Peggy Nash is a former federal member of Parliament. She is a Ryerson University distinguished visiting professor, women's leadership, faculties of arts and community services.
Sexual harassment and violence is less about sex and more about abuse of power. There are the Harvey Weinsteins in the film world, but almost no field is immune. People wield power in all kinds of occupations.
Parliament Hill is full of powerful people working under great stress who sometimes behave badly. Yet, oddly, there has been no formal harassment-complaint policy to protect the hundreds of staff who work with those powerful people to help our government operate smoothly.
Until now. Employment Minister Patty Hajdu has introduced a bill on workplace harassment and violence. (I strongly suspect the Liberals would prefer this be the focus of Question Period rather than wealthy Canadians and tax havens.) Ms. Hajdu's bill will apply to all federal jurisdiction workplaces such as banking, telecommunications and transportation, about 8 per cent of the Canadian work force.
Abuse and harassment can be as toxic as some harmful substances. Just as employers are required by law to provide a safe and healthy workplace, so they should provide a workplace free of abusive behaviour. Physical and psychological violence are already covered by the Canada Labour Code, so it bears scrutiny to ensure that those current provisions are not weakened by this new bill.
Unions have also been including harassment policies in collective agreements for 25 years, but their quality varies greatly. This bill will establish a standard complaints procedure with consistency across federal jurisdiction workplaces, both organized and unorganized, and for the first time will include Parliament Hill. Many of the details will only appear in the regulations, but a good process would include existing unions in organized workplaces.
A strong procedure needs to be well publicized, but easily and confidentially accessible. The inclusion of an informal first step in this bill is very helpful. Sometimes offensive behaviour can be stopped quickly and informally. For formal complaints, the best procedures have a speedy investigation and resolution by competent people.
Policies and procedures are only as good as people's confidence in them. The minister has stressed the need for harassment and violence prevention, which requires education. A great policy tucked away in the manager's desk is useless. As well as posting the policy and procedure and assuring potential complainants their confidentiality will be respected, employers should undertake formal education sessions with the entire work force.
Change starts at the top of the house. MPs, boards of directors, CEOs and the entire executive team should be the first to attend a course on harassment and violence so that everyone gets the same message and knows that everyone will be held accountable for their actions. Sadly, people in power sometimes harass others because they think they can get away with it. The clear message must be that no one, no matter how powerful, is immune.
One of the most striking aspects of the #MeToo harassment discussion sparked by the Weinstein complaints is that it has mainly focused on individuals. There has not been a call for governments and employers in all sectors of society to ensure that effective complaint procedures are available to all.
That these film stars, mostly white women (and some men) with money and privilege, have faced this extent of harassment and sexual violence, and kept silent for so many years, is shocking. Now, think about those many women in regular jobs who need those jobs to support themselves and their families. Think about women who maybe are not white, heterosexual, middle class – women who have even less power. Each one is vulnerable to someone with power over them.
Individuals do need to take responsibility and stop abusing their power. Institutions and governments need to take action to ensure that with prevention, education, strong complaint procedures and effective enforcement, we don't just rely on individuals to do the right thing.
Ms. Hajdu's bill is a welcome improvement. It is long overdue.