NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine invites unnamed MLAs to apologize for inappropriate behaviour

In the spirit of the Me Too movement on this International Women's Day, NDP status of women critic Nahanni Fontaine said Thursday it would be a good time for sitting members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly guilty of inappropriate workplace behaviour to stand up and take responsibility.

Status of women critic says sitting male MLAs guilty of sexual harassment, intimidation should apologize

Nahanni Fontaine took an opportunity on Thursday — International Women's Day — to invite male MLAs she says have engaged in intimidating and inappropriate behaviour to come forward and apologize. She did not name the men. (CBC)

In the spirit of the #MeToo movement on this International Women's Day, NDP status of women critic Nahanni Fontaine said Thursday it would be a good time for sitting members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly who are guilty of inappropriate workplace behaviour to stand up and take responsibility for what they've done.

"It would be naive to think that harassing behaviours currently do not exist in this building. They do," Fontaine said in the Manitoba Legislature.

"It is not for me to name the MLAs I just noted, who currently sit in this house. They know who they are, and I invite them to apologize."

Fontaine took the opportunity to make the comments Thursday, on International Women's Day. The MLA for St. Johns invoked the #MeToo movement, crediting those who have come forward to name men in positions of power guilty of sexual harassment, assault, misconduct and intimidation both in and outside the workplace.

She referenced the recent revelations that former NDP MLA Stan Struthers, who retired from politics in 2016, inappropriately touched multiple women, whose accounts came to light after a CBC News investigation last month.

Some of those women told CBC News they didn't feel their concerns were taken seriously when they brought forward allegations against Struthers at the time.

The allegations ultimately led former premier Greg Selinger, who was premier during the instances of inappropriate touching, to resign his post as MLA for St. Boniface and retire from provincial politics this week. 

The NDP is also conducting a commission to investigate the allegations against Struthers.

'Sense of powerlessness'

Fontaine said before she became an MLA she worked as a political staffer, and recalled feeling "a sense of powerlessness and anxiety when being subjected to sexual harassment and belittling by a former MLA."

She listed three incidents she alleges sitting MLAs — who she did not name — have engaged in. One of the incidents happened to her, while two others happened to other female MLAs whom Fontaine would not identify but says gave their permission to be included in her ministerial statement Thursday.

There were two instances where one or more male MLAs stared down or yelled at one or more female MLAs during separate standing committee meetings, Fontaine said.

In another case, she said a male MLA made inappropriate comments about a female MLA in front of other members of the legislative assembly.

"[He remarked] in front of several MLAs at a legislative conference of a female MLA, and I quote, 'I hope she gets everything out.' This while she was in the washroom," Fontaine said.

Fontaine said she decided not to identify anyone in her statement in the chamber, in part because women are too often forced to shoulder the burden of these painful experiences on their own.

"It's the woman who deals with the consequence, it's the woman who deals with the emotional issues that come with it, it's the woman that deals with whether or not she should stay or should she go, should she report it," Fontaine said. 

"I'm done with that today. If the individuals in question, and … they know who they are, if they stand with women then it is their responsibility to come forward and to name themselves and apologize. Everything is always on women to do."

Shouts of 'shame'

Status of Women Minister Rochelle Squires applauded Fontaine for calling out misogyny she's seen in the chamber, but that acknowledgement was laced with criticism.

MLA Rochelle Squires supported Fontaine's criticism of inappropriate behaviour in the legislative chamber, but chided her for not calling out an instance of heckling by male members of the NDP toward a Progressive Conservative member last year. (CBC)

Squires recalled an incident in October 2016 when NDP MLAs James Allum, Andrew Swan and Rob Altemeyer were reprimanded by Speaker of the House Myrna Driedger for shouting "shame" at Fort Richmond MLA Sarah Guillemard, who was speaking during a legislature session. All three MLAs later apologized.

Those shouts, which were not directed at Guillemard's male Progressive Conservative counterparts, were directed at Guillemard as she stood in the House to vote down an NDP bill that would've forced post-secondary schools in Manitoba to create robust policies against sexual harassment and violence on campus.

"I didn't see that and I saw a back-and-forth that our members were saying 'shame' on our male colleagues across the way as well. So I didn't see that at all in any way," Fontaine said in the fall of 2016.

Squires criticized Fontaine Thursday for protecting those in her party, echoing similar comments Premier Brian Pallister directed at Fontaine at the time.

"There were members of the NDP who were heckling female members of our caucus. When the MLA for St. Johns had an opportunity to stand against that misogyny, she lied and denied it happened," Squires said.

"And it wasn't until the [NDP] Leader Wab Kinew, to his credit, came out and said, 'actually it did happen,' that the air was cleared."

Fontaine disputed Squires' version of what happened. 

Instead, Fontaine said the priority today should be improving working conditions for women at the legislature.

Squires touted current efforts by her and Premier Brian Pallister to create a culture of safety and respect that encourages people to report instances of harassment and bullying.

Problems extend to Indigenous politics: Fontaine

Fontaine said she has also had Indigenous women in the political sphere privately share allegations of sexual harassment with her, "terrified to come forward with their own experiences against current or former chiefs, councillors … or spiritual leaders."

"This is a conversation we have yet to have publicly but [it] is so critical in the struggle for Indigenous women's rights," Fontaine said, adding she stands with women who have come forward, those who still feel too afraid to share their stories, and those who never intend to publicly discuss their experiences.

"It is women's leadership that birthed the #MeToo movement, and it is women who will lead us out of the mess borne from within patriarchy and its misogyny."

In the spirit of the #MeToo movement on this International Women's Day, NDP status of women critic Nahanni Fontaine said Thursday it would be a good time for sitting members of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly who are guilty of inappropriate workplace behaviour to stand up and take responsibility for what they've done. 2:14