VIEWPOINT: Bill C-65 is a step in the right direction, but not the end of the road

By Sidney Weiss 

It wasn’t a surprise when the #MeToo movement finally made its way into Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

Former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown, former Nova Scotia PC leader Jamie Baillie, former sports minister Kent Hehr, former NDP MP Peter Stoffer. We all know the names. Harassment allegations have hit every major political party in Canada in recent months.

The culture in the status-seeking, frat boy club we know as Canadian politics has for decades been built up on ideals fuelled by toxic masculinity, unjustifiable power dynamics and a degradation and delegitimization of women in the workplace.

As survivors continue to speak out around the world, attitudes begin to shift, and harassment and abuses are finally being called out for what they are: a systemic symptom of the male-dominated society we live in — and something that emphatically is just not OK.

Last November, Labour Minister Patty Hajdu introduced Bill C-65 to the House of Commons in an attempt to make the Hill a more accountable place, where misconduct is not only punished accordingly, but prevented.

The bill seeks to strengthen the anti-harassment and anti-violence provisions of the Canada Labour Code, as well as the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act. This will (finally) place workers within Parliament and other government-based jobs (including interns, staffers and volunteers) under the labour code’s protective umbrella.

Simply put, the bill will allow complainants to access a neutral party to view their cases, and if unsatisfied, they will be able to bring their complaint to the federal labour minister — something that wasn’t always easily accessible. Bill C-65 won’t replace current anti-harassment policies, but will give people an extra cushion if the process isn’t smooth.

Bill C-65 was passed unanimously in the House. All political leanings aside, it seems the #MeToo movement is something everyone can jump on board with. This is great, of course. It should be an inherent human value that everyone – regardless of race, gender, class or other identity markers — is treated fairly and respectfully.

But the evident merits of this non-partisan policy shouldn’t halt people from maintaining a critical stance and pushing for even more respect and equality.

VICE News’ Hilary Beaumont recently broke a major story regarding the Hill’s culture of harassment and lack of progressive policies, interviewing more than 40 women who worked in a variety of jobs on the Hill.

Beaumont’s reporting showed significant rates of harassment on the Hill — physical, psychological, verbal — and examined the complexities women often dealt with when trying to report their cases.

Beaumont and other journalists have noticed Bill C-65 does not include a universal definition of what harassment actually is. In a world where defensive men are prone to seeing complainants as overreacting, exaggerative or simply looking for attention, it would only make sense to have a clear definition on paper of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.

It should not be a definition devised by a bunch of dudes at a desk, but a consensus definition led by the people typically facing harassment: women.

A Canadian Press survey recently conducted amongst Parliament Hill employees showed that of the 179 respondents, only 55 per cent believe the bill will make a difference in attitudes and behaviour in the workplace. Even the originator of the bill, Hajdu, has acknowledged that only a major shift in social attitudes will solve the problems produced by a patriarchal world.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s incredible people are mobilizing around this issue, but these conversations are only the beginning.

A majority of harassment reports come from staffers or interns, often younger women who are just starting their careers in the world of politics.

If someone chooses to report an incident (even under Bill C-65), it doesn’t guarantee her total anonymity (if her office consists of a small number of people, say) and definitely doesn’t protect her from losing her job, or missing out on promotion opportunities, if word gets around.

Being the small fish at the bottom of the food chain dominated by men — and the fear of stunting one’s career opportunities — might prevail over the impulse to report abuse, and women should never have to make that choice.

This bill is needed, but this is an opportunity for significant change in the culture and dialogue on the Hill, and we need to be wary about not wasting it.

This isn’t the end of the road for the #MeToo movement, and is barely the beginning of breaking down centuries of toxic, male-dominated work environments. The conversation can’t stop here, and it won’t. But politicians and the legislation they produce need to keep up.