Sexual harassment has long festered on the Hill. Now, female MPs from all parties are saying ‘enough’

From cabinet ministers to volunteers, dozens of women say sexual harassment and violence on Parliament Hill have gone unchecked for too long
Left to right: Bardish Chagger, Karen Vecchio, Nikki Ashton, Patty Hajdu, Catherine McKenna, Marilyn Gladu, and Elizabeth May. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

Portraits by Jessica Deeks

Left to right: Bardish Chagger, Karen Vecchio, Niki Ashton, Patty Hajdu, Catherine McKenna, Marilyn Gladu, and Elizabeth May. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)
Left to right: Bardish Chagger, Sheila Malcolmson, Karen Vecchio, Niki Ashton, Patty Hajdu, Catherine McKenna, Marilyn Gladu, and Elizabeth May. Click or tap to enlarge. (Photographs by Jessica Deeks)

It was after 9 p.m. in a hotel lobby in New York City. Catherine McKenna was relaxing with four staffers after a day at the United Nations General Assembly, when she read on her phone a tweet from Conservative MP Gerry Ritz, calling her “climate Barbie.” She had ignored this nickname ever since her election campaign, and her staffers in the hotel urged her not to engage with Ritz. “Don’t do it; don’t say anything,” they advised, as McKenna, the environment minister, recalls. Instead, she tweeted back, calling his comments sexist and arguing for more women in politics.

“I am done. I am mad,” says McKenna in an interview. “Those comments that I might hear, it’s a very different impact on someone who’s a junior staffer or an intern. In some ways, it’s not going to impact me. I’m the member of Parliament. I’m a minister. But just having your voice and exercising it, it’s giving the ability to other folks who may not be in a position of power to feel like they can do it.”

Catherine McKenna, minister of environment, MP for Ottawa Centre

Amid a movement that licenses women to call out men for their actions, female members of Parliament are publicizing the culture of Parliament Hill and pushing for legislation to stop sexual harassment. Since the new year, a series of stories has emerged about high-profile politicians. Kent Hehr resigned from cabinet after a woman alleged he made sexual comments in an elevator. Former NDP MP Peter Stoffer was accused of inappropriate comments and touching, and fellow NDP member Erin Weir was accused of harassing women. (Hehr said he’s always tried to conduct himself respectfully during his career, and denied allegations of wrongdoing. Stoffer quickly apologized to anyone he said he had made to feel uncomfortable, and Weir, who’s being investigated by a third party, has said he has yet to hear the specific complaints against him.)

In a different realm of severity, former Conservative MP Rick Dykstra was accused of sexually assaulting a staffer who worked for another MP in 2014—a case that was brought to police by the staffer. When senior Tory officials heard about the alleged assault (which Dykstra categorically denies), they still let him run for the party in 2015. After this was brought to light in a Maclean’s report, Stephen Harper said he knew of the allegations but “I did not believe that I could justify removing him as a candidate.”

These, and other incidents, are not recent; women’s confidence to speak out against them is. In the past, women have dealt with systemic sexism and harassment on the Hill by ignoring it and downplaying it; by privately venting to confidantes and warning other women to be careful around certain men on elevators, at receptions and after too many drinks. The defence mechanism is known to everyone as the whisper network—a constant murmur of white noise that, until now, has been all too easy to tune out. Being discreet was considered best practice—for women, not men, necessarily—in the intensely tribal workplace where party disloyalty can be punishable by social and professional exile.

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As in any workplace where women are traditionally few and rarely powerful, sexual harassment has festered in Canadian politics. And while many MPs have personal experience with harassment, the problem runs far deeper on the Hill—beneath the big names is a web of 3,000 staffers employed by the House of Commons and Senate who work in hierarchies of their own, in close quarters and often for male MPs who set their salaries and can fire them without cause in most cases.

Nike Ashton, NDP MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski

Maclean’s spoke with more than 30 women about their experiences of verbal and physical sexual harassment on the Hill, including cabinet ministers, women working in the Senate, staffers and volunteers past and present. They all agree that sexual harassment and violence in the sector have gone unchecked for too long. They recounted incidents that span inappropriate comments, like requesting that women staffers wear high heels, to sexual assault. Some are indisputably more heinous than others and, indeed, should not be conflated. But all of it stands to diminish women’s value in politics.

