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Parliament’s #MeToo Moment

In an eloquent speech to the Commons this week, Alberta MP Michelle Rempel issued a “call to action” for everyone on Parliament Hill – including the media – to stop treating collisions of sex and power as chances for partisan advantage, and start seeing them as serious social disorder.

14 minute read
Topics: Public Life
Parliament’s #MeToo Moment January 31, 2018  |  By Michelle Rempel
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What happens when power collides with sex? The government's response to this question and to more sexual harassment and assault allegations against politically powerful people coming to light was to schedule Bill C-65 for debate this week. The bill seeks to impose a new framework on Canadian employers, including members of Parliament, to prevent sexual harassment and assault. I suspect the bill will garner a large amount of support in the House. Its measures are laudable and it is a positive step in the right direction….

That said, this measure, in and of itself, will not correct all the issues associated with the current state of affairs of sexual harassment and sexism on the Hill. This is not meant to be a knock against the legislation, but rather a call to action to have a more honest look at our current state of affairs on the Hill and to place an onus on all of us to do more to change the culture that allows sexual harassment to occur.

Let me set the scene. In Ottawa, in the sense of it being a nexus of power in Canada, it is an intense place. Leaders in all three branches of government, senior public servants, military leaders, the diplomatic corps, the Parliamentary Press Gallery, highly paid lobbyists, smart political staff, civil society, and business leaders all converge in one tightly confined space. They are all trying to accomplish big things.

Many are assertive and ambitious. Many are highly skilled at their crafts. Many hold privileged positions of influence, and many think very highly of themselves. It is a highly tribal environment where information is a commodity and blind partisanship, conformity, loyalty, and acquiescence are often traits significantly valued above judgment, compassion, or acting with dignity.

When this context is taken and combined with prolonged or frequent absence from spouses, young guns who are both naive to the context and hungry to advance a career or a cause, journos that are chasing a scoop, people who just want to work and be left alone, and a whole bunch of workaholics who are single, or well on their way to getting there, the issue of what constitutes appropriate sexual behaviour becomes critical. Then, mix in alcohol. It is used to cope, to fit in, and as an excuse.

Further, all of us here are in precarious positions. Every time there is an election or a cabinet shuffle, everyone, all the people here, change. More importantly, this precariousness is rooted in the fact that we exist at the pleasure of our bosses, outside of the Canada Labour Code. At any moment, everyone here weighs the opportunity cost of making a complaint or committing an non-acquiescent action with the threat of quiet dismissal, being overlooked for a promotion, being shuffled out of a spot, having a nomination candidate quietly run against us, or not having our nomination papers signed at all. This is not unique to any political party, nor is the press corps immune to this either.

To say that there is a power imbalance here is an understatement. Further, for all the talk of feminism and (pursuit) of women's rights, there is not gender equality in the broader context of Parliament Hill. Women are still used as photo-op props, included for quotas or optics without having the authority of real decision-making automatically attached to their perceived utility. For that, women have to fight, and fight hard, and put up with being accused of not being a team player, or being an “insert choice of gender expletive here” when they do. That is only for those of us who are lucky enough to have built a platform and a profile that allows us to do that without those in the top tiers of power having to take a bit of damage in order to suppress our voices.

Women are still touched. Our hair is still stroked. Our shoulders are still rubbed. 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 to be considered “one of the boys”.

Further, those who dare to raise issues of harassment are labelled as man-haters. Their sexual proclivities are questioned. Speculation abounds as to whether their sexual proclivities were even the cause of their experience. They are re-victimized over and over again. These things are used to control us, to demean us, and to silence us.

Then there are those who say, “Why don't you just stand up for yourself?” This morning, my former colleague, Megan Leslie recounted a story to me about being at an event where a senior male pulled her close to him and told a story to a group while holding her around the waist. She was asked by a reporter how she could have let this happen. She responded by saying, “There were four other men there. Why did they stay silent?” That is the problem. So many of us are bystanders to harassment, leaving a woman to, in Megan's words, “extract yourself with a laugh and some good-natured ribbing, then silently cry to yourself on your way home”.

This takes me to what we need to do to change and move forward.

First, we cannot be bystanders any longer. All of us should demand that Parliament adopt a clear definition of sexual harassment, what the workplace extends to, and what consent means in the context of our workplace. Then all of us, interns, volunteers, MPs, ministers, staff, everyone, should be required to take mandatory training on how to prevent sexual harassment and also education on what sexual consent means. This training should be required to be completed on an ongoing annual basis, at a minimum.

Women here need to stand together regardless of political stripe, support each other as these claims occur, and demand that our leadership take action when they occur. 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.

