Parliament Hill harassment horror stories risk rousing mob mentality

If there's one thing we've learned over the last few weeks, it's that virtually everyone who has spent time within the orbit of Parliament Hill has told, or heard, at least one story of sexual harassment. But this collective catharsis presents a particular challenge for those of us covering the fallout.

Collective catharsis of veiled allegations presents new challenge for journalists

In virtually any other scenario, allegations of misconduct not precisely specified, but sufficiently serious to move Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to suspend two long-serving MPs from caucus on the spot, would require at least some basic claims that could be confirmed. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

If there's one thing we've learned over the last few weeks, it's that virtually everyone who has spent time within the orbit of Parliament Hill has at least one story of sexual — or, at least, sexually charged — harassment to tell. 

There are first-person accounts of behaviour that seems to run the gamut from eyebrow-raising inappropriateness to borderline (or beyond) criminal sexual assault. There are cautionary tales or self-deprecating confessionals shared in confidence by friends or co-workers, or offered as advice to a new arrival — or, indeed, recounted dispassionately, even offhandedly, as just another anecdote of life on the Hill.

There are the half-remembered rumours and speculation long since retired from the precinct rumour mill that suddenly, retroactively, seem horribly plausible.

But as the collective catharsis continues to add new chapters to the public record chronicling the dark — even dangerous — corners of Parliament Hill, the steadily growing list of claims presents a particular challenge to those of us obliged to cover the fallout.

Many unanswered questions

In virtually any other scenario, allegations of misconduct not precisely specified, but sufficiently serious to move Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to suspend long-serving MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti from caucus on the spot, would require if not necessarily evidence, at least some basic claims that could be confirmed.

In this case, however, even pointing out that the two NDP MPs behind those claims have thus far chosen to remain anonymous is viewed by some as "revictimization" and denounced accordingly.

No one wants to create an atmosphere where victims face a binary choice: stay silent or sacrifice your privacy.

At the same time, journalists — and, indeed, anyone within the blast radius of last week's explosive allegations — have at least some responsibility to consider the context, which, in this case, includes a whole lot of unanswered questions.

That would, of course, include Trudeau, who has been under fire from all sides. 

The New Democrats have condemned Trudeau's decision to handle the situation by formally sanctioning Andrews and Pacetti without so much as giving notice to the two NDP MPs who lodged the initial complaints.

That action ensured the general nature, if not the specific details, of the alleged misconduct would become public, which, we've been told, goes against the explicit wishes of the two complainant MPs.

Others questioned Trudeau's move to suspend the MPs reportedly without informing them, or anyone else, of the exact nature of the charges against them.

The Liberals have argued, not unreasonably, that the instant Trudeau became directly, personally aware of the complaints, he had no choice but to take action. But it gets trickier to traverse a minefield seeded with pointed but non-specific allegations.

In an incendiary column published in the Hill Times this week, former Liberal minister Sheila Copps said she had been sexually assaulted by a colleague during her tenure as an Ontario MPP at Queen's Park. Based on her description of events, it wouldn't be difficult for someone with access to the provincial committee archives to produce a short list of potential attackers.

No going back

Copps also claimed that "more than one former Speaker" — it's not clear if she means House, Senate or both — has been the "subject of a complaint" in the past.

While likely not technically defamatory, at least in a legal context, such a charge has the effect of retroactively tarnishing the reputation of the relatively small number of former parliamentarians to serve in that role at the past. 

And it is sufficiently vague to leave little discernible grounds to mount a defence for any who might wish to do so on their behalf. (One former House Speaker whose term overlapped with Copps's tenure on the Hill has passed away.)

No one — well, no one worth heeding — would ever propose going back to the chummy, clubby culture of secrecy that allowed the halls of Parliament Hill to become a hunting ground for sexual predators. We also don't want to discourage those who believe themselves to have been victimized by those same sexual predators from speaking out. 

At the same time, given the complexities involved and the many still unanswered questions, it would be wise to avoid a rush to judgment until we're satisfied the whole story has been told.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.