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Most women say senior staff—even female senior staff—let the complaints fade away. In recent years, all major parties have heard reports from women in painful positions, and too often until now, their antidote to anecdotes was hush.

Arezoo Najibzadeh was a 19-year-old volunteer for two Liberal MPs when, she recalls, a prominent staffer tried to bite her ear. It was a sunny day in 2014, and she was walking with him up the stairs in Centre Block during working hours. In the hallway, he grabbed her jaw to try to kiss her, but she turned her head. She afterward went to a bathroom, wiped the saliva off her face and looked in a mirror. “Get your s–t together,” she told herself.

Najibzadeh didn’t report the incident. She had been working with the Liberals for three years and had, on several occasions, complained to chiefs of staff about other interactions with men in the party, from sexualized comments to assault. She says senior staff responded by telling her to take time off to take care of herself. “I felt like saying the wrong things or talking too much would impact my future on the Hill,” says Najibzadeh, who eventually quit her job and left politics. “Sometimes I just want to show up at their offices and say, ‘You knew me.’ They saw me grow up from high school and university, and I wonder if they ever ask themselves, ‘What happened to her?’ ”

Elizabeth May, leader, Green Party of Canada

What happened to Najibzadeh happened to many other women on the Hill. One tour guide, who wants to remain anonymous because she hopes to return to the job next summer, was shuttling a Parliamentary Protective Service officer up the elevator of the Peace Tower. “His gun was more on the side where his hips are,” she recalls. “He took his finger, placed it really in front of his crotch and then just kind of went up and down with his main finger, like clearly trying to imitate a boner.”

She told her supervisor at the Library of Parliament (which employs guides), and the PPS officer was posted outside of Centre Block until the guide left in September, but the guide says the complaint was eventually dropped for lack of video or witness evidence. (The Library of Parliament says it introduced a new harassment policy in 2011 and tries to send a strong message to employees that “they can trust us to help them.” The Parliamentary Protective Service says it “has no tolerance for any type of harassment in the workplace.” While it won’t comment on specific allegations the PPS says that “when an official complaint is filed, we follow specific procedures, which involves acknowledgement and review of the complaint, keeping the complainant and respondent informed, and options for resolving the complaint.”)

There’s no knowing the sheer number of women who have experienced sexual harassment and violence during their political careers. In December, the Canadian Press conducted a poll of female MPs, showing 58 per cent of respondents said they’d been the target of sexual harassment or assault at least once while in office. However, only 38 MPs had responded, and “it’s not about how MPs feel,” says McKenna. “That’s great, but it’s not all about us.”

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MPs who spoke with Maclean’s widely agree the culture is worse for junior staff, and the anecdotes from staffers point to a disturbing trend of sexualized behaviour at work. So what are the factors unique to the Hill that make it so toxic for women? Many women say it begins with the pressure to protect the reputation of a member of Parliament or party. “The culture itself inhibits people from coming forward because it’s so tribal,” says Labour Minister Patty Hajdu. “It’s the weirdest place in that way.”

Patty Hajdu, minister of labour, MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North

The politico’s dilemma is loyalty. A female MP might not want to bring shame to the party she’s spent her life fighting for, and a female staffer may believe her boss is doing good work for his constituents.

“It was the same in the military,” says Liberal MP Karen McCrimmon, a former squad commander for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The fear was, “you’ll ruin the reputation of the Army or the Air Force or the reputation of all navigators or pilots.”

Not only does party allegiance inhibit people from coming forward, it leads to harassment, too. The expectation for loyalty factors into women’s decisions when they’re asked to go for a drink after work or deliver documents to an MP’s personal residence late at night.

