Government legislation aimed at handling and preventing sexual harassment in federally regulated workplaces and Parliament Hill won’t be enough to stop the longstanding problem, says the bill’s Senate sponsor, but it’s a step in the right direction towards a much-needed change to the Hill’s “very archaic” culture.
Bill C-65 is “not going to fix everything,” said Independent Senator Nancy Hartling (New Brunswick), “and it certainly won’t fix people in the rest of society, maybe working in retail or food services. This is going to be step by step, piece by piece, but I think Canada is ready for cultural change. We have to catch up with it.”
The culture on the Parliament Hill “is very archaic,” Sen. Hartling told The Hill Times in an interview last month, adding that a large part of getting away from that will come from education about and awareness of the issues of harassment, as well as workplace bullying.
“Because any bill, whether it be anti-smoking, anti-this, anti-that, it doesn’t just happen by a bill,” she said. “It has to happen through cultural change and willingness and political will of all who want to participate.”
Senators, though, are divided on whether to go one step further and, like the House of Commons, institute mandatory anti-harassment training for themselves and their staff.
Sen. Hartling’s involvement with the bill began in November when Senator Peter Harder (Ottawa, Ont.), the government’s representative in the Senate, asked her to sponsor the new legislation tabled by Labour Minister Patty Hajdu (Thunder Bay-Superior North, Ont.).
Bill C-65 adds sexual harassment to the section of the Canada Labour Code that deals with other harassment and workplace violence, and extends the same protections already allowed to employees in federally regulated workplaces to the House of Commons and the Senate.
“I’ve worked a lot with women’s equality and issues with domestic violence and sexual abuse and things like that, and this seemed to be a natural fit for me,” said Sen. Hartling, a former social worker who once co-chaired a provincial minister’s working group on violence against women.
When she arrived on Parliament Hill after being appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) in 2016, Sen. Hartling said she noticed that Hill staff don’t “really have the voice they need to have.”
The Senate, which has been no stranger to harassment and bullying complaints, is reviewing its harassment policy, which was last updated in 2009.
Last year, the Senate ethics officer suspended an investigation into allegations of workplace sexual harassment, harassment, and abuse of authority against former Conservative-turned-Independent Senator Don Meredith dating back to July 2015 “pending the outcome of an investigation into this same matter by another authority.” Mr. Meredith has denied the allegations.
Former Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, who retired early in January, was cleared of allegations of sexual harassment, workplace harassment, and abuse of authority by an independent investigator in 2014.
In August, a spokesperson for the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee told The Hill Times that the Chamber’s HR department received three complaints of workplace harassment in the preceding two years.
Much like Sen. Hartling, Independent Senator Frances Lankin (Ontario) said that since her arrival on the Hill in 2016, she’s had “a number of women staffers” come to her and “raise questions” about sexual harassment and bullying. She said many of them were looking for advice on how to engage with their harasser or on what steps to take, from someone with a background as an equality advocate.
Though the Senate doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of barriers that she faced as a woman in a traditionally male workplace when she was starting out in the workforce, she said, it’s a “hierarchal institution” like the House of Commons or Ontario legislature where she served as an MPP and cabinet minister for 11 years, in that harassment and bullying have been overlooked for years.
The understanding and attention brought about by the constant #MeToo allegations of sexual harassment popping up in Canadian politics and beyond—four of the five parties with seats in the House of Commons are undertaking investigations into the conduct of current and former MPs—has “created the conditions for us to look at this again,” Sen. Lankin said.
In the House, in-person anti-harassment training, facilitated by the House administration, was recently made mandatory for all MPs and their staff.
Sen. Lankin said she would support a similar move in the Senate.
“I don’t know why we’re not doing this together,” she said. “I don’t think there’s much difference in either of the chambers around these kinds of issues.”
Senators, their staff, and contractors, through the Senators’ Office Management Policy, are required to comply with the Senate Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace, Senate spokesperson Alison Korn said in an email. “As a reminder, and to update staff that the review is proceeding, the link to the policy was recently emailed to all at the Senate, including Senators’ offices and Senate administration.” She added that training on the policy “is available to Senators and their staff and would be expected to form part of any revised policy approach.”
Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo (British Columbia), agreed that a culture change is needed, on Parliament Hill and everywhere else, but said he didn’t want to pre-empt the work of the group reviewing the Senate’s harassment policies when asked about mandatory anti-harassment training in the Red Chamber.
In addition to “look[ing] in the mirror from time to time,” Sen. Woo, facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, which holds a plurality of seats in the Red Chamber, said the ISG “respond[s] quickly to any even whispers of harassment.”
And while mandatory training is good, said Sen. Hartling, “it doesn’t mean it changes people.” That’s something that is “going to take cultural and institutional change over a period of time.”
Bill C-65 was fast-tracked to the House Human Resources Committee when the House returned from its Christmas break at the end of January. As part of the study, the committee held closed-door meetings in which members could hear personal experiences regarding harassment.
One person shared their experiences in an open session, former NDP staffer Beisan Zubi, who had previously written about her exposure to harassment on the Hill for Vice.
“I think building culture is really difficult and it’s also, I think, even harder to change a culture once you have a culture that is as pervasive as the negative culture on the Hill was,” Ms. Zubi told the committee on March 26.
It’s a culture fed by alcohol, the normalization of aggressive and sexually predatory behaviour and partisanship, she outlined for the committee.
“I feel almost complicit in accepting my own mistreatment and how that acceptance could have created more abuse for women that came after me that are still on the Hill,” said Ms. Zubi, who worked on the Hill from 2011 to 2012 as a researcher and again for a few months in 2014 in the NDP leader’s office. “The political partisanship that makes you feel like you’re in a never-ending campaign makes the idea of launching a complaint against someone in a rival party automatically seem partisan and launching against your own team seem treasonous.”
Both Ms. Zubi and fellow witness Hilary Beaumont, a Vice News reporter who spoke to more than 40 women over three months for an investigation of harassment on the Hill, echoed earlier issues raised with Bill C-65—namely that the proposed reporting structure won’t make people want to come forward with complaints.
Under yet-to-be-determined regulations, people with complaints must first attempt to find a resolution with their employer. If it continues to escalate, a third party—referred to as a “competent person”—will be brought in to investigate and report with recommendations.
The necessary culture change isn’t going to happen when things start with the “bad idea” of having to go to one’s supervisor at the outset of a complaint, said Kathleen Finlay, who heads the ZeroNow Campaign, which advocates for zero tolerance of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
This is not only because supervisors can often be perpetrators of harassment, but also because they’re usually men, and there’s the additional fear of “being branded a troublemaker, someone who doesn’t fit into the organizational culture and therefore shouldn’t be considered for advancement,” she said in an interview.
The ZeroNow Campaign submitted a brief to the Human Resources Committee outlining potential fixes to the bill, including removing a clause that allows the labour minister to refuse to investigate a complaint if it’s deemed “trivial, frivolous, or vexatious,” along with a prohibiting non-disclosure agreements, and implementing a “hire us back” policy to return women to the workforce who have been forced out of the public service because of experiences with sexual misconduct.
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