Sexual misconduct an open secret on Parliament Hill, say ex-staffers

After allegations of sexual misconduct rocked Hollywood and Canada's arts and entertainment industry, former Parliament Hill staffers say it was only a matter of time before the spotlight turned to Canadian politics.

'It’s always been a matter of when — not if — these stories will break,' says former NDP staffer

Amy Kishek, a former NDP staffer on Parliament Hill, says political staff often feel they have nowhere to turn after they experience sexual harassment. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

After allegations of sexual misconduct rocked Hollywood and Canada's arts and entertainment industry, former Parliament Hill staffers say it was only a matter of time before the spotlight turned to Canadian politics.

"It's always been a matter of when — not if — these stories will break," said Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a former NDP staffer.

Dobson-Hughes alleges she too faced routine sexual misconduct in her seven years on the Hill.

"Daily references to my figure, to my sex life, whether I was married," she said.

"Being grabbed and groped, being forcibly kissed."

Some political insiders have described this kind of behaviour as an open secret, many Canadians are just this week learning the extent of sexual harassment concerns in the halls of power across the country.

Three senior politicians were forced to resign this week amid allegations of sexual misconduct:

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown 'categorically' denies 'troubling allegations' about his conduct. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Dobson-Hughes said these stories highlight the pressures women face to bury their concerns.

Politics has its own culture and rules, she said, adding that party loyalty goes a long way in explaining why more women — and men — don't come forward.

"Nobody wants to be the one who damages their party's election chances, gets an MP dumped from caucus," Dobson-Hughes said.

Fearful they might lose their job or be blacklisted from their party, victims of harassment often see no other choice but to keep quiet, she said.

Asked whether she reported the incidents she experienced, Dobson-Hughes said harassment on the Hill was well known to MPs and senior staff, who did nothing to address it.

Rules need improvement

In December 2014, the House of Commons adopted a policy on preventing and addressing harassment.

Staff who feel they've been harassed or feel unsafe can file a formal complaint, either with their party's whip or the House of Commons chief human resources officer.

Heather Bradley, a spokesperson for the House of Commons, told CBC on Friday that the office of the chief human resources officer continues to work with party whips to ensure that MPs, and staff are made aware of their rights and responsibilities under the harassment policy.

The House of Commons encourages members and staff to participate in an online training session on harassment prevention, Bradley said, adding that an additional in-person training course is being developed.

But requiring people who say they're victims of harassment to following the policy adopted in December 2014 could pose a problem, says Jennifer Robson, a former Liberal staffer who now teaches political management at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"Harassment policies … only work if number one, people know what they are and understand their rights, and number two, trust that the process will be fair and reasonable," said Robson.

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu has said she believes Parliament Hill is an environment that lends itself to sexual and workplace harassment. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

In November 2017, federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu introduced legislation to crack down on harassment in federal workplaces, including Parliament Hill.

Once passed, the legislation would allow anyone unhappy with how their dispute is being handled to complain to the federal labour minister, who could step in to investigate and order sanctions for employers.

But political staffers will still have fewer protections than members of the Parliamentary Protective Service or those who work in the Library of Parliament, because their employer is not Parliament, but rather the politician they work for.

Breeding grounds for harassment

"When I was on the Hill, I had no idea where I would address these sorts of concerns," said Amy Kishek, a former NDP staffer.

She never experienced sexual harassment herself, but said allegations of inappropriate behaviour often came up in her discussions with female colleagues.

More often than not, she said, the incidents involved young women new to politics — volunteers, interns or staffers who had just landed their first job in an MP's office.

"You want to want to be part of the team," Kishek said, adding that staffers often feel beholden to their bosses.

"You're constantly told that for each one of you, there are tons of people who want to be there on the Hill doing that kind of work."

Federal Sports Minister Kent Hehr resigned from cabinet Thursday, after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced from his time as a member of the Alberta Legislature between 2008 and 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As part of their duties, staffers spend a significant portion of their time at after-hours events, and Kishek said they often involve heavy drinking.

It's in those settings that staffers commonly experience harassment, Kishek alleges, adding that pubs around Parliament Hill have long and notoriously been seen as breeding grounds for inappropriate behaviour.

While allegations like those surfacing this week may reinforce the idea that politics are culturally toxic to women, Robson said there is research showing that the Me Too and Time's Up movements are prompting more women than ever before to put their names on the ballot.

"They don't want to be dealing with sexual harassment," Robson said of her own students.

"They want to do politics."

With files from Evan Dyer