OTTAWA – The time has come to crack down on harassment in federal workplaces, including Parliament Hill, says Employment Minister Patty Hajdu.
“Parliament Hill features distinct power imbalances that perpetuate the culture that people with a lot of power and prestige can and have used that power to victimize the people who work so hard for us,” Hajdu said Monday in the House of Commons as she kicked off debate on proposed legislation to support safe workplaces.
“It’s a culture where people who are victims of harassment or sexual violence do not feel safe to bring those complaints forward.”
The legislation, introduced last fall, is aimed at giving workers and employers a clear course of action to better deal with allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.
Later Monday, MPs agreed with a motion tabled by NDP House leader Ruth Ellen Brosseau to fast-track the legislation, known as Bill C-65, sending it straight to the House of Commons human resources committee for further study.
The proposed changes would merge separate labour standards for sexual harassment and violence, subjecting them to the same scrutiny and dispute resolution process, which could mean bringing in an outside investigator to review allegations.
They would also – for the first time – bring parliamentary staff under the protection of the Canada Labour Code.
The proposed rules, which also apply to banks, transportation, telecommunications and other federally regulated industries, would enforce strict privacy rules to protect victims of harassment or violence.
“Things need to change and it starts with saying emphatically that it is never OK,” Hajdu told the House. “It is never OK for someone to take advantage of a position of power to victimize another person. It is never OK that victims, far too often women or young workers or people of colour or people of the LGBTQ2 community, have been forced to stay silent and keep their trauma to themselves.”
Bill C-65 comes to second reading in the House of Commons at a time when the so-called #MeToo movement has reached Parliament Hill, including allegations against Liberal MP Kent Hehr, who resigned from cabinet last week pending an investigation.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel responded with an impassioned speech on how what life can be like for women on the Hill.
“Women are still touched. Our hair is still stroked. Our shoulders are still rubbed,” she said. “We are still given hugs and cheek kisses that linger a bit too long. To fit in, we still laugh at the lewd jokes, and maybe even tell one ourselves, to be considered safe to socialize with and one of the boys.”
She also noted how women are shamed for standing up for themselves, but also shamed for making the choice to stay silent.
“These things are used to control us, to demean us, and to silence us.”
Rempel urged everyone who witnesses harassment to say something about it, rather than forcing the victims to do it themselves.
“We cannot be bystanders any longer,” she said, calling on the government to require everyone – from volunteers and interns to MPs and ministers – to take training on how to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place.
“Women here need to stand together regardless of political stripe and support each other as these claims occur and demand that our leadership take action when they occur,” Rempel said. “Men need to call out their peers when harassment happens. MPs need to let their staff know that they have voices and that they should use them.”
She also mentioned a report by Maclean’s magazine that her own party was aware of an allegation of sexual assault against former Ontario MP Rick Dykstra, and allowed him to remain on the ballot in the 2015 campaign.
“Those people should be ashamed of themselves and they should have no role or influence in this or in any political party,” Rempel said.
Dykstra has not returned a request for comment on the allegations.
He lost his seat in the 2015 election and went on to become president of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, a position from which he resigned over the weekend just before the Maclean’s story was published.
Hajdu acknowledged Monday that legislation will not be enough.
“It takes a culture of zero tolerance. It takes leadership in every organization to stand up and say ‘This is not acceptable, time’s up, we are not going to sit back and listen to, you know, whispers and rumours and innuendo and do nothing about it,” she told a news conference.
Hajdu said #MeToo has helped focus a spotlight on the problem.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that that light does not fade.”
The proposed legislation would give more power to staffers, she said, including by making sure they have access to a neutral third party to examine their complaints, so that they are not forced to rely upon the MP or senator who employs them.