March 25, 2018 8:00 am
Updated: March 26, 2018 8:56 am

#AfterMeToo: What Canada is doing to help protect women in the workplace

Aisling Chin-Yee, Mia Kirshner and Freya Ravensbergen (L-R), founders of #AfterMeToo, arrive to attend the Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, March 11, 2018.

REUTERS/Mark Blinch
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Ed. Note: A previous version of this article stated that Mia Kirshner wrote her #TimesUp essay before Creative Artists Agency released their statement on #MeToo. That is inaccurate; Kirshner penned her essay after CAA’s statement was released. This article has been changed to reflect that. Global News regrets the error.

This past awards season was about more than just celebrating the achievements of Hollywood’s elite.

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It was about addressing the decades of hidden sexual abuse — the long-standing elephant in the room — suffered by women and men at the hands of some of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. Whether it was the Golden Globes’ exclusive black dress code in solidarity with victims of sexual harassment, the white rose accessory that symbolized the #TimesUp movement at the Grammys, or the #TimesUp pins worn at the Oscars, the sentiment was felt across the industry. And the situation in Canada is no different.

“In many workplaces, low-grade sexual harassment becomes so common it’s like oxygen – it’s there all the time but you stop noticing it and your tolerance slowly increases to the point where something truly egregious has to happen to feel a line has been crossed,” says Jennifer Mathers McHenry, an employment lawyer and partner at Teplitsky Colson LLP.

McHenry cites the way women have been brought up as the reason why these abuses go unnoticed. “We’ve been raised not to make things awkward, to get along, to be a good sport,” she said in an interview with Global News.

Many women also have to worry about the repercussions that come with reporting issues of harassment and sexual misconduct. According to McHenry, these reservations range from the fear of not being believed, to the risk of losing a job, to even being perceived as “weak” and “difficult.”

READ MORE: #MeToo backlash has women worried about losing career opportunities

“When sexual misconduct happens in a workplace, it has to be taken seriously and there have to be real consequences, even when the perpetrator is otherwise a star employee, McHenry says.

In McHenry’s opinion, it’s about finding a balance. Employers can’t summarily dismiss employees in Canada unless they are terminating for cause, and she says it’s not always easy for employers to establish such misconduct. “Employers are not entitled to overreact because people are paying attention to a particular issue.”

The #MeToo movement went viral in October after a New York Times investigation accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, prompting thousands of women to share their own experiences online using the now-ubiquitous hashtag.

Although the movement was initially started by activist Tarana Burke back in 2006, it wasn’t until 2017, when multiple women came out with allegations against big name Hollywood figures like Weinstein, James Toback, and Ed Westwick that it took off.

Back in December, Canada also introduced its own version of #MeToo, dubbed #AfterMeToo by McHenry.

For many survivors, #MeToo was a cathartic movement, an outlet for people in the entertainment industry to finally address the abuse they had been enduring for decades. “The addition of ‘after’ was really about saying, ‘OK, but what now? What do we do about this?” McHenry says.

READ MORE: After hundreds of sex crime allegations, can Hollywood and the industry really change?

The movement was founded by Canadian actor Mia Kirshner, film producer Aisling Chin-Yee, and actor Freya Ravensbergen. The trio took part in a symposium in December, alongside other women in the industry, to address issues of sexual misconduct and harassment in the post-#MeToo era. On International Women’s Day, the group released a report entitled #AfterMeToo, based on recommendations made at the symposium. The report, crafted by trauma experts, survivors and lawyers, made proposals on what could be done to ensure systematic change and support sexual abuse victims.

The report calls for an independent body, separate from a union or a guild, to investigate allegations of misconduct in the workplace, since there are often systemic barriers that women face when making a complaint.

“In unionized environments, the individual woman has very little control over how their situation is handled by the union and very little recourse if it is not handled well or the way she would want it to be,” McHenry says.

This is a sentiment that Kirshner is already too familiar with.

Kirshner was one of the first few Canadian women to talk about her experience as a survivor in Hollywood. She’s critical of the #TimesUp movement because of its backing by the Creative Artists Agency, one of the most powerful agencies in Hollywood.

WATCH: Mia Kirshner talks about her personal experience as a sexual harassment survivor

CAA issued a statement apologizing to any survivors the agency had “let down.”

Inspired by CAA’s statement, Kirshner penned a personal essay for Deadline.

“I [had] asked why they issued a blanket apology, but failed to contact me to apologize,” she said. “That is why I wrote the essay.”

In it, Kirshner calls out CAA for not helping her when she reported a case of sexual misconduct against Weinstein. According to Kirshner, she was told by her CAA representative to ‘”forget about it,” even though she was only 19 years old at the time.

In contrast, the Canadian entertainment industry response has been much more collective.

On March 8, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, otherwise known as ACTRA, announced that it was taking part in a new Canadian Creative Industries Code of Conduct to prevent and respond to harassment claims.

Back in November, ACTRA participated in a round-table discussion with 17 other organizations, including the Director’s Guild of Canada and the Canadian Media Producers Association, in efforts to address issues post #MeToo.

READ MORE: Canadian actors’ union ACTRA setting code of conduct amid Hollywood sex scandals

In the meeting, ACTRA announced that it was implementing a “zero tolerance” stance against sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying and violence in the workplace. Some of the initiatives proposed at the meeting included launching a multi-level education and training program, as well as an awareness campaign.

David Sparrow, President of ACTRA, is confident that these measures will help shift the culture that comes with talking about these somewhat taboo issues in the industry as a whole.

“That was the first time that all of these organizations had been in a room together when it wasn’t an awards show,” Sparrow says.

Canada is one of three countries in the world addressing issues of misconduct and harassment as a collective industry, says Sparrow, with Norway and Sweden being the other two.

“Other industries, unfortunately, are choosing to operate within their own individual silos,” Sparrow says.

Sparrow says ACTRA is working with other organizations on a series of projects, some of which could include creating a third-party reporting system, as well as potentially developing a national hotline for victims to report harassment and misconduct claims.

But some actors have doubts about these codes of conduct being effective. Kirshner notes that these documents are often not legally binding, nor do they do much to prevent reprisals from happening. In Hollywood, many actors who came out with allegations reported they’d been blacklisted in the industry for speaking up against their abusers in the past, which subsequently damaged their careers.

Proving cases of retribution can be tricky, says Sparrow, since so much of an actor’s work can differ on a case-by-case basis depending on whom they’re working with.

“You could work for a director in 2004 and not audition for them until 2014 – and that’s just how the industry works,” explains Sparrow. “We’re so much more aware now of the retaliations that have taken place in the past, and we certainly speak in the code about ensuring that there is no retaliation against people who are reporting.”

Kirshner is planning on meeting with ACTRA, as well as other media unions, to talk about the #AfterMeToo report and how they can work together in the coming months.

“I am a survivor. We’ve worked and lived in this industry and we have a pretty good idea of what did happen and what can happen. And quite frankly, anything less than what is in the report won’t protect our workspaces,” she says.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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