FHRITP court ruling proves need for legislative change, says Cathy Bennett

Windsor Lake MHA Cathy Bennett says three labour laws need to change to protect women from sexual harassment on the job.

MHA calling for changes to labour laws to stop sexual harassment on the job

Former Newfoundland and Labrador Finance Minister Cathy Bennett spoke publicly about being cyber-bullied in 2016. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

A St. John's judge's ruling that a sexist slur yelled at a television reporter did not constitute a public disturbance proves the need for substantive changes in labour laws, says former finance minister Cathy Bennett. 

Bennett, who now sits as a Liberal backbencher in the House of Assembly, plans to introduce a private member's motion that would change three provincial laws, all aimed at halting sexual harassment in the workplace. 

"Everybody deserves to work in a place where they feel safe," Bennett said Wednesday.

"Women in particular deserve a respectful workplace that doesn't allow sexual harassment to create bullying and intimidation that doesn't allow them to do the work they need to do."

During her time as finance minister, Bennett revealed that she had been the target of online bullies who used body shaming and sexually exploitative language, lashing out after the tough 2016 provincial budget.

On Tuesday, provincial court judge Colin Flynn ruled that a man who yelled "F--k her right in the p---y" at a St. John's reporter may have been crude and vulgar, but did not break the law — in part because the incident happened at the St. John's dump on a day it was closed to the public. 

Justin Penton had been charged with causing a public disturbance. 

Flynn ruled that the circumstances in this case did not mean a public disturbance had happened. 

Reporter 'really worried' about future outbursts

The court decision sparked a strong reaction across the country, including from Bennett, who on Tuesday night tweeted her plans to try and change the Labour Standards Act, Labour Relations Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act.

"What I'm asking for would be for specific language related to sexual harassment to be put into the appropriate act," said Bennett, adding that social movements like #MeToo — in which countless women used social media to reveal instances of abuse, harassment or violence  — have changed the political climate. 

Heather Gillis is a reporter at NTV News in St. John's. (Aamie Gillam Photography)

Heather Gillis, the NTV reporter who was on the receiving end of the vulgar slur during an interview she had been recording at the St. John's dump last year, said she was disappointed by the decision, and was worried about the implications. 

This is not about me. This is about all of us.- Heather Gillis

"I'm really worried that this is going to continue to be yelled at reporters across the country," Gillis said in an interview with As It Happens

"I wish this case had had a better outcome, so we could have, I guess, had some recourse, or a chilling effect." 

Gillis had been interviewing Danny Breen, a councillor who was subsequently elected mayor of St. John's, when Penton yelled at them from his truck. After Breen noted that the truck would have to leave by the same road, Gillis waited for the truck to pass — and then tweeted a photo of it. 

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary responded on Twitter, and encouraged Gillis to file a criminal complaint. Gillis agreed with the suggestion. 

NTV journalist Heather Gillis snapped this photo of the truck from which the driver yelled obscenities at her. (Heather Gillis/Twitter)

"At this point in my career, I had this phrase yelled at me a number of times. So, I was like, you know what, maybe it is time to file a complaint," she said.

​Since filing the complaint, Gillis has had the same insult thrown at her an additional two times. 

"This is not about me. This is about all of us," she said. "I was really hoping for the court to send a message that this isn't OK, and that it will not be tolerated." 

She noted that Judge Colin Flynn said a criminal finding could be determined in other circumstances, as he noted that the dump was closed on the day that Gillis recorded the interview. 

"The judge did say that in this case it's not causing a disturbance but it may be in other cases. So I guess this will just have to be a case-by-case basis, I suppose, for the courts." 


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