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The ONW Salon: Sexual Assault in Canadian Politics

Susanna Kelley (Moderator):  As the tidal wave accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment rolls on in U.S. politics, media, entertainment, restaurant and other industries, careers are being felled with lightening speed. Some of the accused with the highest profiles are in politics - Donald Trump, Roy Moore and Al Franken are said to be the tip of the iceberg.  Those in the know say there's plenty of sexually inappropriate behaviour in Canadian politics too.  What can men in politics do to ensure they don't cross the line ... and watch their careers end because of it?  We asked Richard Mahoney, Will Stewart and Tom Parkin for a male perspective.

Will Stewart:

I don't think that there is any part of Canadian society that is not impacted in some way by sexual harassment, both in and out of the office. That is in no way meant to downplay the seriousness of the problem.

Rather it is a reminder that it is everywhere and it is incumbent on all of us to call it out when we see it. The fact that it is everywhere demands that we do more to stop it.

Regrettably, I do believe that it is worse in politics, especially at the federal level. Anyone who spent time at the now closed Hy's steak house could easily see the harassment in real time. It was not acceptable then, and it is not acceptable now.

The question our esteemed moderator asked our panel to discuss today is straightforward. "What can men do to ensure they don't cross the line and end their careers?"  

There's a simple answer: Don't make comments that are sexual in nature, treat others as co-workers, not objects, and don't touch people.

If that is too hard for politicians and the media who cover them to understand I would submit that they are in the wrong business.

To make it even more basic, people should ask themselves if they would make that comment or commit that action if it was their mother, daughter, or other woman in their life that was on the other end of it.

Being elected comes with an inherent trust from the public. That trust is not granted in perpetuity just because the lawn sign with your name on it got more support than the lawn sign of another person. Yet MPs, staff, and media all have conducted themselves as if they are somehow above public criticism on their actions.

We have many examples in the recent past that give hope that the decision makers in Ottawa are beginning to understand the seriousness of the issue and are starting to take decisive actions after allegations are made public. The Liberal party has kicked MPs out of caucus, the Conservatives have been forced to do the same with a Senator, and the NDP have had to deal with allegations in Saskatchewan.

While that type of action sends a message, it is not enough. We must do more, as institutions and as people, to stop this behaviour prior to the harassment taking place, not self-congratulating after the harassment has happened, been made public, and action taken.

One way to end it is to provide a deterrent. But do our elected officials really need to be told that this is unacceptable in 2017?

Regrettably yes.


Richard Mahoney:

I agree with Will's observations above. This is a problem facing all aspects of our society and workplaces around the country. Will's advice to mankind is also good advice.

Our moderator and ONW supremo Susanna Kelley suggested something to me recently. Maybe Mike Pence's strange habit of not allowing himself to be alone with a woman in a social situation, unless in the presence of his wife, might not be quite as nutty as it sounds! I think that that is a bridge too far and opens up another conversation for another day.

That said, more than caution and respect for others should govern men's behaviour. There is a good in all of these scandals coming to light. They’ve started a conversation, an important one. Men can and need to be part of that conversation. That conversation needs to be about what is right and what is not. It needs to be about respect. It needs to be about seeing things from beyond your own narrow perspective.

And it needs to be about believing and respecting women when they come forward, to begin with. That is not to say everyone is guilty who is accused. But we all know that it takes huge courage to come forward, and there is no reward for doing so, often much the opposite.

I think there is one more thing men can do. We all know people who don't seem to understand the rules of treating each other with respect. So when we see it, we should call it out, rather than turn a blind eye or say “that's just the way old Charlie is.” An honest conversation will allow us to make real progress now, rather than have this just be a phase we all go through.


Tom Parkin:

My usual, full time job is in occupational health and safety. I can tell you, over the last ten years I have seen an incredible increase in concern about harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace.

This started in occupations like nursing and teaching, where workers—women workers—I think decided they just were just done with harassment and weren’t going to put up with it anymore. They started pushing their unions to do more, their employers to do more, their political representatives to do more. I think this is an irreversible social trend.

In our work in this area, we tell unions and employers that some important factors stand out. There are clear and identifiable risk factors for workplace harassment and sexual harassment. And politicians and political work ticks all the boxes.

Risk factors include high value employers with personal authority over low-power employees. Risk factors include working evenings and nights. They include working without direct supervision. They include working around alcohol. They include gender imbalances in the workforce.

All these risk factors are at play in politics. So the conditions are there. All it needs is a man who feels entitled to touch, leer, expose himself, make innuendo—perhaps even rape—to enter the situation.

Given the power imbalances, given the lack of distinction between work time and social time, given the pressure on the victim to not weaken their political party by going public, there should be no surprise that sexual harassment in politics can go on for a long time. In too many cases the resolve is that a woman staffer quits or finds another MP to work for. The problem isn’t dealt with and the next woman gets in jeopardy.

