr. Vidah first initiated online contact with Ms. Denis on his own regarding a senior position in the minister’s office, and later conducted a job interview with her without any authorization from the then-chief of staff Rachel Bendayan. After getting turned down for the position, Ms. Denis reached out to Ms. Bendayan to share her experience. The now-former chief of staff thanked her for the information and told her that Mr. Vidah did the job interview without her permission, and did not work in the minister’s office anymore.

Meanwhile, Liberal MP Alexandra Mendès (Brossard-Saint-Lambert, Que.), in an interview with The Hill Times said she would attend the caucus meeting, and will put out the idea of creating a Hill “harassment watch.” She said that she has talked to her colleagues about this in informal conversations, and the initial response has been positive. Ms. Mendès  said that she was still working on fine tuning the details of this idea.

“In our [MP] offices, some kind of symbol or sign alerting staff that we would be there for them, and to help them go through a process if they want to denounce someone, if they’re going to make a complaint, or if they want to vent,” Ms. Mendes said.

Liberal MPs Pam Goldsmith-Jones (West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, B.C.), and Pam Damoff (Oakville North-Burlington, Ont.) said they would also attend the caucus meeting, and would offer some specific ideas with the caucus. Both said they would be able to discuss those ideas publicly only after the caucus meeting.

Meanwhile, the House is spending about $50,000 to provide in-person training on sexual harassment to MPs of all parties. The House has hired an outside company called ADR Education to conduct those training sessions in both official languages starting this month until the end of May. Each training session will be three hours long and will be conducted in groups of 20. A spokeswoman for the House told The Hill Times, last week, that Mr. Parent was still in the process of working out the dates of the training sessions.

“The delivery of the new ‘in person training’ is being coordinated with party whips and will start in the coming weeks,” wrote Heather Bradley, director of communications to the House Speaker, in an email to The Hill Times.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times 

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