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Opinion

Political parties fertile ground to explore strategies, equip the troops on sexual harassment

By Nancy Peckford      

Given that the governing party has a caucus that remains 73 per cent male, exploring these fundamental tenents of harassment and sexual harassment in a political climate begging for more clarity is not just the smart thing to do, but the responsible thing to do.

Julie Lalonde, a well-known and highly credible Ottawa-based feminist advocate with much expertise in harassment, offered Liberals a workshop last weekend at their policy convention. But her efforts were derided by a small number of vocal opponents because Liberal MP Kent Hehr attended the workshop. She was left to defend the accusation that she was not providing a safe space for survivors, something that had never been intended as part of the workshop. Screenshot
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Just as Canadians were lauding the restraint demonstrated by the so-called quintessential Canadian police officer towards the Toronto driver of the van (which killed 10 and injured 14 people on a busy Toronto sidewalk last week), news emerged of the driver’s probable misogynistic motivations. Even if not his singular intention, the possibility that the driver acted out of hatred for women is still very disconcerting.
On Twitter, people began to share insights into the phenomenon called ‘incel,’ a little-known term for ‘involuntarily celibate,’ or highly disaffected young men who claim sexual frustration and rejection as their primary mantle. Some individuals with significant expertise used social media to shed light on this underground cyber movement of mostly white/dominant culture men who seek revenge on women (and society writ large) as a way of gaining or reasserting masculine influence and control.

Toronto police Const. Ken Lam, right, confronts the suspect Alek Minassian, left, after the van attack on April 23, in an image made from video recorded by a passerby. Screenshot image

The fact that rigorous research has already been conducted about this global movement, including here in Canada, is oddly reassuring. But it is also points to the level of organization among a tenacious and disparate network of men, vulnerable to radicalization, who are unable to adapt changing gender norms. Consequently, they contribute their lack of status as (young) men to the apparent diminishment of traditional and institutionalized patriarchal power.
In an article published by Vox in 2016, “How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy,”  the argument is made that “sexism serves as the alt-right’s gateway drug” into related forms of extremism. It’s a revealing and sobering read, and makes a compelling case for why discrimination and hatred can’t be entirely compartmentalized into discreet boxes of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
The inter-sectionalities, if you will, are ample. And to regard sexism independent of these other phenomena would be a grave error at this juncture in our history. Hence the urgent need for women and men to be part of a larger conversation about misogyny in society more generally.
Workplace harassment at Liberal convention a resounding success  
At last weekend’s national Liberal convention, the Liberal Party offered a workshop on harassment largely designed to equip bystanders, i.e those who may be witness to sexual and other forms of harassment, to intervene. The workshop was delivered by Julie Lalonde who is a well-known and highly credible Ottawa-based feminist advocate with much expertise in the area. Media were banned from the workshop to afford participants some latitude to ask honest questions, and not just be lauded for showing up in the room. But Lalonde’s efforts were derided by a small number of vocal opponents over social media, particularly a prominent male writer, because a controversial Liberal MP accused of harassment had said he would likely show up. Lalonde was left to defend the accusation that she was not providing a safe space for survivors, something that had never been intended as part of the workshop.

Liberal MP Kent Hehr, pictured on April 21, at the Liberals’ national policy convention where he attended a workshop on sexual harassment. Mr. Hehr resigned from cabinet in January over sexual harassment allegations. Given that the governing party has a caucus that remains 73 per cent male, exploring these fundamental tenants in a political climate begging for more clarity is not just the smart thing to do, but the responsible thing to do, writes Nancy Pickford. The Hill Times photograph by Jolson Lim

Some questioned the party’s “sincerity” in creating a forum for this conversation. Others wondered if the attendance of an alleged perpetrator undermined its goals. A few expressed the view that the workshop was a crass attempt at brand reinforcement, not learning. Few noted that Lalonde had already given a version of this workshop to the federal NDP caucus in 2014.

There is no doubt that sharing your expertise at a partisan event will potentially raise eyebrows by some. The Liberal convention in Halifax was artfully conceived and executed, and more than 3,000 people attended—half of whom had never been to a convention before. The production values alone on many of the plenaries, and the prime minister’s introductory video, were outstanding.
Substantively, there were some very healthy debates on a range of issues—and less so on others. The sustained effort throughout the convention to reset the tone for the rest of the Liberal government’s mandate was obvious, and not unexpected.
But the time dedicated through Lalonde’s workshop to explore the pervasive experience of harassment within partisan politics was both imperative and worthwhile. Clearly, delegates agreed. The workshop was standing room only, and a significant proportion of those attending were men. In fact, Lalonde was a courageous choice as facilitator for this topic given that she is formidable in her advocacy, and is hardly one to be deployed for partisan gain.
With her guidance, participants reflected on a basic but crucial starting point, i.e. what does a safe and equitable workplace look like? What are the tools one can use if they are witness to harassing behaviour? How do you know that someone has crossed has line? How do we raise expectations so that everyone aims higher when it comes to respect and appropriate conduct in politics?
Given that the governing party has a caucus that remains 73 per cent male, exploring these fundamental tenents in a political climate begging for more clarity is not just the smart thing to do, but the responsible thing to do. Further, there is every likelihood that the the conversation will continue under the dynamic leadership of Amy Robichaud, who was acclaimed as Liberal women’s commission president. Robichaud has a wealth of expertise about organizational culture and as an ardent feminist, is determined to make meaningful change. All of which is to say that partisan arenas like this (for the Liberals and other major political parties) are fertile ground to explore strategies and equip the troops (to the degree that this is possible). It will be interesting to see what the federal Conservative convention (also in Halifax) has in store.
Nancy Peckford is Equal Voice’s national spokesperson. 
The Hill Times 

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