There can be no doubt sexual harassment exists in politics and keeps women from participating equally as representatives of the people.


Will Stewart:

There is simply no excuse for this type of behaviour.

Ottawa is particularly susceptible to bad behaviour and harassment due to the very nature of the elected officials. MPs, of all stripes, come to Ottawa from riding across Canada. When they are in Ottawa they are treated exceptionally well to the point of being put on a pedestal.

Add to that the facts that alcohol flows freely and they are away from their families for extended periods of time. All of this adds to a culture of self-importance and a feeling of invincibility.

Again, this is not to excuse the behavior, but to understand the culture is to understand why men feel empowered to take advantage of their positions to harass, or even assault, women.

The same is true south of the border. We have seen Democratic Senator Al Franken at the centre of a storm, with photographic evidence at that. Yet people are still defending him.

The situation is much worse in Alabama where we actually have the Republican Party nominee seemingly having committed multiple assaults, in some cases even against underage women.

If that was not bad enough, the party is openly defending him on TV and in print. To the point that the President of the United States of America, one of the most powerful people in the world, will not rule out campaigning for him and openly indicates that he believes the candidate above the multiple women that have come forward.

What type of a message does that send to other lawmakers? Party members? His own daughter?

My daughter is a long way off from the work force, or even high school for that matter. I hope by the time she gets there she will view this issue through the lens of historical curiosity, not by lived experience as so many women do today.

In order to make that a reality, it is important that we call this behaviour out and not try to dismiss it in any way as normal.


Richard Mahoney:

I do think we are in the midst of change on this. When I think about my own life, I think first about the women I grew up withstrong, smart and admired. I think of learning to be a feminist when I took a university course in feminist sociology. (I don’t think I really knew what that meant until then.) It was an awakening.

Back to todayI saw this recent quote from Prime Minister Trudeau and it stuck with me:

“I think we’re seeing a moment of an awakening, whether it’s the news from Hollywood, what we’ve been through at Parliament or now what we’re seeing in the Quebec cultural areas. It’s unacceptable for anyone to feel insecure or harassed at work, at home, in the streets and I think people are beginning to get it. Mindsets are beginning to change and there is more support for people coming forward and sharing their stories. It doesn’t matter how much power you have, how much influence you have, it’s never all right. I think people are beginning to act on it finally.”

When I think of my own lifetime, and the prevailing attitudes of our politicians, it feels to me when I hear the PM speak on this subject that we have come a long way. I also note his zero tolerance policy for these matters in the Liberal caucus. We have also seen legislative change recently that means progress: Bill C-51 clarifies and strengthens the law on sexual assault. We have seen new money and work for training judges on gender-based violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence.

It is hard to imagine anyone in 2017 not being horrified and disgusted with sexual assault. Some of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are an example of this. But these crimes still happen every day. Where we need even more work is in the more complicated world of what we commonly refer to as sexual harassmentthe use of power over another, usually a man towards a woman. The two are different, yes, but that too is a topic for another day. It is also where some great progress is being achieved, if men in particular answer the challenge Susanna put to us today.


Tom Parkin:

On harassment, we tell our clients to assess the existence of the risk factors in their work and reduce them. Also, ensure you provide a clear way of reporting sexual harassment, say how the complaints will be investigated, say how findings will be dealt with. Write these down in a procedure manual and give it to everyone in the workplace. Send a clear message to all employees that there is no room for sexual harassment anywhere in political work.

It’s no different in politics. To protect women in politics—both MPs and staff—each caucus needs to send that clear message, set out their plan and follow their processes.

And let’s be clear: though leadership and clear statements are necessary, they are not sufficient. It is not enough to want to “change the culture.” When structures, conditions and rules change, the culture will follow. Without real change, not matter how well meaning the leadership is, the goal will not be met.

Individuals in politics who want to do the right things—but aren’t in charge of the rules—can make important contributions by setting professional norms.

There’s nothing wrong with a male MP going for an occasional after-work drink with his female staffer. There's nothing wrong with getting together to celebrate a political win—that’s part of the job.

But it shouldn’t be considered the norm for any employer and employee to drink too much together. It shouldn’t be the norm to go out on what, in any other situation, might look like an evening date. The norm should be to celebrate a win at a workplace or another public location—not an MP’s apartment. Think about the boundaries of professionalism and the employee-employer relationship. For MPs, no matter how much you like and appreciate your staff, they aren’t your friends. Friendships are mutual, equal and voluntary. Employment isn’t.

When MPs and staffers create clearer norms of work it makes it easier for the employer—the caucus leader—to make clear rules and operational changes that reduce risk factors. And when the risk factors get reduced, a self-entitled harasser has a far smaller opportunity to victimize. Eventually the culture of harassment gets squeezed out, leaving much healthier workplaces, especially for women workers.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 










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