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Power and Prejudice


“Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” This remark by Canadian judge Robin Camp to a sexual-assault victim during a trial he presided over in Calgary in 2014 has not only spurred an inquiry by the Canadian Judicial Council. The comment also highlights a deep-seated prejudice that victims of sexual harassment or assault continue to face in this day and age.

In the July/August issue of OHS Canada, we published a feature on Bill 132, which ushered in a slew of new employer obligations to prevent, address and investigate sexual-harassment complaints in Ontario workplaces. We also ran a web poll asking whether respondents would file a complaint if they had been sexually harassed at work. I was surprised and dismayed to learn that only half had indicated that they would lodge a complaint.

In light of Judge Camp’s comments, I should not have been surprised by the preliminary poll results. Coming out against a sexual aggressor remains a daunting endeavour and one that does not guarantee justice. Filing a workplace sexual-harassment complaint can also put one’s livelihood and credibility on the line if the allegations are deemed invalid or if the harasser is someone from senior management.

Sexual-harassment cases are tricky to adjudicate. It is not just a matter of he-says-she-says; ensuring confidentiality can also prove challenging, since an investigation requires verifying allegations by interviewing co-workers. The process of seeking redress often means that victims are traumatized a second time by reliving the experience and braving the stigma and shame of being regarded as a consensual party in the event of an unsuccessful outcome. While the term “complainant” is officially used to describe someone who accuses another person of misconduct, the word itself is potentially dismissive and carries the connotation of being a whiner.

Judge Camp’s remarks are by no means a first among figures of authority who can influence investigation processes and the outcomes of sexual-harassment cases. Earlier this year, an outcry erupted over a cop’s comments that women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts” while speaking at a campus safety-information session in Toronto. In June 2015, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff General Tom Lawson said on CBC’s The National that sexual harassment remains an issue in the Canadian Forces, because men are “biologically wired in a certain way.”

This is 2016; to hear such stone-age remarks from people in positions of authority in a first-world country is disturbing evidence of hard-wired, ingrained sexist attitudes that continue to shape gender and power relationships in our society. Legislative measures like Bill 132 are steps in the right direction, but real change comes from addressing prejudices that lurk in the deep recesses of our collective psyche.

Sexual harassment comes in myriad forms, many of which emerge out of the blue. When I was a rookie reporter in Saskatchewan, I approached a man for a streeter quote. He said he would talk to me if I got behind the bushes with him, before letting out a laughter reminiscent of a pack of hyenas closing in on a fallen prey. That incident sticks in my mind after all these years.

For the record, I was not dressed like a slut that day, and I managed to keep my knees together.

Jean Lian is the editor of OHS Canada.