Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne revealed Tuesday that she has dealt with allegations of sexual harassment against at least two of her own MPPs, an issue that both of the province’s female party leaders say they’ve been forced to address. She was responding to questions by a reporter about whether she has had to discipline any caucus members because of sexual harassment. She said there have been a “couple of instances” and has dealt with them in “various ways.” Ms. Wynne refused to say how they were dealt with, whether the MPPs were asked to resign or whether it was other MPPs or staff who had made the complaints.
“The conversations have been confidential for various reasons not the least of which is that the people who brought complaints forward were not looking for a public process; they were looking for a confidential process,” she said. “So, I am not at liberty to talk about those situations.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she is hardly surprised by the Premier’s disclosure as some of her MPPs have complained to her about “feeling uncomfortable with inappropriate touching around this place.” Ms. Horwath said she has raised this issue with the other two party leaders.
A Progressive Conservative MPP, who asked to remain anonymous, says she was sexually harassed by a man from another caucus when she first came to the legislature a few years ago. She said she spoke to her House leader about it, but the outcome was hardly satisfactory.
“Best I could get was the security of knowing my male colleague would make himself present if he saw a situation where I would be in a scenario with that other male member,” she said.
These incidents point to a dysfunctional culture at the legislature, which, despite a female Premier and NDP Leader, is still very much a male bastion. Thirty-eight female MPPs were elected in the 2014 provincial campaign; women occupy only 35 per cent of the seats in the legislature.
Just last month, Ms. Wynne called for a code of conduct to govern MPPs’ behaviour at Queen’s Park. The code would also provide mechanisms for addressing complaints, and provide training and education for MPPs, she said.
It was a response to an incident in which PC MPP Jack MacLaren made sexist comments about a female MP at a fundraising event. Ms. Wynne said he should be expelled from the PC caucus; PC Leader Patrick Brown sent him to sensitivity training.
In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Brown suggested there is a double standard, and that Ms. Wynne does little to discipline her own MPPs.
The Ontario Liberal caucus has a code of conduct, the Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy, which Ms. Wynne said she used in dealing with the instances of sexual harassment.
Ms. Horwath said that sexual harassment is a “very serious situation that people have to endure, particularly women.” She said that taking strong action is the right thing to do. She says her caucus has talked about the issue of sexual harassment.
“This is not the fifties,” she said. “It’s 2016 and people need to be respectful of each other’s individual space and be respectful of women’s sexuality.”
The NDP, however, is not releasing any more information about the incidents of inappropriate touching, citing confidentiality issues.
In addition, she said that her staff is “in the process ourselves of putting together some training around that [proper behaviour] to make sure that all of our MPPs, as well as staff, have a good sense of what’s not acceptable and what is acceptable in that regard.”
Last year, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau expelled two male MPs from his caucus over allegations of sexual misconduct. The incidents revealed that there was no process to deal with MPs’ behaviour. The House has since adopted the Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Commons: Sexual Harassment.
The code is aimed at ensuring an environment free of sexual harassment so that MPs “can excel in their public duties and functions,” according to a statement from the Speaker’s office. Every MP is required to “sign the pledge form to affirm their commitment.”
The code states that the party whips, House of Commons chief human resources officer and, if necessary, an external investigator will deal with complaints. Mediation is an option, according to the statement. If that doesn’t work, an external investigator would rule or whether sexual harassment occurred. The party whip or procedure and House affairs committee decides how an offending MP is disciplined.
Constance Backhouse, the university research chair in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law and an expert on sexual harassment, says it is a systemic problem, stemming, in part, from gender inequality.
She believes Ms. Wynne should not name any of the individuals involved. She says it’s not simply a “problem of one or two individuals.”
“I would resist any effort to particularize it to one or two episodes or one or two individuals,” she said. “It doesn’t solve the larger problem that we have a culture that encourages and condones this.”
She says female victims are really embarrassed by what has happened, and to publicly pillory the men does not help, either.
“I would tend to back off the individual demarcation of this,” she says, “the pinpointing of names and individuals and particular acts. I just think it’s a wider problem.”
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