Manitoba Legislature working on 'strengthened policy' on harassment in wake of #MeToo movement

The Manitoba Legislature's policies on harassment may get a taste of the #MeToo movement as Speaker Myrna Dreidger has prompted a review of current practices.

Review of workplace policies initiated by Speaker Myrna Dreidger

Marchers at the Jan. 20 Winnipeg women's march, which came amidst the growing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The Manitoba Legislature is reviewing its own policies in the wake of the increased attention drawn to the prevalence of harassment and sexual assault against women. (CBC )

The Manitoba Legislature's policies on harassment may get a taste of the #MeToo movement, as Speaker Myrna Dreidger has prompted a review of current practices.

"We started to review our policy a while ago because, in the current environment, I wanted a strengthened policy," Driedger wrote in an email to CBC News.

Staff and politicians at the provincial legislature are guided by two separate sets of guidelines for a respectful workplace.

The Manitoba Legislative Assembly Respectful Workplace and Harassment Prevention policy applies to "all political and non-political employees of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly regardless of employment status."

The second, the Manitoba Legislative Assembly Policy on Addressing Harassment, spells out that it "applies only to the interaction between Members of the Legislative Assembly."

Driedger was unavailable for an interview Tuesday because of scheduling conflicts but Deanna Wilson, the director of human resource services for the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, says her office is conducting the review and will present its findings to the Legislative Assembly Management Commission, the all-party commission chaired by the speaker that sets out budgets and administrative policies for assembly offices.

The review is being welcomed by all three political parties with seats in the legislature.

Status of Women Minister Rochelle Squires says survivors of harassment or assault in the workplace must have a respectful and safe place to report what happened. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Both the NDP's Nahanni Fontaine and the Progressive Conservatives' Rochelle Squires, the minister for status of women, said they have been the subject of harassment in their careers.

Fontaine said she, "alongside millions of women," has "faced sexual harassment in the workplace a myriad of different times in a myriad of different spaces, including the restaurant industry, non-governmental organizations — you name it."

Survivors must be believed: Squires

Squires hopes the tide is staring to turn.

"I think I've shared openly that I have been on the receiving end of harassing comments — that my gender has certainly been a barrier, in some cases. And I take it with great pride that I am now helping break down some of those barriers … that women behind me won't have to experience some of the things I have experienced."

Squires hopes the policy review will lead to an environment where victims of harassment feel supported and comfortable in very difficult circumstances.

She wants women, she said, "to know with certainty that they are going to be believed and that their experiences that they've had are going to be acted on. I think there is nothing more troubling for a survivor [than] to have to go through the experience … and then not to be believed."

The NDP's Nahanni Fontaine says the #MeToo movement is catching up to Canadian politics, but harassment is common in every workplace. (Warren Kay/CBC )

Fontaine said recent events sweeping through Canadian politics, which has seen numerous allegations of harassment and resignations recently, mean the review and the conversation are well-timed.

However, Fontaine said inappropriate behaviour in the workplace is widespread.

"Right now is a timely and critical discussion on workplace harassment. And what we are seeing right now is really the first time the Me Too movement has kind of hit Canadian politics. But certainly that's not the only space in which women are sexually harassed."

'Crisis of accountability'

Liberal leader Dougald Lamont is not an elected member of the Manitoba Legislature, but joined the other party spokespeople in welcoming the review.

Lamont notes the legislature is not the only political environment where harassment happens.

He said there is little or no policy in place to protect politicians and staff, "especially at the municipal level, where there are councillors that have had to put up with bullying and abuse in public meetings, which no one is recording and there is no one they can turn to."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says Manitoba's legislature is not the only political environment that needs stronger harassment policy. (Warren Kay/CBC )

There is a "crisis of accountability" to overcome, he said, where some perpetrators of harassment have been allowed to "get away with it for a very long time."

The most recent publicly known use of the Manitoba Legislature's policy on harassment issues involved the behaviour of Maples MLA Mohinder Saran and his conduct with a staff person.

Despite not being privy to the results of the investigation conducted by the legislature's human resource services, NDP caucus members were confronted with a decision on his behaviour and chose to kick Saran out. He now sits in the legislature as an independent MLA.

Fontaine said the issue is one facing legislatures and parties across the country, but emphasized whatever policy changes and mechanisms are put in place, the victim must be protected.

"Our priority and our responsibility is also to protect the privacy of the victim that comes forward, and if that victim does not want her name or any of the details made public, then how do you navigate that?"

She said the NDP is working on new internal policies to provide a safe working environment for all members of the party.

All three party representatives agreed the political world, and the people who work in it, need to lead by example. All three agreed if the review of the legislature's policies didn't go far enough to meet those goals they would make their concerns known publicly.

The assembly's existing policies dealing with respectful workplace matters will remain in force until the completion of the current review process. A timeline for completing the review was not given.

About the Author

Sean Kavanagh

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than a decade of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including a stint as the civic affairs reporter responsible for city hall.