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Hill Life & People

Parliament has a power problem: why few staffers report sexual harassment

By Chelsea Nash      

One contributing factor is staffers are often seen as ‘dispensable and lucky to be there,’ says one ex-aide.

After-hours receptions and other informal events with alcohol flowing blur lines between work and personal, which 'leaves more room for bad things to happen,' says one former staffer. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Staffers could be the most likely group of people to experience sexual harassment on Parliament Hill, yet very few of them report it, and there’s one big reason why: power.

“There’s a definite power imbalance between young staffers and everyone else,” said Beisan Zubi, who worked on the Hill in her mid-20s as a communications assistant for the NDP, and recently penned a column for Vice detailing her own experiences with sexual harassment during that time a few years ago, and why she never reported any of it.

The incidents she recounted in the article included crude comments made by fellow staffers about her breasts and behind, an MP’s hand brushing her bum as they posed for a photo, and a journalist deliberately groping her breast after going in for what she thought was a high five.

Staffers, she said in an interview, are “seen as really dispensable and lucky to be there.” Many just want to “put their head down and do their job,” and reporting something like sexual harassment could draw unwelcome attention to themselves and the office of the MP they work for. Plus, Ms. Zubi said, “it seemed like there wasn’t a concern for people…It seemed like admitting weakness” to report sexual harassment.

Power dynamics on Parliament Hill play a big role in the perpetuation of sexual harassment. As Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) put it, “there are a lot of ways in which even a strong, confident, young feminist can feel degraded.”

This is part two of a three-part series examining the dynamics of sexism and sexual harassment on Parliament Hill. Over the course of three weeks, the series is investigating the experiences of staffers, MPs and Senators, and members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Women who spoke to The Hill Times for this story agreed that sexual harassment was something parliamentary staff, particularly young women or members of the LGBTQ community, simply had to accept as part of the job, or they could risk losing theirs.

Sheila Copps, a former minister and deputy prime minister in Jean Chrétien’s government who has previously shared her experiences of sexual assault as a politician, said “if you do get a reputation of being a complainer, then no one wants to hire you.”

Several women with experience on the Hill agreed that sexual harassment was something parliamentary staff simply had to accept as part of the job, or they could risk losing theirs. Sheila Copps, a former minister in Jean Chrétien’s government, says ‘if you do get a reputation of being a complainer, then no one wants to hire you.’ The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The nature of politics is what creates an environment in which power is the currency, and “people with the least amount of power may be more vulnerable,” said Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, an organization whose goal is to get more women elected.

And those with the most power can find it “intoxicating,” said Jennifer Robson, a former staffer who is now an assistant professor of political management at Carleton University. The power imbalance between MPs and staffers, let alone MPs and volunteers or interns, is clear, she said.

The reporting policy for sexual harassment exists on paper, Prof. Robson said, but “if you think about it from a staffer’s perspective, there’s an awful lot of disincentives to go report.” Even if someone does report, they may be reporting the harassment to either their own MP or one of their MP’s colleagues, through the whip’s office, though the House chief human resources officer is also a reporting avenue. Those reporting sexual harassment essentially have to depend on Canadians electing “honourable people” said Prof. Robson, something that isn’t always a guarantee.

The Board of Internal Economy, the body of MPs that approved the House’s MP-staff harassment policy, defines sexual harassment as something that could include, but is not limited to, “demands for sexual favours or sexual assault; inappropriate or unwanted physical contact such as touching, patting, or pinching; insulting comments, gestures, and practical jokes of a sexual nature that cause discomfort or embarrassment; and inappropriate enquiries or comments about an individual’s sex life.”

The BOIE reports the number of complaints or inquiries the House chief human resources officer receives regarding harassment. It keeps the complaints anonymous, but describes the nature of the complaints or inquiries, specifying if they are relating to sexual harassment, for instance.

The annual report for 2015-16 is the first and latest one available, under a harassment policy adopted in 2014. During the 16-month period the report covers, 10 cases were “processed.” Seven of those were inquiries, meaning the inquirer could have only been looking for information on next steps. “Of the remaining three, two were resolved informally and one required the intervention of an external mediator and was successfully resolved,” the report reads. Because no case generated a formal complaint, no investigations were undertaken.

The categories for cases include abuse of authority, harassment, sexual harassment, and mixed. Of the 10, two inquiries were listed as involving sexual harassment, and three were characterized as mixed.

The report also shares the gender of the complainants and respondents. Of the 10 cases, nine involved female complainants and one male. Seven of the respondents were male, and three were female.

The report also said more than 150 participants attended three training sessions on harassment and a section on harassment awareness is now prominently displayed on the parliamentary intranet site.

‘People with the least amount of power may be more vulnerable,’ says Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, left. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Ms. Copps said while the implementation of a policy for sexual harassment was precedent-setting, employees who work on the Hill are still not covered under the Canada Labour Code, which she said puts Hill staffers in a more vulnerable position than employees in the private sector, for instance.

“I think the unique and most challenging piece of that place is because it is considered the maker of the laws, so it’s not subject to the laws,” she said.

Because a House harassment policy was only just implemented in 2014, Ms. Peckford said those within the Parliament Hill bubble are still “coming to terms with it in all of its complexity.”

“Obviously these are male-dominated institutions whereby there have been behaviours in the past where behaviour wasn’t addressed and was actually permissive,” she said.

For staffers who might have experienced sexual harassment, reporting can be difficult when “so much of your mobility within political service has to do with your networks and reputation,” Prof. Robson said. “The negative associations and comments and whatnot aren’t necessarily just reserved for the person who committed the harassment. There is still risk to your own reputation, your own networks.”

Former NDP MP Megan Leslie said sometimes MPs need to remind themselves that the role of Parliamentarian, and all the privileges that come along with it, “isn’t who you are.”

