OTTAWA – The Liberal government has proposed strict new rules to govern harassment in federal workplaces – including on Parliament Hill – but political staffers are split on whether the changes will make a difference.
“Legislation is one thing,” wrote one respondent to a recent survey of political staffers by The Canadian Press. “Hearts and minds is another.”
The Canadian Press distributed a questionnaire to those working in offices of MPs, senators and cabinet ministers in Ottawa, asking them to share their opinions and experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment on Parliament Hill.
The non-representative results of the survey, which garnered 266 responses, don’t allow broad conclusions about the scale of the problem, since there’s no way to verify the size of the population. But they do illustrate the challenges faced by male and female staffers alike as they contend with a culture many say fosters the conditions for abuse.
Respondents were asked, among other things, to evaluate the likely effectiveness of proposed legislation aimed at giving workers and employers a clear course of action to better deal with allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.
The new rules, once passed, would also bring parliamentary staff under the protection of the Canada Labour Code for the first time.
Nearly 55 per cent of the 179 people who answered the question said they think the proposed changes would improve the situation, while about 45 per cent of respondents disagreed.
Several referred to the power imbalance – exacerbated by a lack of job security – between MPs or senators and the younger staffers they employ.
“We are warned repeatedly never to make a complaint as we will never get hired again,” wrote one respondent. “So, I really doubt it will make a difference. It’s career suicide.”
The legislation also doesn’t address the culture of drinking that can be a regular part of the job, others noted.
“The legislative changes will do nothing to change the culture on Parliament Hill,” said one. “Namely, a predominantly male workplace where alcohol is easy to access, and their spouses are often on the other side of the country.”
Several noted that the majority of those in positions of authority are men. “Gender parity is the only way to ensure situations cannot be swept under the rug, ‘explained’ away, or ‘taken the wrong way,”’ one respondent wrote. Others mentioned a grey area, where things could end up crossing the line.
“I think that as long as it is okay for MPs to have even consensual relationships with their employees, the problems will persist.”
Some also expressed concerns about the politics meddling with the process, or that it could give rise to superfluous complaints.
Labour Minister Patty Hajdu, who introduced Bill C-65 last fall, said she agrees that legislation cannot fix everything, but it can help make way for change.
“This really is a cultural shift that has to happen,” Hajdu said in an interview Monday. “(The legislation) gives employers and employees tools and a process and some clarity, but it doesn’t cure a culture of patriarchy and harassment,” she said. “It really is a foundational piece to have a framework, but the cultural change comes from everybody saying, ‘No more. This stops today.”’
Once passed, the legislation would also give staffers access to a neutral third party to examine their complaints and allow anyone unhappy with how their dispute is being handled to complain to the federal labour minister.
Many respondents called it a step in the right direction.
Some suggested greater protections and awareness would embolden more staffers to come forward, while a few noted the fear of consequences could be as important as the consequences themselves.
“I think the attention brought to this issue and the fear that there (are) more repercussions now … is making all people on the Hill ask themselves if their behaviour can end their political careers,” one respondent wrote. “I love it!”
New Democrat MP Sheila Malcolmson, the critic for women’s equality, said parliamentarians need to make sure the system allows complainants to feel they are being heard and treated well – and that it also ends the harassment.
“We won’t know until we have these new rules in place,” she said.
Conservative MP Rachael Harder, the critic for status of women, said she would like to see any complaints involving the House of Commons referred to the deputy minister, rather than the labour minister, to ensure complete political independence.
Several respondents to the survey raised that as a concern as well.
Hajdu said she is willing to consider any amendments that would strengthen the bill.
“The last thing I would want is for any kind of perception that there would be political interference.”
The survey also asked political staffers what information they had received about workplace harassment policies, reporting procedures and their rights and responsibilities as an employee when they first began the job.
Half of the respondents said no one raised the issue with them, nor did they seek details out on their own.
Only about 10 per cent of the respondents said their employer or the administration proactively provided formal training on how to prevent and address workplace harassment.
The House of Commons, which adopted a policy on preventing and addressing harassment in 2014, has recently ramped up its training efforts.
MPs must now complete mandatory, in-person training sessions; 44 had done so as of Monday. A similar training course for staffers will be offered this fall.
The Senate, meanwhile, is reviewing its own 2009 harassment policy. A reminder of the policy was recently emailed to everyone involved.
The Canadian Press emailed the online survey, which was available from Feb. 20 to March 12, to staffers currently working in the parliamentary offices of MPs and senators, as well as to key ministerial aides. The emails were sent to roughly 1,500 people, although it is difficult to determine precisely how many received the message.
They were also encouraged to share the survey with colleagues also currently in those roles.