‘It felt like we were bunnies at the Playboy club’: Former staffers reflect on life in N.S. politics

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Fri, Jan 26: The Nova Scotia PC Party is providing more details around the allegations of inappropriate behavior against former leader Jamie Baillie. Tonight, former political staffers are discussing their experiences from inside Province House. Jennifer Grudic has more – Jan 26, 2018

It seems the #MeToo movement has finally made its way north of the U.S. border, and Nova Scotia is part of the narrative.

On Wednesday, Jamie Baillie resigned as Nova Scotia PC leader and MLA following an allegation of inappropriate behaviour, prompting the party to declare it does not “tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Former Liberal staffer Michelle Coffin said she was surprised to hear Baillie’s name, mainly because she had never heard rumours about him before. However, given her time working in politics, she is not at all surprised these types of allegations are beginning to come out of the woodwork.

“It’s very common,” she said.

“I have my own experiences, given the legal definition of assault and harassment and given the language in the policy, and I know many staffers had the same experiences.”

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READ MORE: Kent Hehr resigns from Liberal cabinet over sexual harassment allegations

She said she was pleased to see the Tories’ prompt handling of the complaints brought forward against Baillie, but adds that in her belief, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Due to the power dynamics within a political party, low-level staffers are sometimes forced to carry the burden that comes along with protecting their abusers.

“Political staffers serve at their pleasure, so it’s very, very difficult to come forward with allegations of misconduct against your political masters who you are supposed to please,” said Coffin.

“Political staff are encouraged to tow the party line, to not make it more difficult for politicians and the last thing a political staffer wants is to feel that they are responsible for their party, their family, not winning the election.”

Michelle Hébert Boyd first entered into the political sphere as a Page in 1990, an experience she refers to as an “uncomfortable dance between being noticed, but not being groped.”

“I have a friend who was a Page with me who said a few years ago it felt like we were bunnies at the Playboy club,” said Hébert Boyd.

“We were just there to serve drinks, get our butts tapped and smile and it certainly wasn’t what any of us signed on for.”

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READ MORE: Will the #Metoo movement affect Parliament Hill?

Twenty years later, Hébert Boyd she said returned to politics, this time as a senior adviser to then-minister of health. This time around, it wasn’t the overt sexual harassment that she had to contend with as much as the “boys club” mentality that still permeated the House.

“It wasn’t just staffers like me who were experiencing it. I saw the frustration among female MLAs who has to endure eye rolls, or ‘mansplaining,’ or men talking over them at the cabinet table and there was very little they could do about it,” she said.

“There was no HR department they could go to, the whole attitude was just, ‘If you don’t like it, then you’re not cut out for this type of work.'”

Both former staffers said they were cautiously optimistic that change is on the way for women in politics who are gathering strength from the #MeToo movement.

“I really hope there is a shift happening and I am optimistic,” said Hébert Boyd.

“If any good thing has come from Donald Trump being president, I think it’s that women have found a voice — that we’re being heard and believed.”

READ MORE: After sex scandals, calls grow for stronger sexual misconduct policies in Canadian politics

Coffin said she hopes politicians in this province will “walk the talk” when it comes to following through with complaints as per the Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace that came into effect in 2016.

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“I think it’s very easy to pass a law, it’s very easy to implement a policy. They’re just words until they’re given interpretation so it depends how they’re given interpretation, what value is given to that interpretation,” said Coffin.

“So in other words, I think time will tell. But politicians must have gotten a wake-up call by now.”