Using the whisper network, the gossip chain that we use to tell each other when we see something or hear something, can no longer be seen as the main way to manage incidents of harassment. It is a privileged system that does nothing to protect victims, nothing to empower them to come forward to report abuse, nothing to prevent violence, and nothing to prevent vexatious complaints from being made.

Second, we need to dispel the myths of what consensual sex means in this environment. Is it possible for a drunk staffer to give consent for sex to a senior male within their workplace organization who aggressively propositions that staffer? Within any standard workplace code of conduct, the answer to that should be unequivocally no.

Today there was a report that at one critical point within my party this was a topic for debate, and that is disgusting. In that incident, media reports say that people sat around a very senior table and argued semantics around whether action in our workplace should be taken because criminal charges were not proceeded with. Those people should be ashamed of themselves and they should have no role or influence in this or in any political party, which brings me to the next point.

For the woman at the centre of this issue there was no process for anyone to file a “formal” complaint. Think about her decision-making process for a minute, weighing job security in the context of making a complaint in an ill-defined process against someone in an environment with high media scrutiny. A raised complaint like this should have been enough to effect some sort of change.

The trend in most of the allegations that have surfaced recently is that of older men preying on younger women. Age and level of experience works as another dynamic of power that is often at play. I would ask members to try to put themselves in their shoes for a moment. A person thinks she has finally gotten her foot in the door of what she hopes to be her new career only to be met with decisions she never thought she would have to make.

Does she keep quiet to save her job? Will this hurt or help her career? If she tells someone, will she ever get to work in politics again? On and on it goes. It is an impossible choice that no one should have to make.

In these terrible situations we should be managing to justice, safety, and dignity, not to successful political issues management. This is why we need to build awareness of the new support system that has been put in place to allow Hill employees who experience harassment to report and seek some form of justice without fear of reprisal.

The aim here is to afford all parties involved in these incidents due process and to drive toward an end solution that appropriately responds with censure to any incident. This system should be reviewed for efficacy and improved over time. In doing so, it should be monitored to ensure that it stays arm's length from any political party influence, remains impartial, and is transparently scoped in its operation and desired outcome.

While it is very laudable, I do not think that this system will be enough. Political parties should also adopt formal codes of conduct and reporting processes regarding what they deem appropriate behaviour when it comes to sex, sexual harassment, and consent. All candidates and political staffers should be required to sign off and adhere to this code prior to being allowed to run or work for a party.

There should be consequences for breaking this code. I would go as far as saying that this should not be voluntary, that a political party should not be recognized with official party status unless it has one of these codes on its books. Having a system like this within each political party, in addition to the process that exists on the Hill, would serve as a check and balance to ensure high standards are set and followed. It would probably be helpful if the Parliamentary Press Gallery did the same thing before credentialing its reporters.

Reporting systems and codes of conduct should enable people to know that, regardless of any other factor, they have the right to speak up for themselves and to call out harassment in the moment. We should all be able to walk confident in the fact that, if that is not possible, systems exist so that we can report concerns and get assistance in dealing with those concerns without fear of reprisal.

In the development of these codes of conduct, political actors should ensure that they do not shy away from stripping the taboo from the following questions, and should force a non-dogmatic conversation on the same: Can a direct report employee or an employee writ large truly give consent to a sexual act to their boss or to someone of a higher power influence? It is the same question, but for a reporter to a source, a lobbyist to a client or a minister, or a diplomat to a deputy minister: Should sexual relations be permissible in these situations at all?

How can someone tell when a person of influence is using sexual advances or innuendo to silence or demean them as opposed to when someone legitimately wants to explore the possibility of an intimate liaison? Is there a difference, and should we even be having this conversation to begin with?

Third, we need to stop making incidents of sexism and harassment partisan Question Period fodder. Every time a woman gets up and pretends that her party is more virtuous than the other we set the bar back. We all need to use some judgment to create a culture that would eventually render the necessity of such a system moot.

This is where the electorate comes in. We need to collectively value guiding principles when it comes to sex and power, and ensure that the people we elect reflect the same. The electorate needs to have a zero tolerance policy as well for these types of incidents.

These principles include a recognition that we all have the right to our own sexual agency. In Canada, we have the legal right to control how and when we express our sexuality, and with whom. However, this does not mean acting in a way that removes someone else's dignity, or failing to obtain consent. Rather, it is understanding that consent can be withdrawn at any point, and that at no point is non-consensual activity legal, nor is assault legal. While a certain sexual encounter might not be illegal, it does not make it right in the context of a workplace.

