Independent Senator Nancy Hartling says the findings of ethical misconduct against Senator Don Meredith have raised questions for her about what she might do if faced with sexual harassment on the Hill.
“I think there needs to be more awareness of what [we] could do. Supposing it happened to me, supposing it happened to one of my colleagues,” Sen. Hartling said Tuesday.
Sen. Hartling, who has been in the Senate since last fall and represents New Brunswick, said she didn’t want to get into her feelings about the allegations levied against Sen. Meredith, because she wanted to leave it to the Senate Ethics Committee.
But she said the situation did spark a conversation between her and her two staff members, in which all three questioned what they might do if they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
“They didn’t know either,” she said. “I think more awareness of what do you do, and where do you go, and who you can trust” when faced with sexual harassment is needed.
This is part one of a three-part series in which The Hill Times examines the dynamics of sexism and sexual harassment in and around Parliament Hill. Over the course of three weeks, it will look at the experiences of staffers, MPs and Senators, and members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
Sen. Hartling was clear that she hasn’t experienced any sexual harassment or sexism to date in her position as Senator. But, that doesn’t mean she thinks it doesn’t happen on Parliament Hill.
“As a woman, we’re vulnerable. [Sexual harassment is] still pretty alive and well, even though we’ve been talking about this for years and years,” she said. Sen. Hartling’s Senate biography describes her as being “one of New Brunswick’s most dedicated advocates on issues affecting women,” having founded the non-profit group Support to Single Parents Inc. and worked on issues of family violence.
The Toronto Star first reported in 2015 on an inappropriate relationship between Sen. Meredith and an anonymous teenaged girl, who says she was 16 when the Senator first struck up what became a sexual relationship. Sen. Meredith says the girl was 18 and at the age of consent when they first had sex.
After investigating the matter, ethics officer Lyse Ricard concluded that Sen. Meredith had brought the Senate into disrepute as a result of his conduct and failed to uphold standards of dignity “inherent to the position of Senator,” two violations of the Senate’s code of conduct.
The Senate Ethics Committee is now in the process of deciding what punishment, if any, Sen. Meredith will receive. Many have asked for his resignation, which he has refused to give to this point. The possibility exists that he may be expelled from the Senate, which would be an unprecedented move.
While Sen. Meredith’s inappropriate encounters took place outside of the workplace, they have once again brought the conversation over sexual harassment back to the Hill.
Then as recently as last week, Liberal MP Nicola Di Iorio (Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel, Que.) apologized in the House of Commons for a “a suggestive and very inappropriate” comment made at a committee meeting that was directed towards Conservative MP Dianne Watts (South Surrey-White Rock, B.C.) when her cell phone went off.
“Where’s your pole to slide down on?” he said, according to Ms. Watts, who accepted his apology in the House.
Nancy Peckford and Grace Lore, executive director and senior researcher at Equal Voice, respectively, say the problem with sexual harassment reporting for MPs and Senators as it stands now is there’s no way to measure if it’s working well, how it’s working, and if there is an increase or decrease in complaints. Equal Voice is an organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada.
The current process for reporting sexual harassment stemmed from two incidents in 2015, in which two anonymous NDP MPs complained to then-third party leader Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) about the conduct of two of his MPs: Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews. The two men were eventually kicked out of Liberal caucus and did not run for the party again. Neither man was charged or convicted of any crime (nor has Sen. Meredith) and both denied any wrongdoing.
Those complaints, which highlighted the lack of an official process for MPs to make complaints about sexual harassment against their colleagues, resulted in the House Committee on Procedure and House Affairs undertaking a study on the best way to implement such a system. The result was an official code of conduct in the standing orders, which dictates MPs wishing to file a complaint over sexual harassment can do so either with the chief human resources officer of the House of Commons administration, or with their party whip if the complainant and the respondent are in the same party.
But in a political culture where public perception can make or break a career, anonymity for those reporting sexual harassment has been prioritized in the process.
