The Current

Propositioned, groped, assaulted in the lobby: Staffers reveal culture of harassment in politics

Three former political staffers say Parliament Hill is rife with a culture of harassment.
The culture of sexual harassment in Canadian politics is systematic, according to one former staffer, and should not be treated as a partisan issue. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
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MPs forcing kisses on parliamentary workers was common enough to be "humdrum," according to one former female staffer.

That culture of harassment was exposed this week, when Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario following allegations of sexual misconduct.

The allegations — which Brown denies — were described as an "open secret."

As the #MeToo campaign reaches Parliament Hill, those whispers in the corridors of power are now being spoken aloud.

Lauren Dobson-Hughes described "being grabbed, or groped, or unwanted forced kisses by MPs." She was a political staffer from 2004-2011.

It was so commonplace that Dobson-Hughes called it "humdrum, daily harassment." The forced kissing happened inside parliament buildings.

"That happened to me several times in the lobby at the side of the chamber of the House of Commons, in front of other members of parliament," she said. "I was 25 and nobody said anything."

To be reduced to our physicalities... it really impacts how we engage with our political system.- Arezoo Najibzadeh

Her experience chimes with that of Leslie Robertson, a lawyer and former parliamentary page and staffer.

"I was outwardly propositioned on a number of occasions, encouraged to drink excessively even after [I said] that I had had too much to drink," she said.

Arezoo Najibzadeh, who is now an advocate for women in politics, described having her appearance discussed and exoticized in work environments.

"I have had people tell me that my eyes or my name are exotic, and that 'Persian girls are cool,'" she told The Current's guest host Gillian Findlay.

Najibzadeh, who is the co-founder of the Young Women's Leadership Network, said that this kind of behaviour undermines the aspirations of young women who enter politics, leaving them feeling as if they are not taken seriously.

"To be reduced to our physicalities or the way we look," she said, "or not necessarily be taken up as people who have things to say, it really impacts how we engage with our political system."

'We take these allegations extremely seriously whenever they come up' 0:45

Dobson-Hughes said the problem is systemic, and should not be treated as a partisan issue.

"There is a reason that all parties are impacted by this, and finger-pointing at any one really misses the point," she said.

"It is a cultural issue in politics," she added. "There is a power imbalance between men and women. There is a real under-representation of women. There are systemic issues in politics that make this a problem across all parties."

Part of the problem, she said, is that political parties operate a bit like families.

MPs don't really have bosses. I mean apart from party leaders, who do you tell? You don't call the HR Department of Parliament Hill to make a complaint.- Leslie Robertson

"They are your friends, they are your colleagues, they are people you socialize with after work," Dobson-Hughes said. "They are everyone, your social circle, your colleagues."

"There is every incentive to shut up about it, and no incentive to come forward," she said.

"Do you want to damage your job prospects? Do you want to be blacklisted? Do you want to work in politics again? Do you want to be known and have a reputation as the person who couldn't keep their mouths shut?"

Robertson agrees. Her own political and professional ambitions convinced her "not to rock the boat" when she faced harassment.

"I was looking for jobs, I was trying to make a good impression," she said. "Politics is about loyalty and connections and who you know, and I wasn't prepared to be that person who was always calling out members of parliament."

'I believe victims when they come forward,' Kathleen Wynne says 1:38

Even if she had wanted to raise a complaint, Robertson said she never felt in a position to do so.

"MPs don't really have bosses," she said. "I mean apart from party leaders, who do you tell? You don't call the HR Department of Parliament Hill to make a complaint."

The federal government has installed processes in recent years, which aim to give victims a safe place to raise complaints. However, Dobson-Hughes said that "nobody trusts it, nobody uses it" as the culture of loyalty and silence outweighs policy directives.

That culture is what needs to change, said Najibzadeh, starting with electing women who support other women.

"We have older MPs and other women in politics who aren't really willing to touch the issue of sexual violence," she said.

"It's really important to not necessarily just elect more women in politics," she said, "but to elect women who are willing to raise women's voices in politics and who weren't going to just necessarily perpetrate a system of violence and the status quo."

For Robertson, this is just the beginning.

"Patriarchy and misogyny are not going away overnight."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Samira Mohyeddin and Kori Sidaway.