Meanwhile, most politicians working in Ottawa are far from home and their families. “I think sometimes people think that what they do in Ottawa stays in Ottawa,” says Conservative MP Karen Vecchio. “That’s not reality.” Certainly, evenings can get lonely, and parliamentarians stem the solitude with frequent events and post-work cocktails where the lines between personal and professional relationships blur. “If a [female] staffer agrees to have a drink with a male MP, he often has a very different idea of what that’s about,” one Parliament Hill staffer, who asked not to be named, told Maclean’s.

Beyond compromising the party’s reputation, young women in politics may risk reprisal for reporting inappropriate behaviour. When Rylee Schumacher, a provincial NDP volunteer in Saskatchewan with ambitions to get into federal politics, told police that she had been sexually assaulted by a political staffer, someone in the provincial party warned her to stay quiet. “[People] here are panicked, and rightfully so, because of how this will make the party look,” a female NDP staffer wrote to her. “[If] anyone finds out it was you, it will seriously [damage] your opportunities and reputation within the party . . . I just want you to understand that instead of giving you closure it could seriously damage your future.”

Sheila Malcolmson, NDP MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith

Indeed, staffers are not governed by federal or provincial labour laws. Their salaries come from their employer’s budget—whether that’s an MP or senator. When Pascale Brisson, a former Senate staffer, filed a sexual harassment complaint against Senator Colin Kenny in 2013, she gave her resignation at the same time. Brisson assumed she would have either been fired anyway, or would be forced to continue working with her alleged harasser—resigning gave her the most autonomy, under the circumstances, she’s since told media. (The complaint went through an internal investigation in the Senate, which found Kenny hadn’t done anything wrong. But following the slew of harassment allegations against parliamentarians in recent months, Brisson wrote to the Prime Minister asking to reopen the investigation. Kenny resigned the next day, months short of retirement, citing ill health.)

Alcohol is another issue, as MPs and their staff tour the cocktail circuit, often drinking at receptions inside Parliament or at party gatherings at bars, formerly called “wonderful Wednesdays” by Liberals. Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, says some men in her caucus argue alcohol should be banned on the Hill, though Bennett says a parliamentary prohibition would not work.

So what’s a better solution? “I went to my guru, Ursula Franklin,” Bennett says of the late Canadian physicist and feminist. “Her famous line is, ‘They’re asking the wrong question and to the wrong people.’ She said, ‘Why aren’t they asking the men?’”

Outside Pier 21, in a plaid shirt and layers suited for February in Halifax, Peter Stoffer apologized five times in two minutes. “My entire life I’ve always been a very, very gregarious and fun-loving person,” he told reporters. “If there is any man or any woman that felt uncomfortable because of my demeanour in any way, shape, or form, for that I apologize and I humbly regret that I put them in that situation.”

Marilyn Gladu, Conservative MP for Sarnia-Lambton

When Stoffer apologized in response to accusations of inappropriate behaviour, fellow NDP member Charlie Angus wrote a Facebook post listing the politician’s many accomplishments. At the end he wrote: “What was once okay is no longer okay.” Holly Price, a former staffer who worked on Niki Ashton’s leadership campaign, saw the note and replied: “It was never okay Charlie, it just wasn’t taken seriously.” Angus’s note was promptly edited to reflect Price’s point.

Some men on the Hill have become paranoid; they worry the so-called reckoning has gone too far. “I didn’t say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ to anybody, just in case,” one male Hill staffer recounts hearing among his male colleagues. “People are thinking, if you’re a white guy, you better watch out, or all men are being taken down.” But he argues, “it’s not being taken down. It’s being held accountable.”

Men may need to recalibrate their behaviour to a new threshold: “It’s not, ‘Does the ordinary man find that the comment was insensitive?’ But really, ‘What’s the impact on the subject?’ ” says Liberal MP Sean Fraser.

At this point a true reckoning remains far off. In downtown Ottawa, the social headquarters of the NDP is Brixton’s Pub, which displays portraits of Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair. During the NDP convention in February, the women’s caucus met at the pub and asked the bar to take down Stoffer’s portrait, but the request was denied. Nevertheless, the photo wall now has a bare patch. The photo of Stoffer was stolen.

