Room for better legislation to deal with sexual harassment, minister says

On the heels of troubling findings on workplace harassment and sexual violence in Canada, Employment and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu says there’s “room for better legislation” even if she expects resistance as the government takes steps to tackle the issue.

Labour minister expects resistance to sexual harassment legislation and would 'call that resistance out'

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, Patty Hajdu, says she expects resistance from employers when it comes to improved workplace sexual harassment policies but that it would be her job to call that resistance out. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

On the heels of troubling findings about workplace harassment and sexual violence in Canada, Employment and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu says there's room for better legislation even if she expects resistance as the government takes steps to tackle the issue.

A government consultation and an Abacus poll on workplace harassment shed light this week on the prevalence of bullying, sexual harassment and violence at work in Canada.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House, Hajdu said she isn't surprised by what the consultations revealed, but is disappointed. In her former role as status of women minister, she often heard how frustrated people are about harassment in the workplace.

"This is a culture problem. Women are taught at a very early age how to fend this behaviour off," Hajdu said. "And the conversation isn't so much how we shouldn't be perpetrating these kinds of behaviours."

What's needed is awareness, training that certain behaviours are not okay and for broader conversations to take place by both women and men, she added.

Hajdu said there are ways through legislation and regulations to create processes in workplaces where people feel comfortable coming forward with complaints, and where those complaints are handled appropriately.

Part of her job will be to take a look at the Canada Labour Code, which hasn't been thoroughly examined since the sixties, and find ways to make it better for workers and employers, she said.

An economic issue

What's happening in Hollywood and the U.K., as more and more sexual harassment allegations come to light, may help victims come forward in Canada. But Hajdu said she expects push back against the government's efforts.

"I suppose there will always be resistance and I would anticipate that," she said. "It will be my job to call that resistance out."

Getting employers and managers to abide by new workplace harassment policies could be a tough sell, but there's an economic argument to creating safer workplaces, she added.

Hajdu said companies that have high degrees of harassment, bullying and sexual harassment tend to also have high levels of absenteeism, poor mental health among workers and rapid turnover. Companies that take care of employees and foster healthy environments tend to keep their best talent.

"It's not just an issue of social justice," she said. "It's an issue of economic prosperity."

Zero tolerance on Parliament Hill 

Parliament Hill certainly isn't immune to inappropriate behaviour.

But Hajdu said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not tolerating sexual misconduct. Leaders need to take immediate action when members of their team are misbehaving, she noted.

"Our prime minister has been very clear, that there's zero tolerance for this and has had to make really difficult decisions, as you know, in his career about that."

In 2015, former Liberal MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews were accused of sexual harassment. Trudeau, then a newly-minted party leader, initiated an independent investigation and eventually booted the two MPs from caucus. 

More recently, Liberal MP Darshan Kang was accused of sexually harassing a young female assistant. Kang is off on medical leave as an investigation into the accusations take place.

And this week, Conservative MP Karen Vecchio said she's faced harassment on the job.

As the government's consultation revealed, a lot of this comes down to power dynamics, Hajdu said.

"Often those who are experiencing victimization are people of low power and people who are perpetrating the victimization are in positions of high power," she said. "It speaks to the fact that power, the dynamic of power, is a huge piece of this."


  • This story has been updated with the name Scott Andrews. An earlier version incorrectly identified the former MP as Scott Armstrong.
    Nov 04, 2017 10:10 AM ET