She explained that “being an MP doesn’t automatically come with some sort of global power.” However, “that whole place exists for our parliamentary democracy. For those four years, it exists for you. Everything there is for you in that role.”

Sometimes, MPs internalize that feeling, she said. And the power dynamic “isn’t just MP to staffer,” but all Hill employees. “When you walk into the Library of Parliament…everybody jumps up and asks you what you need,” she said. Most, if not all, employees on the Hill serve some kind of supportive function to the politicians.

Ms. May, the Green Party leader, has experienced both sides of that power dynamic, having once been a political staffer herself. Working in the environment minister’s office in the ’80s, she said she experienced sexual harassment.

“There were senior people working in the bureaucracy who were not subtle. I had to throw someone out of my bedroom once, when we were on a tour doing work across the country,” she said. Ms. May described herself as being a “strong, confident person” at the time. She was in her 30s, and had already worked as a practising lawyer. She wasn’t about to be “disempowered” by the situation. She told the man to “get the hell out of my room.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May says she was sexually harassed as a political staffer in the ’80s. But sexual harassment is still present today on the Hill, say experts. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“I had work to do,” she explained. “And as a result of that, given the relationships and the power imbalances, I never told anybody.”

While Ms. May’s experience took place in the ’80s, it’s clear that sexism and sexual harassment is something many staffers continue to face.

Prof. Robson said she wasn’t around in the ’80s, but she laughed when asked if sexual harassment was a thing of the past. “We don’t have any objective measures on this stuff because it’s so taboo. [But] it is real, it is still happening,” she said.

During her time on the Hill in the ’90s, she described a general “tone-deafness.”

She said she once heard of a Senator conducting job interviews in which he told the young woman he was interviewing that he would “come and make sure” that they were sleeping with a copy of the party policy under their pillow.

Other examples she gave included being nicknamed Monica Lewinsky at the time of Bill Clinton’s sex scandal among some of the “suggestive” yet “subtle” comments from MPs.

“It leaves you feeling less than. Set apart. Excluded. Devalued. It’s a way of being put in place and objectified,” Prof. Robson said of her own experiences.

She said in her work in the volunteer sector and the public service she did not experience the same level of sexism as on the Hill.

Prof. Robson teaches a course called the foundations of political management. She devotes about a third of the course to discussing gender on the Hill, which naturally leads to a discussion on sexual harassment. She said it’s heartening to hear from her students, male and female, that the topic resonates with them, and that they find a workplace in which sexual harassment is commonplace to be “disgusting.”

Ms. Zubi’s Vice piece included a compilation of all the factors that led her to never file a complaint about sexual harassment, including: because it happened where alcohol was involved, because no one saw, because the perpetrator worked for her party or a rival party, and because he was a journalist and she worked in the media department.

Asked if she would do anything differently if she had to go through that same experience again, she said the “conception” in her head “that I needed to put up with it because I needed to show I was professional, I was tough,” was incorrect.

She also noted that so many people who work on the Hill are not from Ottawa, something she describes as being like “camp.” She said because people are no longer around people they know, they become less accountable for their actions. And, those experiencing harassment might not have the support systems they normally would.

“The Hill’s a weird work environment. You have all these people that are thrown together for short periods of time. There’s a lot of late nights, a lot of partying that’s done,” said one former staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Receptions and other informal events with alcohol flowing blur lines between work and personal, which “leaves more room for bad things to happen,” she said.

“I think I got caught up,” Ms. Beisan said. “The fact it took me so long looking back to realize lines were crossed. I think it’s really hard to do. You’re busy, you want to finish your day, and you don’t want to think about the terrible thing that happened last night,” she said.



What to do if you’re experiencing sexual harassment

The reporting process for sexual harassment (and all harassment) for staffers is separate from that of MPs.

The House Board of Internal Economy’s policy for staff reporting sexual harassment stipulates that, ideally, the initial complaint “regarding the behaviour of an employee of a Member of Parliament should be addressed to the Member” who employs the staffer, as “they are responsible for providing a harassment-free workplace.”

If not the MP, the complaint could be addressed to the party whip, as “party whips are responsible for the discipline within their respective parties,” including MPs. If the complaint is against an MP, the first place it should be brought is the party whip.

If neither of these avenues is appropriate, the staffer should go right to the House chief human resources officer. If that happens, the whip will be advised that a complaint has been filed.

Julie Lalonde, a feminist activist in Ottawa who helped to educate the NDP caucus and staff after two sexual harassment cases involving their MPs as alleged victims hit Canadian national media in 2014, said there’s no right or wrong way to go about responding if you’ve experienced sexual harassment.

Julie Lalonde is a local feminist and educator on sexual assault and harassment who has worked with MPs. Photograph courtesy of Taylor Hermiston

“If you choose to do nothing because you need that job more than anything, that’s okay too.” She said sometimes victims of sexual harassment or assault feel obligated to stop the harasser or assaulter so as to prevent them from affecting others. “You’re not responsible for the actions of another grown man,” she said.

However you decide to go about dealing with your specific instance of sexual harassment, Ms. Lalonde said the most important thing is to find someone you can talk to about it to figure out what to do.

“It breaks the isolation,” she said. “People who have been targeted with harassment are very isolated.” But talking with someone you can trust, another staffer for instance, “can bring up ideas you never thought possible.”

You could file a complaint, go public with your situation, or confront whoever has harassed you directly. The most important thing is to never go it alone. If you decide to confront your harasser, having that supportive person there as a witness could be helpful, Ms. Lalonde said.

And, documenting your experience is “really important.” Even if you decide to do nothing, document it, she said. You may change your mind later. Someone else might go public with allegations against the same person. If you decide to share your experience as well, as is quite common, she said, you’ve got the documentation to back up your case.

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