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Canada’s political parties need to open up on past sexual harassment allegations

Bombshells. Two provincial party leaders were forced out of their own parties, by their own parties, over allegations of sexual harassment in the space of 24 hours. And then, in the next 24, Sport and Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr resigned from the federal cabinet. No wonder people are asking: Who knew? Who else? What else?

It's time to open up. Canada's political parties will have to take an active part in the reckoning.

The two allegations made against Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown, including one brought forward by a former staffer, were about incidents that were alleged to have occurred five years ago and a decade ago, respectively, when Mr. Brown was a federal MP.

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Those against Mr. Hehr also came from the days when he held another elected office, in his case as a provincial MLA.

An Alberta public servant, Kristin Raworth, tweeted that Mr. Hehr made inappropriate comments – he allegedly called her "yummy" – and that on her first day in the Alberta Legislature, she was warned not to get on an elevator with Mr. Hehr because he'd make comments that would make her "feel unsafe."

That's the sort of allegation of a long-standing open secret likely to make the public think there's got to be more out there – perhaps also dating back years, unaddressed – and that there are still many in the political world hoping to let things lie.

None of the allegations against Mr. Hehr, Mr. Brown, and now-former Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie, who stepped down on Wednesday, have been tested in court. But the #MeToo movement has swung the pendulum so allegations can no longer be ignored.

Now political parties – federal and provincial – are going to have to take a new look at past allegations and open up about how they've handled them.

That hasn't been the reflex. The Globe and Mail for days asked House of Commons staff whether the secretive Board of Internal Economy had paid any confidential settlements on behalf on MPs facing complaints of sexual harassment, only to be told the answer was confidential – until Thursday evening, when a spokesperson said there have been no such settlements for sexual harassment, at least in the past five years.

The Senate still says such matters are confidential.

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The current Commons sexual-harassment policy emphasizes confidentiality to protect the victim, but political parties will have to find room for more transparency. Long before the Commons established its first sexual-harassment policy in 2014, there was political butt-covering and the old boys culture. The politicians still haven't adequately replaced it with transparency and accountability about sexual harassment, present and past.

The events of the past 48 hours will almost certainly be making a few politicians nervous they might be next.

It also calls on their parties to start their own reckoning: Have they ever hushed up allegations, left them ignored or unaddressed or used party funds for payoffs? And are alleged harassers still sitting on their backbench, or their frontbench?

Things have changed. The Commons have had two sexual-harassment policies since 2014. Justin Trudeau booted two Liberal MPs, Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti, from his caucus in 2014 and a third, Darshan King, resigned from the Liberal caucus last August proclaiming his innocence.

Mr. Baillie was determined to have violated the Nova Scotia assembly's harassment policy, just adopted in 2016.

But there isn't always transparency. Hunter Tootoo, Mr. Trudeau's first Fisheries Minister, was fired in 2016 with a public explanation that he faced addiction issues, but after reports in The Globe and Mail, he admitted to a "consensual, but inappropriate" relationship with a young staffer.

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Political parties still need more figures making statements such as those Conservative MP Lisa Raitt made on Thursday when she said anyone within her party who has faced harassment can come to her. And they need to look at past complaints anew, act upon them and open up about how they have handled them.

It's unfair to suggest male politicians are all sexual harassers, or act inappropriately. But the #MeToo movement since the Harvey Weinstein revelations should make us expect to find some such behaviour in a field full of relatively powerful men in organizations with an interest in avoiding scandal.

The past two days suggest there will be more such allegations in Canadian politics and political parties should be working to open up before they are pried out.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is vowing to help eradicate harassment from Canadian politics. Scheer’s comments come after Ontario’s Patrick Brown and Nova Scotia’s Jamie Baillie resigned as leaders of their respective PC parties. The Canadian Press
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