Alberta MLAs will soon be subject to formal anti-harassment policy

In the wake of high-profile political resignations in Canada, Alberta MLAs will consider a new formal process Thursday to deal with peer-to-peer harassment complaints made by one MLA against another MLA.

Until now, there's been no formal process for an MLA to file a harassment complaint against another MLA

An updated respectful workplace policy for employees of the legislative assembly and constituency offices was adopted in January 2017. (CBC)

In the wake of recent high-profile political resignations in Canada, Alberta MLAs will consider a new formal process Thursday to deal with peer-to-peer harassment complaints made by one MLA against another.

If passed, it will be the first time Alberta MLAs will have a formal complaint process to turn to if they're being harassed by a colleague.

Well-publicized cases recently have focused attention on the issue. Rick Dykstra, a former Conservative MP, resigned as president of the Ontario PC party on Sunday. Hours later, Maclean's magazine published a report saying Dykstra had been accused of sexual assault in 2014. CBC has not verified the allegations.

The leader of the Ontario PC party, Patrick Brown, also resigned Jan. 24, following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Debbie Jabbour, NDP MLA for Peace River chairs the Alberta legislature members' services committee looking into the new policy. She said it's particularly important and timely to have a system in place should the need arise.

NDP MLA Debbie Jabbour says for the first time Alberta MLAs will have a way to formally register a respectful workplace or harassment complaint against another MLA. (Alberta Legislative Assembly)

"As we've seen with recent developments, there's a power differential that is at play that can really help to prevent or mask elements of what's inappropriate interactions," said Jabbour.

Elected in 2015, Jabbour said she hasn't seen any harassment examples first hand. But there's a "whisper network," she said, where rumours circulate about specific members.

"I've certainly heard those kinds of things," said Jabbour, who acknowledges it can be challenging to determine what's inappropriate MLA behaviour.

"Increasingly, we're starting to see among MLAs that we have a rather unique work environment," she said.

MLA workplace 'unique'

Jabbour said there's a "combative element" to being an MLA that sometimes plays out during debates and questions period.

"And so defining what that's supposed to look like and be respectful, I think is even more challenging," she said. "It's the challenge being inside the legislature, that sometimes there's interaction that goes on that might feel inappropriate. But that's kind of what MLAs do, kind of question period interactions."

At times, question period has become bogged down with raucous name calling and slurs, prompting the Speaker to intervene on several occasions to bring members to order.

The members' services committee, which meets Thursday morning, will consider several options for how to formally handle workplace policies regarding complaints between members.

Modelling their policies after the legislative assembly office, which relies on a formal structure that could lead to a third-party investigation, Jabbour said there will be a few "unique" factors when it comes to MLAs.

Complaints unlikely to be made public

Jabbour said it's especially important to consider who the complaint is reported to, and what to do if a member isn't satisfied with the result.

Committee staff did an analysis to look at how complaints were handled in different locations. In some provinces, Jabour said, an MLA seeks out the party whip as the first line of the process, whereas other provinces use the Speaker or a human resource office.

If there are complaints made by members against members, it's doubtful the public will ever know.

Jabbour said she hasn't made up her mind entirely but is leaning toward keeping that information under wraps.

She said there's nothing to be gained by making an incident public if the issue has been dealt with appropriately.

"I don't know in the grand scheme of things if it solves anything or if it just makes it worse," she said.

The members' services committee began work in 2015 to update and establish a formal process for employees of the legislative assembly office, and for political staffers who work for MLAs in constituency offices to register complaints.

No eye rolling or finger wagging

The respectful workplace policy for the legislative assembly office was updated in 2016, and put into use in 2017. It has been supplemented by a dozen workshops for staff training, said Alex McCuaig, chief of staff for the Speaker of the legislative assembly.

A detailed list of actions that could be considered a basis for a complaint, according to the policy, includes eye rolling, finger wagging, leering, gossiping, unwanted physical contact and taking credit for someone else's work.

McCuaig said the legislative assembly office policy strictly prohibits him from disclosing any information about the nature or number of complaints that may have been made.