Hashtag MeToo was first used on myspace by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to show solidarity and empathy with other women of colour that had been sexually abused. In 2017 the term blew up with the widespread exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment of the stars and staff of his productions. The movement of victims coming forward with their experiences of abuse, sexism, and racism, opened the public’s eye to the harms of unequal workplaces, and forced several giants in media, finance, and numerous other industries across the globe to face some much needed accountability.
Today, the issue of sexual harassment and bullying keeps burning in Governments across the world. With a notable increase of women and members of minority groups entering politics, their experiences have made it clear that workplace violence is in many ways gendered and raced.
A 2016 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union covering 39 countries found that 82% of women politicians worldwide experienced psychological abuse, and 44% had received threats of rape, death, beating, or abduction.
In the UK’s 2019 general election, several MP’s cited increases in death and rape threats, as well as racism for their decision not to run again.
And in 2021, a report out of Scotland found that compared to their male counterparts, women representatives were more likely to receive these kinds of threats.
The list goes on.
For a few key moments, the spotlight extended to Canadian politics.
In 2015, the Toronto Star published allegations of Senator Don Meredith’s two year sexual relationship with a sixteen year old girl. After a “workplace assessment” of Merideth’s office and a 2 year long inquiry into his behaviour, the CONF recommended his expulsion from the chamber. Don resigned before he could be expelled, keeping his honourable title and pension.
As the story unfolded, four former female employees and another four Senate staffers also brought forth allegations of Meredith’s sexual harassment and bullying, but their complaints went unaddressed until 2017 when a second inquiry was initiated. Finally, in June of 2020 the Senate offered a “statement of regret” and compensation to Meredith’s victims.
This and other incidents revealed the absence of adequate policy to address harassment and bullying in not only the Senate, but all across Parliament Hill. The Meredith scandal among others, prompted the amendment of the existing anti-harassment policy from 2009, resulting in the 2018 SENATE HARASSMENT AND VIOLENCE PREVENTION POLICY. It was revised again in February of 2021 but still suffers from long standing issues including:
A lack of transparency
A reliance on non-disclosure agreements, short-term employment contracts, and parliamentary privilege
All of which serve to avoid full accountability for misconduct.
The policy defines non-criminal harassment and violence as:
“any action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee, including an prescribed action, conduct or comment”
As is, the policy offers the following resolution process:
1. The person who's experienced harassment (called "the principal party") reports the occurrence to an impartial third party called the "designated recipient.
2. The designated recipient then confirms receipt of the complaint with both the principal party and the responding party - which is the alleged perpetrator.
3. In step three, they discuss whether to proceed with negotiated resolution, conciliation, or investigation.
4. If the principal and responding parties agree to do so, they can start conciliation with a mutually appointed conciliator.
5. Otherwise, the principal party can request an investigation. In which case the designated recipient selects an investigator from a pre-selected list and an investigation begins.
6. Within two months, the investigator submits a final report detailing whether harassment and violence has occured, as well as a summary report outlining their recommendations...
From this point onward, the process differs whether the responding party is a staff member or a Senator:
7&8a: If the respondent is not a Senator, the summary report is sent to the sub-committee of the Senate's Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration (or "CIBA").
In deciding disciplinary measures, this group is authorised to reject the investigator's final report as they see fit.
7&8b: If the respondent is a Senator, the report is forwarded to the Senate Ethics Officer, who submits their suggestions to the Senate's Ethics Committee - the "C-O-N-F". This group is able to substitute the SEO's recommended disciplinary actions with lesser punishments if they like, prior to submitting these to CIBA.
If all these committees and acronyms have you confused, don't worry, it doesn't matter much considering they're all composed of senators anyways.
"But they're the key decision makers here! How can Senators have so much deciding power over their own colleagues' misconduct?"
Well, that's a big part of the issue - Parliamentary privilege allows Senators to decide their own matters without fear of external retribution. You’d also be surprised to hear that for all the trouble, victims don’t even get to know if the perpetrator will face any consequences.
Obviously, the process isn’t ideal. Fortunately, steps towards a better anti-harassment policy have been recommended by several critical actors in the Senate. Though many of these have yet to be implemented:
1. First was to revise the 2009 anti-harassment policy, which was done with the 2018 policy revisions.
2. Second was to enact mandatory training which was also adopted in 2018.
Mandatory anti-harassment training is now given to all Senators and Senate employees within three months of being hired.
3. Next up is to conduct a gender-based analysis of the policy and include relevant definitions:
While policy developments have included some analysis of gender based harassment, it’s not stated outright that sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic remarks can’t be used, leaving this recommendation only partially addressed.
The next nine are yet to be addressed - the Senate still needs to:
4. Redress unequal employment relationships.
Since senate staffers are hired on short term contracts by Senators themselves, they often feel pressured to remain in the good graces of their employer, making them more likely to be victimized.
5. Provide external oversight over all harassment and violence cases.
An impartial third party helps to secure a non-biased investigation for victims.
6. Provide victims and survivors with financial and legal support.
Victims can’t be certain that their costs will be covered.
Even after the Senate’s “public statement of regret” to Meredith’s victims in June of 2020, an independent evaluator was hired to assess their claims again before they were finally compensated in October of that year - five years after the incident.
Financial considerations shouldn’t have to stop victims from seeking the justice they deserve.
7. Allow victims and survivors to know the disciplinary outcome of their case.
Without sight of a clear result, victim’s seriously question whether the financial and social costs of coming forward are worthwhile.
8. Offer public transparency over how cases are handled:
Transparency helps drive victim’s hope that they can get justice too. It also holds harassers publicly accountable to their actions. Access to information of all harassment and violence claims should be publically available on the SEO’s website.
9. Prohibit non-disclosure agreements:
These favour the perpetrator’s reputation at the expense of their victim’s voice.
10. Include serious penalties for perpetrators:
If senators and staff don’t believe they will face a harsh enough penalty, they won’t take the policies seriously…that is if they face any penalty at all - current policy gaps may just allow perpetrators to slip by without consequences.
11. Exempt usage of parliamentary privilege for senators accused of harassment:
The new 2021 policy does not provide control mechanisms for the freedoms offered by senator’s parliamentary privilege.
The policy also doesn’t cover inappropriate conduct that occurs during a Parliamentary proceeding, instead directing it to the house Speaker or Chair.
12. Revise ethics and conflict of interest code for senators to cover harassment and violence:
The senate’s ethics code does not denounce derogatory language or explicitly state that senators do not have a right to harass staff, leaving more policy gaps for misconduct to persist.
As long as these issues go unaddressed, Canadian politics risks losing the invaluable voices of women, persons of colour, and LGBTQ members. Considering Canada prides itself in its democracy and inclusion, our Senate has to do much better.
As we’ve seen with the success of the MeToo movement, awareness is the first spark of change. On Parliament Hill, MeToo has empowered critical actors to demand a better workplace environment for themselves and all Canadians. Public pressure forces them to be listened to.
Let’s keep the conversation going: Visit our website at swhap.ca to learn more and find us @swhap.yorku on instagram for shareable infographics.