Workplace harassment bill will protect federal political staffers, Liberals say

A bill that comes up for second reading as Parliament resumes on Monday would strengthen protections against workplace harassment in federally regulated industries. It would also enhance protections for political staffers.

Legislation is up for second reading when the House of Commons resumes sitting Monday

When Parliament resumes next week, it will debate a bill to close a gap that leaves many Canadian workers without proper recourse for workplace sexual harassment. 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)

When Parliament resumes next week, one of the first items on the agenda is a bill the government says will close a gap that leaves many Canadian workers — including Parliament Hill staffers — with less recourse in cases of workplace harassment than most Canadians enjoy.

Bill C-65 enters second reading Monday (where MPs debate a bill's principle). 

Most Canadians work in industries that are provincially regulated, and it's up to each province to make its own rules to protect workers.

The new bill would extend protections for workers in federally regulated industries such as banking, broadcasting and aviation, as well as Crown corporations and agencies. It would cover all aspects of workplace misconduct "from teasing and bullying all the way to sexual harassment and physical and sexual violence," says Labour Minister Patty Hajdu.

Parliament Hill staff, including Commons and Senate employees, and political staffers in the offices of individual MPs and senators, would all receive a measure of protection from sexual harassment.

Hill staff are barred from making normal complaints under the Canada Labour Code. That will change if Bill C-65 becomes law.

But political staffers will still have fewer protections than members of the Parliamentary Protective Service or those who work in the Library of Parliament.

That's because their employer is not Parliament, but rather the politician they work for. And MPs and senators are (and would remain under C-65) different from any other employer.

Parliamentary privilege, an amorphous concept designed to protect elected representatives from being pressured by outside bodies such as courts, gives members of Parliament a unique shield, though it has not been thoroughly tested.

'Heartbreaking' stories

A memorandum written for Hajdu last year on the effect of the new workplace regime on Hill staff concedes that "the extent of parliamentary privilege remains unclear. Parliament itself does not have the authority to determine the limits of its own privilege," and "the extent of Parliament's privilege over the management of its employees has not been definitively established by the courts."

Despite those restrictions, Hajdu has said she believes Parliament Hill is an environment that lends itself to sexual and workplace harassment.

"We talked to all parties … and we heard similar stories from staffers, particularly about the vulnerability of staff and of people that work for parliamentarians," Hajdu told CBC News.

"Many of the stories that I heard were heartbreaking and woven into a power dynamic that is unique in some respects."

Sport Minister Kent Hehr has resigned from cabinet pending an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Options available to a staffer who is harassed by their parliamentarian employer currently include speaking directly to the harasser, or taking a complaint to the party's whip, or to Parliament's chief human resources officer.

Under the provisions of Bill C-65, MPs accused of harassing staff will be required to submit to mediation by an independent third party. That outsider, known as a "competent third person" in law, will be drawn from a list of professionals, typically lawyers with experience in mediation and dispute resolution, that is maintained by the Labour Department.

The alleged harasser and the accuser would have to agree to accept a particular competent third person.

The bill does not prescribe penalties.

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MPs will continue to benefit from two privileges unique to their position. They cannot be sued for breaches of the Canada Labour Code, and they cannot be fired or dismissed.

They can be named and shamed, of course, but some parliamentarians, former senator Don Meredith, for example, have resisted calls to resign. Meredith eventually did leave the Senate in 2017, a week after the ethics committee recommended he be expelled for his relationship with a teen.

Political staff in Ottawa are often called "exempt" staffers because they are not subject to federal public service rules on recruitment and hiring. They don't have to undergo a competitive process to get their jobs and, unlike normal public servants, they are allowed to be explicitly political.

But they are also uniquely vulnerable. Their job security hangs on the outcome of each election. If their member loses, they are normally out of a job immediately. And they fall between the cracks of laws that govern Canada's workplaces.

The NDP approach: unionize

One party has taken a different approach to its political staffers, and has the cleanest track record on allegations of workplace harassment.

"A lot of that is because we've had unionized staff," NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said yesterday. "I take pride in the fact that we had the wherewithal to actually have a policy in place.

"Because we have unionized staff, they were able to bring those matters forward in the collective agreement."

But Singh added that his party is not immune to problems. "This is not a partisan issue. We have to be courageous enough to recognize that this could happen in any party.

"I hope it doesn't happen. But if anything arises we have to be prepared to deal with it as a party, and we will."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.