#MeToo's moment on Parliament Hill suggests another way more women could change politics

C-65 is, in Michelle Rempel's words, "a positive step in the right direction." But, she says, "in and of itself, [it] will not correct all the issues associated with the current state of affairs." So more must change, including perhaps the most obvious: the number of women in the House of Commons.

'Gender parity is the only permanent solution to sexual harassment on the Hill'

Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patricia Hajdu speaks in the House of Commons about Bill-65 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The great unravelling continues. And as it does, it reveals the difficult truths about sexual misconduct by those who occupy the institutions of Canadian political power. 

Beyond the question of what might be revealed next, there is the question of what must change to ensure this moment is never relived.

At noon on Monday, a day after another report of sexual misconduct allegedly perpetrated by one of its members, the House of Commons turned its attention to Bill C-65, legislation to implement new rules and processes for dealing with sexual harassment in federally regulated workplaces.

"We have been powerfully reminded in Canada and indeed around the world that harassment and violence remain a common experience for people in the workplace," Labour Minister Patty Hajdu said. "Parliament Hill, our own workplace, is especially affected."

She proceeded in greater detail.

"Parliament Hill features distinct power imbalances, which perpetuates a culture where people with a lot of power and prestige can use and have used that power to victimize the people who work so hard for us," she said. "It is a culture where people who are victims of harassment or sexual violence do not feel safe to bring those complaints forward. It is a place where these types of behaviours, abusive and harmful, are accepted and minimized and ignored."

Three hours later, MPs unanimously agreed to pass C-65 at second reading and send it immediately to a committee for further study.

The bill is, in Conservative MP Michelle Rempel's words, "a positive step in the right direction." But, in and of itself, C-65 "will not correct all the issues associated with the current state of affairs," she said.

So more must change, including perhaps the most obvious: the number of women who currently occupy seats in the House of Commons.

Michelle Rempel on harassment by MPS

6 years ago
Duration 1:01
Michelle Rempel on harassment by MPS

Power, privilege and consent

Rempel's speech was a searing account of what power, privilege, competition and tribalism has wrought. She challenged those who populate Parliament Hill and its environs to stop being bystanders to harassment. She talked about consent. And she excoriated members of her own party for their reported handling of an allegation that a former Conservative MP, Rick Dykstra, committed sexual assault.

"Is it possible for a drunk staffer to give consent for sex to a senior male in a workplace organization who aggressively propositions that staffer? Within any standard workplace code of conduct the answer to that should be unequivocally no," she said.

"Today there was a report that at one critical point within my party this was a topic for debate, and that is disgusting. Media reports say that people sat around a very senior table and argued semantics around whether action in our workplace should be taken because criminal charges were not proceeded with. Those people should be ashamed of themselves and they should have no role or influence in this or in any political party."

Of that fateful discussion — when the allegation against Dykstra was brought to the Conservative war room and the decision was made to let him stand as a Conservative party candidate — there is one other remarkable aspect.

According to a source who spoke to Maclean's, that discussion broke along gender lines: "The women around the table in the discussions had a much different opinion than the men around the table."

The implication is that the women were more ready to deal harshly with the situation.

Patty Hajdu talks about harassment on the Hill

6 years ago
Duration 3:23
The federal labour minister explains what she heard while preparing new legislation to cover workplace misconduct.

'Add women, change politics'

While Hajdu spoke in the House on Monday, she was surrounded by 20 Liberal MPs: 10 men and 10 women. However heartening the support, it was an image that overstated the actual presence of women in the House.

In 2015, a record number of women were elected, but that still only amounted to 26 per cent of the House. Across the country's 338 ridings, no party fielded a slate that was 50 per cent female: 145 women ran for the NDP, 105 for the Liberals and 61 for the Conservatives.

"Add women, change politics," the prime minister said in a speech on Sunday, repeating a refrain his party has embraced. Until now, the change might have been understood to be the representation of women in power or the policies and concerns that are discussed. Parity might have simply been demanded as a matter of fairness.

But could it also be part of changing the culture of Parliament Hill? Without absolving men of their own responsibility and without excluding the larger cultural change that must take place, would the addition of more women make a difference?

"The fact that I was subject to and witnessed a lot of sexual harassment on the Hill and the fact that I was often the only woman around a committee table, including staff, were not unrelated," says Laurin Liu, the former NDP MP and the youngest woman ever elected to the House. "Gender parity is the only permanent solution to sexual harassment on the Hill.

"The kind of workplace culture that exists in a male-dominated environment and that exists in one where there is a greater gender balance is like night and day. And that has everything to do with what's considered permissible in a male-dominated environment."

On Monday, Liu's former NDP colleagues put that idea to the prime minister, reminding the Liberals that they voted against an NDP MP's bill that would have imposed a financial penalty on parties that didn't come close to achieving parity among their candidates.

The merits of that particular bill might still be debated. But the need for change might now be impossible to deny.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.