In 1985, Liberal MP Sheila Copps was debating in the House of Commons when Conservative MP John Crosbie told her: “Just quiet down, baby.” The men behind him erupted in cheers and knee-slapping laughter. Copps’s response, “I’m not his baby and I’m nobody’s baby,” inspired disapproving grumbles from the crowd. Six years later, Conservative MP Bill Kempling was caught calling Copps a slut under his breath in the chamber. Laughter ensued then, too.

Karen Vecchio, Conservative MP for Elgin-Middlesex-London

In those days, Copps was one of about two dozen women out of roughly 300 MPs. She faced sexism daily, she says, ranging from comments about her appearance while pregnant to being groped. Complaints were rarely taken seriously. Occasionally, a harasser would get a talking to. He might claim there’d been a misunderstanding, and promise “I’ll be a good boy,” Copps recalls.

Speaking up was usually not worth the potential backlash. “You’re kind of busy staying alive,” she says. “If you looked like you were pushing hard for feminist change, then you’d get labelled as a bitch. They’d try to marginalize you by saying you’re emotional or you can’t play with the big boys.”

By the early ’90s, Parliament had a women’s caucus, focused on creating a better atmosphere for women in the House. That effort included convincing the government to apply a gender-based analysis to all new programs, policies and legislation. The government agreed, but the concept was scrapped during the Harper era. “We just stalled for 10 years, and now we’re picking up the pieces again,” says Copps.

In late January, amid a flurry of harassment allegations against men in federal and provincial politics, Bill C-65 was fast-tracked to committee. Hajdu had tabled the anti-harassment legislation in November, promising to crack down on what she called a crisis of sexual harassment and violence on the Hill.

Due to be passed in June, the new legislation would amend the Canada Labour Code mandating MPs and other employers on the Hill do “everything in their power” to prevent harassment and violence among staff. It would require employers to record complaints and investigate them, though critics point out that the bill does not provide a definition of sexual harassment or outline consequences for the accused. (NDP MPs and staffers already have a harassment policy through their union, as well as access to a formal investigation process with protection from being fired. But many women in the party still kept quiet about harassment, suggesting change on the Hill will need to be cultural as much as legal.)

Most significantly, Bill C-65 sets out plain steps for reporting harassment, promising to clear the fog of ambiguity and complexity that shrouds the process currently. “The environment is such that people don’t know who to go to—who’s safe to go to—because it is still highly politicized,” says Hajdu. “There isn’t really a concrete path for a person once they’ve expressed a concern. [It’s] a haphazard process.”

Bardish Chagger, minister of small business and tourism, MP for Waterloo

In the meantime, Senator Marilou McPhedran has also created an email address for Senate staff past and present who have experienced sexual harassment who want to anonymously report it. She offers to connect them to a human rights lawyer who has agreed to do the work pro bono.

At the NDP’s biennial convention in February, on the heels of new sexual harassment allegations against two prominent men in the party, the New Democrats called in anti-harassment educator Julie Lalonde to run a workshop for attendees. Of the 1,753 members at the conference, about 30 showed up to the session, most of whom were women.

It’s tempting to view the frenzy of allegations and pledges for legislative change as signs the tide has turned. But Lalonde says the culture shift, so far, is minute. “I’m seeing lots of conversations, but there’s an illusion that that conversation is resulting in consequences,” she says. Indeed, women are trapped, Lalonde adds, in a head-spinning cycle: they need to come forward for the culture to change, and the culture needs to change for them to be comfortable coming forward.

McKenna herself held a round table for women in her riding of Ottawa Centre in late February to “do some myth busting” about the workplace on the Hill. “I don’t want Canadians to get the impression that it’s this terrible place and it’s a free-for-all,” she says. “That’s not true.”

She also doesn’t want to give the impression that the #MeToo movement will guarantee transformation. “I always worry when I hear people say it’s a tipping point. It’s not a tipping point. Every day, we’re always going to have to ensure that certain behavior is seen as completely unacceptable, and every day, we’re going to have to do better to get more women elected to Parliament.”

Almost every day, McKenna still gets comments on social media comparing her to Barbie, and almost every day, she swims in a chlorinated pool that makes her blonder, and “if someone told me to dye my hair, I’d tell them where to go.”