There has been a longstanding “crisis” of harassment on Parliament Hill that “allows and perpetuates” abusive behaviour in the workplace.
That was the message Employment Minister Patty Hajdu brought to the House of Commons on Monday as MPs returned for the first time since rising for winter break, and as debate kicked off on a new bill that will require federally-regulated workplaces to put harassment policies in place or face consequences, which could include fines or being named and shamed in the House of Commons.
“It clearly is a crisis in this workplace,” she said, speaking with reporters after giving a speech in the House of Commons introducing the bill for debate.
“Not only the stories that you’ve heard but the stories that I’ve heard as a minister talking to young staffers about the kinds of experiences and how they protect themselves in this place.”
Workers on Parliament Hill are exempt from the protections of the Canada Labour Code and face a culture in which young, often female, staffers frequently have to operate around much older and more powerful men who can take advantage of their power to harass, abuse and intimidate the staffers without a clear path to recourse.
WATCH: MP’s are back in the House of Commons, but things aren’t back to normal. The sexual misconduct scandal rocking Canadian politics has politicians facing questions about what they knew – and when. Vassy Kapelos reports.
Many of the staffers who have come forward with reports of abuse and harassment say either that leaders across party lines have failed to act once complaints are brought to their attention, or that their own careers were stunted because their decision to complain resulted in them being seen as difficult to work with.
The culture in political circles of Ottawa rotates heavily around receptions and social events where booze flows heavily. For young staffers, it can be difficult to extricate themselves from a situation in which a more powerful or influential individual makes a sexual advance or acts lecherously, such as by groping or giving cheek kisses that veer uncomfortably towards the mouth.
Hajdu referenced such behaviour and pointed to conversations she has had with young female staffers.
WATCH: Minister says Parliament fosters environment for harassment
“There is a whisper network,” she said. “People do know who to avoid at receptions or in the halls. We do know who we shouldn’t be with alone.”
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, who is immigration critic for the party and a vocal proponent for action on harassment and abuse, also rose to give a powerful speech about how harassment festers on and around Parliament Hill.
She told the House of Commons that every worker on Parliament Hill should be required to undergo training about sexual harassment and consent, at least an annual basis, to putting a stop to the toxic environment.
“Those who dare to raise issues of sexual harassment are labelled as man-haters,” Rempel said.
“Their sexual proclivities are questioned. Speculation even abounds as to whether their sexual proclivities are 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 — and then there are those who say, ‘Well why don’t you just stand up for yourself?'”
She called on all members across party lines to stop being bystanders and call out unacceptable behaviour, stressing that whisper networks and warnings circulated by women among each other “can no longer be seen as the main way we handle harassment.”
WATCH BELOW:Michelle Rempel says anti-harassment bill isn’t enough, more severe codes of conduct needed
Rempel also ripped into the normalization of boozy sexual encounters and said the notion that a drunk young staffer can be perceived to give consent to sex with a much more powerful superior who “aggressively propositions them” must end now.
She alluded to a report that senior Conservative Party officials had known about complaints of alleged misconduct by former Conservative MP and Progressive Conservative president Rick Dykstra, and then allowed him to run in the 2015 election because the complaints had not resulted in legal filings.
“They should be ashamed of themselves and they should have no role or influence or this or any political party,” she said.
The allegations published in Maclean’s on Monday against Dykstra came on the heels of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by male politicians at the federal and provincial levels.
Liberal Sports and Persons with Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr resigned from cabinet but remains in caucus pending allegations he made inappropriate comments to female staffers in elevators while an MLA in the Alberta legislature.
Former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown resigned in the early hours of last Thursday morning following a report aired on CTV News in which two women alleged he had exploited and sexually harassed them while a federal member of Parliament for the Conservative Party.
Earlier that same day, an investigation into inappropriate behaviour also forced former Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie to resign.