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Tougher workplace harassment rules would help protect political staffers: Hajdu

Last Updated Jan 12, 2018 at 2:00 pm MST

Patty Hajdu, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, arrives for the Liberal cabinet retreat in London, Ont., on Friday, January 12, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

OTTAWA – It is too early to begin claiming the pendulum is in danger of swinging too far the other way when it comes to concerns over sexual misconduct on Parliament Hill, as young political staffers remain especially vulnerable to abuse, says Labour Minister Patty Hajdu.

“We’re not there yet,” Hajdu said in an interview.

“I would say that we would be there when I would talk to young staffers and they wouldn’t have any experience of harassment or sexual violence or when staffers would tell me that no, there is no one they are uncomfortable getting into an elevator alone with,” she said.

“These are the kinds of stories that I am hearing from young staffers — that there is a whisper network on the Hill,” she said. “They do know which MPs to avoid and which MPs, when they’ve had too much to drink, are kind of ‘gropy’ and which are not.”

She also said that if male politicians, who still have most of the power, are beginning to question where the limits are, it’s a good thing.

The Canadian Press surveyed current female MPs from all political parties last month to find out the extent to which they had been the targets of sexual harassment, assault or misconduct of all kinds, including during their time in elected office.

More than half of respondents to the voluntary, anonymous survey — 58 per cent — reported having personally experienced one or more forms of sexual misconduct during their time in politics, but the results also suggested the problem is much bigger.

Seventy-six per cent of respondents said they had either witnessed, or been told about sexual misconduct targeting another woman, including a staffer, page, intern, House of Commons employee or MP.

Thirty-eight of the 89 female MPs participated in the survey.

Hajdu said she did not want to minimize the experiences of any of her colleagues, but noted they have a lot more power when it comes to standing up for themselves than the people who work in their Parliament Hill, constituency and ministerial offices.

The Liberal cabinet minister said these staffers are often young, inexperienced and in jobs considered precarious at the best of times.

The fact that their employer, who might be the perpetrator, is an MP or senator makes things even worse.

She said staffers are worried about getting a reputation for causing problems and they also often have a sense of party loyalty that can make it even harder for them to do something about their situation.

“Many staffers talk to me about their reluctance, even when they experiencing harassment, to go forward with a complaint about a member of Parliament that is on their team, so to speak,” Hajdu said in an interview.

“So there’s another layer in politics that prevents people from coming forward,” she said.

The Liberal government introduced legislation last November to tighten harassment regulations in federal workplaces, which would also apply to parliamentarians and the people who work in their offices.

The changes would merge separate labour standards for sexual harassment and violence and subject them to the same scrutiny and dispute resolution process. They would also allow anyone unhappy with the process to complain to the federal labour minister, who could investigate.

Hajdu said the proposed legislation, known as Bill C-65, would give more power to staffers, including by making sure they have access to a neutral third party to examine their complaints, so that they are not forced to rely upon the MP who employs them.

“If the person isn’t comfortable going forward to their MP, there would be a third-party designate available,” she said.

Jane Hilderman, the executive director of Samara Canada, which has surveyed MPs as part of its work on civic engagement, said it would be challenging to determine the scope of the problem among staff.

“Staff have such a critical role in our democratic system, but are so behind-the-scenes that we end up taking them as part of the furniture and not actually asking them about their direct experience that they have,” she said, adding that the lack of a central body for staff would make it hard to do so.

— With files from Joan Bryden

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter