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‘Just the start’: more stories of sexual harassment expected to rock political Ottawa, say observers

By Jolson Lim, Marco Vigliotti      

'This is probably going to get worse before it eventually gets better,' said former Liberal Hill staffer Greg MacEachern.

Ontario PC Party leader and former Conservative MP Patrick Brown, left, abruptly resigned from his post at the top of the provincial party last week over allegations of sexual misconduct. Liberal MP Kent Hehr resigned from cabinet last week after being accused of sexual harassment. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade, The Hill Times file photograph
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More stories of sexual misconduct and harassment are bound to surface on Parliament Hill in the coming weeks and months, with highly-publicized allegations levelled against Patrick Brown and Kent Hehr giving renewed urgency to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, according to former Hill staffers and political observers. 

“I certainly think it’s the beginning, not the end,” said Nancy Peckford, founder of Equal Voice, which advocates for women to participate in politics. For now, she applauded the “significant interest in long overdue reflection” about what needs to be done in order to eliminate bad behaviour by powerful men and the culture in political circles that enables these actions. 

In a dramatic turn of events, Mr. Brown was forced to resign as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader in the early hours of Jan. 25 after CTV News reported that two young women had accused him of sexual misconduct, allegedly while he was a federal politician. Two more Barrie-area women have since come forward with stories of Mr. Brown behaving badly.

On the same day, Liberal MP Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre, Alta.) stepped down as sports and disabilities minister “pending the outcome an investigation” into allegations of sexual misconduct after a woman who worked as an Alberta legislative staffer alleged on Twitter that Mr. Hehr, while still a provincial MLA, had made women feel “unsafe,” and made sexually suggestive comments.

The day before, Nova Scotia Scotia Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie was forced to resign after his party launched a third-party investigation following an investigator’s report into a sexual harassment claim against him.

The stunning series of resignations have led to a renewed calls for action against sexual harassment in the workplace, particularly in Canadian politics, where men still make up a disproportionate number of people elected and in high-ranking positions.

Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal staffer, said the series of men being outed for alleged bad behaviour in Canadian politics may “just be the start.” Mr. MacEachern, senior vice-president of Environics, told The Hill Times that there’s a “reckoning coming for the way staff have been treated in Canadian politics.”

“I don’t think this is over. I expect there’s going to be other stories that come forward and this is probably going to get worse before it eventually gets better. But it is going to get better,” he said.

Lisa Kinsella, managing partner at Daisy Group and spend more than a decade working for government, said “things will get better, but first women have more stories to tell, and those who come forward are brave.

“Their bravery will inspire others. When women come together, we can create powerful change,” she told The Hill Times.

Michele Austin, senior adviser with Summa Strategies and a former Conservative staffer, said that given last week’s events, it’s “important for everyone to take stock in political offices, about their workplaces, and [understand] the tools available and the people available.”

“I also think that this a blessing in disguise, despite the horrible things that happened to those two young women, it’s taken this issue into the public, and [made] people realize how important [it is] to treat people with respect,” she said.

“It’s very important for everyone to do their part.”

In light of Mr. Brown’s resignation, people working in federal and Ontario politics and the media have said his alleged behaviour was the subject of rumour in political circles. Mr. MacEachern said he’d heard “opaque rumours” of Mr. Brown’s alleged sexual misconduct, but “figured at this stage of his leadership, if there was something that had happened, his team had known about it.”

Ontario PC MPP Lisa MacLeod told reporters on her way into her party’s emergency caucus meeting on Jan. 26 that she had warned party officials at least twice before the end of 2017 about similar accounts from women about Mr. Brown’s alleged behaviour, but senior officials in her party had dismissed it as unfounded.

“There were lots of things that were percolating that a lot of people heard.”

Ms. MacLeod later said she had only told Tory insider Dimitri Soudas, a volunteer on Mr. Brown’s campaign.

Policies and protocol a way to keep ‘entrench’ anti-harassment culture

Ms. Peckford told The Hill Times she believed that the resignations represent an “opening for the entrenchment of better policies, new protocols and high standards,” which have been sorely lacking in legislatures across Canada. However, she cautioned that last week’s events only provide an “opportunity for change” and how well that change will entrench itself is unknown.

She said better workplace guidance and policies are needed in order to ensure those sexually harassed have a consistent, reliable, and clear mechanism to address the matter, which can be less stressful than approaching the media.

Currently, the House of Commons has a policy outlining explicit recourse for elected officials who may have been sexually harassed by their elected peers, although it does not apply to staffers or public servants.

This week, the Liberal government’s anti-workplace harassment legislation, Bill C-65, is being debated in the House of Commons. Introduced in November, the bill aims at providing workers a clearer process to deal with allegations of harassment and bullying in federal workplaces and enforce strict privacy rules to protect people who come forward.

One of the women who spoke to CTV News said she did not report Mr. Brown’s alleged behaviour to authorities because she didn’t know what options she had.

“I didn’t even know who HR was in this context. Particularly being in a constituency office. I mean, I just didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Mr. MacEachern said for staff, “it gets much more worse because we’re talking about a power dynamic.”

“One has economic power, they have power of holding their career, not just the career they have now but the career they have down the road in terms of references,” he said.

Ms. Kinsella said when she started on the Hill as a 32-year-old woman, she and her female colleagues “knew who to stay away from and who you shouldn’t get into an elevator alone with.”

“There was a small group of us who would get together informally and discuss salaries and working conditions, because of the lack of labour protections,” she said, adding that her older age “spared me a lot of negative experiences that younger female staffers face.”

Ms. Kinsella said she has a “long list” of stories: one example is when an older senator made an inappropriate comment about her appearance in front of other. She was also on the receiving end of lewd comments from a male journalist.

Alise Mills, a Conservative pundit and conservative strategist who has worked on campaigns for a variety of different parties, told The Hill Times, “Anyone who’s worked on the Hill knows a couple of things: the campaigns don’t have an HR process, which causes a lot of these problems.” 

“[It] also leads us to anonymous accusers coming out and basically [annihilating] somebody, because there is no formal process. So the people that are complaining that an anonymous person shouldn’t be able to do that, should also be looking at why it happened.”

Ms. Mills, who has worked for multiple parties in different provinces, and faced harassment while working as a staffer in Ottawa in her 20s, said the issue transcends political parties. She said she’s seen progress with how women are treated since that time.

“The real feeling, at least up until 10 years ago, that you weren’t onside, you weren’t a team player if you were going to complain about anything…They made sure to tell me that, ‘Alise, you are one of the guys,'” she said.

“Now, would they have said that to me today? Absolutely not.”

Ms. Peckford said men on the Hill also have an onus to call out bad behaviour, and promote an expectation of respectful treatment of their female colleagues.

“That’s the kind of conversation that more Parliamentarians, [particularly] men, need to have with each other. Part of shifting and transforming culture is that people hold each other to account and equality and respect are fully entrenched.”

Ms. Austin said it’s also up to the older generation of female staffers, “if there are any left, to reach a hand down to the younger generation and say, ‘Hey, if you need anything, we’re here.’”

She said there’s still “100 per cent a stigma” for women staffers who have faced sexual harassment and that changes won’t happen overnight.

“It’s very difficult for people to come to terms with what happened to them, let alone to speak out about it, especially when you’re in a relationship centred around power, which is what politics is all about. It’s not going to be easy for any side, but it’s important,” she said.

Mr. MacEachern also said sexual misconduct allegations may surface “not just in politics but in media as well.”

“Remember, there are a lot of reporters who hold power over junior staffers,” he said.

jlim@hilltimes.com

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