The Jian Ghomeshi scandal is an old tale told with new characters. The disgraced public broadcaster, who was fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) amid allegations of aggressive sexual behaviour from 11 women, has lawyered up.
It was not so long ago when another high-profile sexual-harassment case reared its head in a Canadian workplace. Ever since a class-action lawsuit alleging the RCMP’s systemic discrimination against female members was filed two years ago, the number of complainants in that suit has reached more than 330 to date.
The narrative structure of both scandals is uncannily similar: allegations of improper behaviour were followed by accusations from multitudes of women, who had reportedly experienced similar sexual harassment or physical abuse, leading to a public outcry. The Ghomeshi case also exposed a culture of silence among women who have been sexually harassed and authoritative figures at work getting away with unacceptable behaviour for a long time before such behaviour comes to light.
The fact that it has taken so long for the women in both incidents to come forward shows that the cultural climate for women to name their sexual predators remains inimical to victims. Actress Lucy Decoutere’s allegation that Ghomeshi slapped and choked her without warning took place during an encounter that dates back to 2003, when he took her to his home in Toronto . The civil suit filed in 2012 by Janet Merlo, former RCMP officer in Nanaimo , alleges that she suffered bullying and sexual harassment throughout a two-decade career that began in March 1991. Similarly, former RCMP spokesperson Catherine Galliford, who has been credited with opening the door for other women to come forward, alleged sexual harassment and bullying spanning nearly two decades.
According to non-profit organization Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton Area in Hamilton, Ontario, one in four women has experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, 43 per cent of all Canadian women have been sexually harassed at work and only eight per cent of those who were harassed at work have reported the harassment.
Let’s put it this way: being sexually harassed or assaulted is not something that women want to shout about — not to mention that conviction rates are not encouraging either. A summary of a survey by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics on sexual assaults in Canada in 2004 indicates that conviction rates in adult criminal courts are lower for sexual offences than for other types of violent crime, and only half of sexual offences are likely to result in a verdict of guilt.
In cases involving workplace sexual harassment or abuse, power often comes into play. Ghomeshi, the popular former Q host, was certainly a man of power, with his ability to drive up ratings. Likewise, a male-dominated organization like the RCMP — characterized by a macho culture — creates an environment in which the power scale is not tipped in the favour of officers of the fairer sex.
Scandals involving improper behaviour in a workplace do not just break; they are years in the making. Surely, somebody in the CBC must have seen or heard Ghomeshi’s gropings and obscene whisperings? It is equally mind-boggling to entertain the possibility that nobody — absolutely no one — in the ranks of the RCMP knew about or witnessed the sexual harassment of more than 330 female members over many years. And that brings into question the employer’s complicity through having some knowledge of what was going on and not doing enough to prevent these incidents from happening again.
It is a good thing that workplace sexual harassment is now the talk of the nation, as changing culture often begins with sharing stories — not looking the other way.