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Chelsea Nash’s series in the Hill Times certainly seems to think so. While we have only seen two of the three parts of her series (part one can be found here and part two can be found here), what we have read so far has left many Ottawans wondering what is going on in our own backyard. The Hill Times report comes on the heels of two other significant workplace harassment decisions out of Ottawa’s Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Joe Friday, back in February. These decisions put a spotlight on how the federal government, in these cases the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada, is dealing with harassment internally.
It sends a chill to think that what is going on the Hill is happening within the same walls that saw some of the world’s most progressive human rights reforms penned, debated and agreed to, and where, just last week Ms. Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Laureate, spoke so eloquently about girls’ and women’s rights.
As Ms. Nash’s series has shown, the issue on the Hill is not that the correct harassment framework is missing. Members of Parliament (MPs) have a Code of Conduct which spells out the process for reporting harassment. Employees of the House of Commons (those who work for the MPs) have a Harassment Policy, (the “Policy”) different from the MPs’ Code of Conduct, which guides them on reporting harassment, sexual harassment and abuse of authority. It is clear that considerable thought has been put into these policies, including a provision in the Code of Conduct for anonymity, which, as Ms. Nash points out, took into consideration “a political culture where public perception can make or break a career”.
And yet, as Ms. Nash points out, even in the face of robust policies, harassment on Parliament Hill is prevalent and ongoing. She points to the recent findings of ethical misconduct against Senator Don Meredith as well as the sexist and thoughtless stripper comments made to Conservative MP Dianne Watts just over a month ago on Women’s Day (March 8th), in a committee meeting by Liberal MP Nicola Di lorio.
In part two of her series, Ms. Nash concludes that the “young staffers” on Parliament Hill are the ones who are most likely to have experienced sexual harassment on the Hill, but are the least likely to utilize the Policy to report this behaviour. She cites the long work hours, the free flow of alcohol, the “intoxication” of politics, and many people being away from home, as creating an environment which “leaves more room for bad things to happen”. Ms. Nash’s thesis is that the reason for chronic under-reporting of harassment is the power dynamics at play on the Hill, with the MPs at the top of the food chain.
She is correct that the statistics for reporting harassment on the Hill, for both MPs and employees, is remarkably low. According to the most recent statistics on file, the House of Commons CHRO reported that over 16 months in 2015 – 2016 only ten cases were “processed”. Seven of these were characterized as “enquiries” only.
Those of us who investigate harassment complaints know these types of statistics can be misleading in terms of how prevalent harassment in the workplace is. My guess is that the numbers being reported on the Hill are way off the mark. A 2014 Angus Reid Poll showed that three-in-ten Canadians (28%) say they have been on the receiving end of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or sexually-charged talk while on the job.
On their website, the House of Commons states that 1,737 employees are accountable to their Clerk. Simple math shows that 10 processed harassment cases represents less than 1% of their employees. So, it is reasonable to conclude that like other workplaces, sexual harassment on the Hill is occurring, but it is going underground, with no one reporting it.
It’s 2017: Why is it still so hard to come forward?
In my own harassment investigation practice in Ottawa, almost every complainant that I meet has been on a tough and hazardous journey well before they are sitting across the table from me in an interview. They will often tell me stories of what they are risking to tell me their side of the story: their careers, their education, their relationship with their co-workers and sometimes even the support of their family members. I have been told on numerous occasions that Ottawa is a “small big city”, and the risk in coming forward with a harassment complaint in this town is that it will follow you professionally and personally for the rest of your career here.
Indeed, I have come to conclude that each act of reporting sexual harassment is a personal act of bravery. Consider this case:
In January of this year, the Law Society of British Columbia processed its first decision on sexual harassment as professional misconduct: Butterfield (Re), 2017 LSBC 2 (CanLII). The case involved an articling student who made a sexual harassment complaint against the lawyer who had been approved to be her articling principal. Imagine the risk of going to the Law Society with a complaint about a lawyer, knowing full well that in a few years you would be seeking admission into that very society. The Hearing Panel spoke extensively about the lawyer’s financial and reputational penalty in the hearing. To me, I imagined the anguish and the mental marathon that the articling student went through before coming forward with her complaint.
I am certain that both the MPs and the “young staffers” face the same reluctance to come forward. Many of them land in Ottawa bearing the weight of those who have been left behind: their constituents, or their families, or both. There is no doubt that it would be a much easier path to put up with harassing behaviour, than to bring it forward and risk putting a pause on your political aspirations or responsibilities. If Ottawa is considered a “small big city” with the potential to ruin a reputation by coming forward with a harassment complaint, then the Hill is akin to a cul-de-sac with watchful, communicative neighbours.
The irony of the situation on Parliament Hill is this: if there is one place in Canada where we should expect complainants to come forward about sexual harassment then this should be that place. These are the confident people who we elect to represent us. These are the people who can withstand the scrutiny of a multi-party political system and the ever-persistent media. These are the people who know all of the ins and outs of our sacred Charter rights and the same people who are drafting some of the world’s most progressive human rights laws.
Clearly, if even the best and brightest on The Hill cannot come forward, we need a better system to ensure that harassment is exposed and halted. We need to ensure that by the time these “young staffers” become our country’s leaders, that their time can be spent developing those progressive policies, not anguishing over whether or not reporting inappropriate behaviour might damage their career.
About the Author: Ottawa-based lawyer Jennifer White conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment and workplace violence, code of conduct violations, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Jennifer also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.