Opposition politicians unite in calling for laws to limit use of non-disclosure agreements
Premier says his government is reviewing existing legislation to determine the best course of action
The divide between PC and opposition MLAs in Nova Scotia's legislature was starkly evident Tuesday as Liberal and NDP politicians, as well as the only independent at Province House, urged the Houston government to support bills intended to restrict the use of non-disclosure agreements.
The NDP introduced Bill 144 on April 2, 2022 which would outlaw non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment or discrimination.
The MLA for Cumberland North, Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, introduced a similar bill Tuesday.
Houston refused to support laws
But try as they might to get the government to support those proposed laws, or commit to bringing in a similar government bill, Premier Tim Houston and Minister of Justice Brad Johns have refused to do either.
"We, of course, agree that non-disclosure agreements should not be used as a means to silence victims of sexual assault. Of course we agree with that," said Houston in response to a question from NDP Leader Claudia Chender.
"I would assure the member that [the issue] is a priority. There is a jurisdictional scan happening. There's research happening. We want to get this right."
Houston also tried to downplay a comment made by Johns suggesting his department had more important issues to deal with than restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements.
"It's not a priority right now of this government," Johns told reporters last October.
"I think the minister, at the time, was referring to the the slate of legislation that was before the House," said Houston Tuesday. "I myself know sometimes you say something, you know, a little wrong."
Accused of 'foot-dragging'
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill was quick to condemn what he called foot-dragging by the governing PCs.
"This government built their brand on doing more, faster, and yet on this issue they dragged their heels and do nothing," said Churchill. "I really think it's unacceptable.
"I hear no empathy for victims."
NDP Leader Claudia Chender also seemed frustrated by the government's response.
"These agreements protect people who are powerful, they protect people who are wealthy and they protect the status quo," said Chender.
"We all know that the status quo has a strong sway in this building and in the decisions that are made, and I think that the Premier has gotten advice that there are people who would not like the status quo to change."
P.E.I. became the first province in Canada to limit the use of non-disclosure clauses in settlement agreements when new legislation took effect in May 2022.
Groups weigh in
Liz LeClair was similarly unimpressed. She is with Can't Buy my Silence, a group devoted to getting laws passed restricting when NDAs can be used.
She refused to sign an NDA after she accused her employer of not acting when she was harassed on the job.
She was at Province House Tuesday to support the NDP's proposed law and to call out the minister responsible for the Advisory Council on the Status of Woman Act.
"I sat down back when Houston government was first elected with Karla McFarlane and her team," said LeClair. "I was assured by Karla and her team that they thought that this was a great bill.
"They wanted to bring it forward. It was brought to the cabinet table and I was informed at that table that they were told that it was not going to proceed."
Kristina Fifield, trauma therapist with Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, said by their nature, it's impossible to track the use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual assault cases, but based on her work it was "happening a lot."
She said given recent events like the Hockey Canada scandal which show the potential harm of NDAs, the government needs to "sit right now" and reflect on its actions.
"Their lack of action is creating a situation where there's a continuation of violence happening in our province."
"If our province and our leaders are truly committed to addressing and dealing with gender-based violence, forms of violence, discrimination and harassment, this [NDP] bill needs to move forward to keep everyone safe."
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