“It was cringe-worthy and gross and I hadn’t been spoken to like that in a very long time.”
-Former NDP MP Megan Leslie
“On the one hand, we want women to be able to come forward,” Ms. Lore said, and “they don’t want this issue to define their career.” But the problem remains: “what we don’t get is any sort of sense of the problem.”
Ms. Lore said finding out general information about sexual harassment complaints, leaving the identities of the complainant and respondent out of it, would make a big difference in actually understanding the status of sexual harassment on the Hill. For instance, how cases are proceeding, and how and if they are resolved.
“Having some kind of aggregate information is critical because we can use it to hold a whole institution accountable,” Ms. Lore said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“We don’t really have a good sense apart from our anecdotal understanding,” Ms. Peckford said. “I’m not sure anybody on Parliament Hill has a comprehensive sense of what the environment is like [in terms of sexual harassment], both within parties and within the institution as a whole. That’s in part because of the reporting mechanisms in place.”
Opposition whip Gord Brown (Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, Ont.) said he has not received any complaints about sexual harassment since the implementation of the code of conduct and the new reporting process for victims.
Mr. Brown said there have been “some questions about what might be considered harassment and what might not be.” He also said “it’s possible that having a code of conduct has avoided there being incidents.”
Government whip Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.) and whip for the NDP, Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet (Hochelaga, Que.) did not respond to The Hill Times’ request for comment by press time Tuesday.
Former NDP MP Megan Leslie said she was shocked when on her very first day on Parliament Hill, a colleague of hers remarked on her body.
“It was cringe-worthy and gross and I hadn’t been spoken to like that in a very long time,” she said of the comment, which referred to her vegan lunch as being the reason why she could keep her “tight little figure.”
Ms. Leslie said her experience as a woman in Parliament changed with time. She was first elected to office in 2008, and lost her seat in the 2015 election.
She described Parliament as being “old masculine,” referring to its male-only roots.
She referred to Alexa McDonough, the first female leader of the NDP in Nova Scotia. “When she was first elected in the Nova Scotia legislature, they didn’t even have women’s washrooms,” she said.
“What happened to me was not a big deal, but it really shook me,” she said. “But you have to understand that I didn’t know anything different.”
Ms. Leslie entered politics after working at a legal aid clinic, something she described as a “feminist environment.” On the Hill, suddenly she was working with “guys who cut their business teeth or their legal teeth in the fifties,” she said. It made for a bit of an adjustment.
But as time went on, and the average age of MPs lowered, Ms. Leslie said she did see “a drop in gender-based heckling.”
She said the implementation of a code of conduct, when she was still in office, helped—“ish”—in combating a culture of sexual harassment.
“I think it meant that a lot of people walked on eggshells,” she said, which in the end was not a solution as it “just makes all the women seem overly sensitive.”
Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) said while she has not experienced sexual harassment since becoming an MP, it was something she had to confront when she worked in the environment minister’s office in the 1980s.
She also said it was a rare occurrence to find a woman in Parliament who had not experienced some kind of harassment during their time there.
Ms. May pointed to online harassment as something that women politicians experience disproportionately compared to men. She described it as “harassment, intimidation, sexual innuendo, and intimations of sexual violence.”
Men have not “opened up [their] social media account[s] to face the c-word over and over again. Slut, over and over again,” she said. It has an impact on her “sense of self,” she said.
Ms. May said she does think the implementation of a code of conduct has made a positive difference on the Hill, though, echoing Ms. Peckford and Ms. Lore, she “wouldn’t be able to measure it.”
“I just think we’re much more open,” she said.
With more women entering politics, Ms. Peckford believes change will continue to come. “With so few women in elected office until quite recently, I think women MPs were expected to tolerate quite a bit. You had to to tolerate the environment as it is. That’s evolving, absolutely,” she said. “But for all kinds of reasons, I don’t think it’s resolved.”
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