OTTAWA — Male MPs must help to usher in a culture change on Parliament Hill and combat sexual misconduct, says veteran NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who is looking to work with colleagues of all stripes to address inappropriate behaviour often viewed as a ”public secret.”
Cullen said the “ecosystem” of people who interact in and around the corridors of power —including support staff, lobbyists and parliamentarians — can create a space where professional and personal environments blur and challenges are created.
“There’s long hours often away from home,” Cullen said.
“There’s a clear work environment but there’s also the receptions … and opportunities where people either intentionally do wrong or misunderstand the relationships that exist. That’s what I have noticed.”
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna — who has publicly pushed back over being called ‘Climate Barbie’ online — said there are examples of harassment on the Hill and other workplaces that must be fought, adding that movements like #MeToo will be effective only with action.
“If we don’t take action on this, what example are we setting for the girls and boys?” McKenna said in an interview from San Francisco.
“I have two daughters. I have a son, too. Are we going to make it … better, safer, more equal for all of them?”
The Canadian Press conducted a survey last month of female MPs about their experiences with sexual harassment and found more than half of respondents — 58 per cent — reported they had personally been the target of one or more forms of sexual misconduct while in office, including inappropriate or unwanted remarks, gestures or text messages of a sexual nature.
Thirty-eight of 89 female MPs took part in the voluntary, anonymous survey.
Three MPs who responded said they had been victims of sexual assault, while four said they experienced sexual harassment, defined in the survey as insistent and repeated sexual advances.
Nearly half of respondents — 47 per cent — also said they were subjected to inappropriate comments on social media.
“It offends me, it troubles me, but doesn’t surprise me,” Cullen said.
“I guess that is … a comment on the environment we have allowed to exist. I don’t know how it compares to other work environments but Parliament should be an example of a safe place for people to be.”
For her part, Green party Leader Elizabeth May believes fixing the power imbalance on the Hill will demand male MPs speak up when they learn of unacceptable behaviour.
“If you hear something in your caucus meetings you think is just bad form, tell your male colleagues,” May said in a recent interview while she expressed optimism now a ”floodgate” has opened in politics, sport and entertainment.
“To change that culture and to really have men in politics that understand that they’re feminists … that is a big step culturally for politics,” she said.
Cullen agreed that men must be at the forefront of the discussion on how this can change, adding that change will also require an acknowledgment from men that they are part of the problem.
“Overwhelmingly, the stories that I encounter … the instigator is a male,” Cullen said.
“So asking women to carry this load as well — ‘Why don’t you come forward? Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you take this risk?’ — while owning none of the responsibility ourselves is ridiculous and unhelpful.”
There is a level of fear percolating among some male MPs about needing to watch what they say and do, Cullen added, noting they need to “suck it up.”
“OK, so, you’re feeling a bit of fear. Welcome to a women’s environment every waking moment when she’s out in the workplace,” he said.
“This has been … a so-called public secret for a long time. It has been going on, people know it has been going on, we haven’t done anything about it … With some effort and with some thoughtfulness, it could become a good example of a workplace. It is not right now.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, a former Speaker of the Commons, said a complaints protocol established in the last Parliament will likely evolve as incidents happen. He said as Speaker he saw a broad support for reforms.
“The representatives of every political party really were genuinely motivated by trying to make the situation better,” Scheer said. “It wasn’t a partisan thing. It was ‘Let’s try to come up with something that works’.”
Cullen said, however, he personally knows of female MPs who simply avoid Hill-related receptions out of fear of harassment including “long, uncomfortable hugs.”
“They’re sick of it,” he said.