In practice, this means adhering to codes of conduct. It means constantly asking oneself about whether it is right to proposition someone, and question the appropriateness of the method by which it is done prior to doing so. It means seeking consent for this type of attention in and of itself. It means accepting rebukes with grace, deep respect, and love. It means accepting rebukes not with a way of seeing it as a challenge to try again.

Conversely, we need to show an understanding that consensual sexual activity does not absolve us of the societal, emotional, physical health, or financial consequences that might occur when engaging in consensual sexual behaviour. Regret for a consensual sexual liaison that occurs within the boundaries of legality and established codes of conduct does not constitute harassment or assault, and should not be used to make vexatious complaints that diminish the legitimacy of other survivors, backlog complaint systems, and unduly destroy the reputation of others.

This is yet another point that underscores the need to have functional codes of conduct with clear definitions of harassment and consent, clear reporting systems that undertake due process free of partisanship, with clear and measurable consequences that fit the severity of the incident. There are many models of best practice for these types of codes of practice in corporate Canada and in civil society. The fact that we are only starting to implement them shows how deeply entrenched the power imbalance on the Hill has been.

I cannot believe that we are having this conversation; I really cannot. Given the number of times in my career in the last six years that the number one media request in my inbox has been about someone committing some sort of indecency, or somebody trying to get a partisan comment on which party is more virtuous in terms of this, or how I feel about sexism, I am starting to say, why does just my voice have to be used on this? Why all of a sudden am I the key issue bearer? Why does every single one of my colleagues and the minister of labour have to stand up and talk about this when there are so many other issues? This should be common sense decency that we treat each other with.

We are spending the first day back on this issue. It is an important debate and I am not trying to diminish it; however, that we have to legislate this behaviour actually takes my voice away. It takes away my ability to talk about the economy or foreign affairs, or any other issue today.

The fact that there are people who feel it is within their purview to act badly, to use their power imbalance to silence and demean others is disgusting. The fact that there are people today who still look at women and the first thing they think of is political issues management is disgusting.

I do not want to make this a gender or heterosexual conversation because that would be completely misconstruing the context here. The fact that people feel they cannot report abuse or that they have to work and live with abuse says that we have not achieved gender equality, that we have not achieved some sort of utopia on feminism. Worst of all, we are sitting here with the privilege of having certain rights that other people in the world do not. I cannot imagine some woman, for example, a Yazidi sex slave survivor, watching this debate and saying, “Oh my God, are they really talking about this?”

This bill is not enough. It is a good step in the right direction, but we cannot legislate against bad behaviour. We cannot legislate against someone choosing to use…influence or power imbalance to diminish someone else. At the end of the day, we probably have to have more severe codes of conduct. It cannot just be within political parties here either.

We all know that the #MeToo movement is going to head up to the press gallery, the lobbyist community, and the diplomatic corps. We have all sat here and watched these things happen. If we do not have that more difficult conversation, if we do not strip away the taboo from doing this, we are not going to fix this problem and we will be here for more years talking about what else needs to change, and I am tired of it. I do not want to sit in this place and have this conversation again. I do not want another woman coming into my office on this. This needs to stop and it needs to stop now.

It is the job of every person here and every person who is listening to take on that personal responsibility of putting dignity and human rights ahead of abuse or sexual desire.

Returning to Bill C-65, the Conservative Party supports this bill and will commit to carefully analyzing it in order to provide suggestions on areas where there needs to be improvement. Sexual misconduct and sexual harassment have no place in Canadian society, especially within our political system. As Conservatives, we want to ensure that the government focuses on supporting victims, as it has pledged to do.

For example, there is a concern about the option of mediation as an avenue to solve harassment complaints. The government needs to be clear about the implications of the bill in such areas of concern. We want the government to be clear on questions of funding. For example, what will the budget be on the government's campaign to raise awareness on sexual harassment? We want an effective awareness campaign and we need to know how much and where we will spend this money.

I am sure this bill will be vigorously debated at committee. I am sure many experts will come forward to talk about why this bill is important or how it does not address all the gaps. But at the end of the day, what is not going to be discussed at committee, and I am sure we will talk about this again, is the individual responsibility of all us to stop being bystanders, to stop the whisper network, to be accountable for our actions, and when we see our colleagues or someone else behaving badly, to intervene. It means that we empower our staff, that we have their backs, that they do not have to put up with this garbage anymore. It means fundamentally changing the culture on the Hill. It means the organizers of Politics and the Pen, the parliamentary press gallery dinner, and the cocktail circuit all understand that this is the breeding ground for where this stuff happens and we need to rip the Band-Aid off of it.

We need to stop pretending that somehow this legislation is going to magically fix bad behaviour.

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Topics: Public Life
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