After a stunning few days of sexual misconduct allegations, debate is set to start today on a bill the government says will better crack down on employers who do not take workplace harassment seriously enough. It will also extend protections to political staffers working on Parliament Hill for the first time.
Bill C-65 was tabled in November 2017 and will overhaul the regulatory structure around how certain businesses and sectors are required to respond to allegations of sexual harassment.
In light of misconduct allegations last week that forced the resignations of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party’s former leader, Patrick Brown, and its president, Rick Dykstra, as well as former Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Ballie and former Liberal Sports and Persons with Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr, debate around the bill is set to dominate the legislative agenda as politicians get back into the swing of things after their winter break.
But what will the bill actually mean for you? Here’s what you need to know.
I work in the private sector — will this bill help me?
The short answer: no.
Only about eight per cent of Canadians work in federally regulated industries, which include banks, telecommunications and transport industries, as well as the public service and federal political staff.
However, the government has said it hopes the change will force private sector employers to step up their game and take harassment more seriously.
“The Government of Canada recognizes that legislation isn’t enough to end harassment and violence, including sexual harassment and sexual violence, in the workplace,” a press release announcing the legislation in November reads.
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“A culture change is required in Canadian workplaces to prevent harassment and violence, and to respond to and support employees when it happens.”
To support that, the government will also launch more awareness campaigns about the need to combat harassment and violence.
Officials will also create education and training tools for employers and employees and launch a help line for employers with questions about how to put harassment policies in place in their workplaces.
What will change under the bill?
Right now, rules and policies around violence and harassment in federally regulated workplaces including Parliament Hill are a patchwork and C-65 was tabled with the goal of making one clear set of rules to simplify all of those various policies and processes.
The legislation will do two core things.
First, it will amend the Canada Labour Code to make harassment and violence, including sexual harassment and violence, part of the activities employers are required to prevent and act on under occupational health and safety responsibilities and will require employers to investigate and report on any incidents brought to their attention.
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All federally-regulated employers will be required to have a sexual harassment policy in place and report on how many times it is used to Parliament.
Second, the legislation will bring parliamentary and political staff under the protection of those new provisions.
The offices of MPs and ministers will also be required to have sexual harassment policies in place and in cases where the MP is also a minister there will be two policies governing each set of staff.
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As it stands now, political staff are not covered by the Canada Labour Code and are known as “exempt staff” for that exact reason — they are exempt from the protections in place under the Canada Labour Code.
That leaves many vulnerable to harassment, abuse and exploitation, and in recent years the harassment of young female political staffers has prompted complaints that those who do come forward find their reports brushed aside in order to protect partisan figures or that those who want to make complaints do not do so out of fear of retaliation that could stunt their careers within their party.
C-65 will require employers in federally regulated workplaces to respond to reports of harassment and violence and to give employees the choice of an informal resolution process or a neutral, third-party investigation which will result in recommendations.
If the employee opts for the investigation, the employer will be obligated to implement the recommendations from the investigator.
It will also require employers to protect the privacy of victims and to protect them from retaliation.
Those who do not will face sanctions.
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For example, MPs whose offices do not meet their obligations of reporting and acting on complaints filed through the policies could be named and shamed in the House of Commons, as could other employers.
They could also face financial penalties which will be set out once the regulations are put in place.
Why is this happening now?
The last two years have brought about what has been described as a reckoning in terms of tolerance of sexual harassment and abuse of power.
The Women’s March, the #MeToo movement and the mobilizing of a new generation of young advocates for gender equality mean there has been a tidal wave of condemnation around policies — both formal and informal — that enable and cover up abuses of power.
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In February and March 2017, the government conducted a survey of 1,350 mainly female federal staff to ask what their experiences were with harassment and violence in the workplace, and Bill C-65 is largely crafted around the responses to that survey.
Of the respondents, 60 per cent said they have experienced harassment at work.
Thirty per cent also said they had experienced sexual harassment, while 21 per cent said they had experienced violence and three per cent said they had experienced sexual violence in the workplace.
And while 75 per cent said they had reported the most recent incident, 41 per cent said nothing was done to address the abuse.
The government introduced the bill in November 2017 and it had been among those expected to come up for debate once the House of Commons returned from its winter break on Monday.
While having it be the first bill up for debate on the parliamentary agenda might strike some as opportune given the stunning resignations over the last few days, the government had announced its intention to bring the bill up for debate on the afternoon of Wednesday of last week.
That was hours before CTV News published allegations of sexual misconduct by two women against Patrick Brown, who hastily called a late-night news conference to refute them and vow to clear his name, before resigning as Ontario PC leader several hours later.
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Over the weekend, the president of that party, Rick Dykstra, also quit after a report that he had sexually abused a young female staffer following a budget party in Ottawa in 2014 while he was a federal MP.
Kent Hehr, the former Liberal minister for sports and persons with disabilities, also resigned from cabinet on Friday after allegations that he had made inappropriate sexual comments to young female staffers in elevators while a member of the Alberta provincial legislature.
Those reports came on the heels of an investigation into inappropriate behaviour in Nova Scotia that forced Jamie Baillie, the Progressive Conservative leader in that province, to also resign last week.