Parliament 'back in another decade' when it comes to harassment

Parliament is in many ways living in another decade when it comes to how things work and how women are treated, NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie says.

NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie speaks out about the culture on Parliament Hill

With allegations of misconduct around Parliament, MPs discuss their experiences on the Hill 3:36

Parliament is in many ways living in another decade when it comes to how things work and how women are treated, NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie says.

Leslie spoke to CBC News about the culture around Parliament Hill, one day after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suspended two MPs for "personal misconduct." The candidacies of Newfoundland and Labrador MP Scott Andrews and Quebec MP Massimo Pacetti for the 2015 federal election are also suspended. The allegations of misconduct come from two female New Democrat MPs.

The culture on Parliament Hill is a combination of factors that make it a different workplace than Leslie had ever experienced, she told CBC News.

"I love a lot of the people here, so I'm being really careful with my comments because it's not a bad place all the time," Leslie said.

"It's a really special place. It's a glorious place sometimes. But sexual harassment and harassment in general is an issue. Is it worse here? I'll certainly say it's different here."

The power imbalance between elected officials and their staff is simply one of the factors that contribute to a different environment on Parliament Hill, Leslie said. Political staffers work directly for the MP who hires them, making each of the 308 MPs like a private employer with their own staff. Federal labour laws don't apply to them.

Leslie says MPs are told they're special when they're elected, they spend a lot of time away from their families, and much of the political social life involves alcohol.

The power imbalance extends to a tug-of-war between MPs and journalists, she added.

'Dusty and dried up'

The 2011 election brought a number of younger MPs to Parliament Hill, particularly in the NDP caucus. Many were in their 20s and 30s, with some as young as 22.

It was the first time a cadre of young, female MPs had hit the Hill at the same time. Usually those working on the Hill in their mid-20s are staffers.

Leslie describes seeing male MPs patting female MPs on the lower back or stroking their hair.

Parliament is in many ways living in another decade when it comes to how things work and how women are treated, NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie says. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
"Well, you're not doing that to the minister of defence," she said. "It's not the end of the world. That is not violent sexual aggression, but ... I have the right to go through my day without being touched."

"I do think that we are back in another decade here. It is a strange place. It is a place that I love and respect, but it is pretty dusty and dried up," she said.

At the same time, it seems Parliament isn't that different from the rest of Canada in that the complainant MPs didn't want to go public with their allegations.

Scott Simms, a Liberal MP from Newfoundland and Labrador, told reporters Thursday that he's known about one of the two misconduct allegations since 2013.

"Some time ago, I made a commitment to a dear friend that I would not talk about this in public. So I'm going to honour that commitment, I'm sorry," Simms said on his way into question period.

Questions about going public

The NDP's insistence that the women didn't want to go public led to questions to the Liberal leadership, including whip Judy Foote, who wrote to House Speaker Andrew Scheer to request the House investigate the allegations.

"I'm not going to get into the politics of this," Foote said outside the House of Commons.

"We had no choice here. The leader [Trudeau], once told by an MP of another party that there were serious allegations against a caucus member in his party, he had to act and we did."

Leslie says it's a good thing that MPs and Canadians are now discussing harassment issues.

"I actually think there's been a real shift in discourse over the past few weeks about rape, about consent, about sexual harassment, sexualized conduct," she said.

"I think that a special something has opened up here where we actually get to talk about this here in the House of Commons and not be dismissed ... that is hopeful to me."