Politics

Justin Trudeau says parliamentarians have role in ending sexism

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says parliamentarians have a role to play in ending harassment in the workplace, a day after Conservative MP Michelle Rempel penned an op-ed about "the everyday sexism" she faces on Parliament Hill.

Op-ed by MP Michelle Rempel on 'everyday sexism' has reopened debate on Parliament Hill

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says sexism continues to be a great challenge in workplaces across the country, including on Parliament Hill. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says parliamentarians have a role to play in ending harassment in the workplace, a day after Conservative MP Michelle Rempel penned an op-ed about the sexism she faces on Parliament Hill.

"The everyday sexism I face," Rempel wrote in the National Post on Monday, "involves confronting the 'bitch' epithet when I don't automatically comply with someone's request or capitulate on my position on an issue … it involves my ass being occasionally grabbed as a way to shock me into submission. It involves tokenism. It involves sometimes being written off as not serious when I've clearly proven I am." 

Trudeau, who describes himself as a feminist, was asked for his thoughts about Rempel's condemnation of the sexism she faces at work on a daily basis.

"It continues to be a great challenge in workplaces across the country," the prime minister said in French on his way to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill Tuesday.

"We have made some improvements here, but there is a lot of work to do and we are part of the solution."

Parliament adopted a new code of ethics last fall, following allegations of misconduct by two Liberal caucus members in 2014.

Trudeau, who was leader of the party, went public with the accusations, and immediately removed the MPs from his caucus.

In the op-ed, Rempel pointed the finger at two unnamed MPs, including "a senior cabinet minister" who told her in the Commons to "look a bit more cheerful."

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel penned on Monday an op-ed condemning the 'everyday sexism' she faces on Parliament Hill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum was forced to apologize to Rempel in December after he said "Mr. Speaker, we are into sunny ways; I would suggest that my colleague look a little more cheerful."

Rempel said the other MP, whom she does not name, responded to a request she made by saying, "It turns me on when you're direct."

On his way into a meeting with his cabinet on Tuesday, Trudeau said he would be discussing the matter.

"We will certainly have a conversation about it," he said in French.

Because it's 2016?

Trudeau made international headlines when he appointed last November the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history.

His now famous quote, "Because it's 2015," has set new expectations for the role of government in promoting gender equality.

Following Tuesday's cabinet meeting, McCallum said in French he considered the matter with Rempel to be over after he apologized in the Commons.

Asked why women are still faced with sexism in the workplace in 2016, McCallum said: ​​"It's an issue because the world is not a perfect place even though it's 2016. Sexism remains a challenge in Ottawa, in Canada, around the world, as something that has to be addressed."

McCallum would not say whether Trudeau raised the issue during today's meeting, citing cabinet confidentiality.

Female politicians have long agreed that sexism in the workplace is a problem. But what to do about it and how to get men to be a part of the solution remains a challenge, several female cabinet ministers said today.

Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu applauded Rempel's courage for calling on men to confront sexist attitudes.

"I commend the courage of MP Rempel to write an article about sexism on the Hill but even more than that, what I really liked about that article was the call to men, actually, to step up and to acknowledge their responsibility in addressing this issue.

"What we need to do is be having these fulsome conversations with young men, with middle-aged men and to have workplaces that say this isn't tolerated and when we find out about it we will do something about it," Hajdu said on Parliament Hill.

Status on Women Minister Patty Hajdu says she supports Conservative Michelle Rempel's column on the sexism she has experienced on the Hill 1:13

Ministers face sexism too

"There is sexism in Parliament," said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who was first elected to the Commons in 1997.

According to Bennett, female MPs are heckled in a "dramatically different" way than men are.

"The personal attacks of 'you're the only one who is confused, or lay off the coffee, or take a valium,' are things that I have received...," Bennett said.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, centre, is seen with her cabinet colleagues Catherine McKenna and Carolyn Bennett in the House of Commons. Freeland and Bennett both say sexism is a reality in Parliament. (Chris Wattie/Reuters )

But men aren't the only ones heckling female MPs, Bennett said pointing to the need to hold both genders accountable for sexist remarks.

"We have to say that's unacceptable ... whether it's men or women, treating women in this place in what I can only interpret as sexism."

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was elected to Parliament in a byelection a little over two years ago, spoke of her own experience with sexism on Parliament Hill.

"I think sexism is a reality," Freeland said on Tuesday.

"As people see, I'm not very tall. In the past people have made comments about my voice being too shrill."

Freeland, a business journalist and author who held several senior positions at global organizations before entering politics, said this was the most "equal" group she'd been a part of in the past two decades.

She said it made a "huge difference" to sit at a table where women make-up 50 per cent of the group.

"Studies have shown that you need 30 per cent to be women, for women's contributions to be valued equally," Freeland said.

In March, Trudeau was lauded for promoting gender equality during a trip to New York.

"I'm going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug," the prime minister said.

"It's just really, really obvious that we should be standing up for women's rights and trying to create more equal societies. Like, duh."