On Parliament Hill it’s called the whisper network — a constant murmur of white noise that, until now, has been all too easy to tune out.
Women have long dealt with systemic sexism and harassment on the Hill by ignoring it, downplaying it and by privately venting to confidantes and warning other women to be careful around certain men on elevators, at receptions and after too many drinks.
In 2014 a 19-year-old volunteer for two Liberal MPs recalls a prominent staffer tried to kiss her and bite her ear as she was walking with him up the stairs in Centre Block during working hours.
In another incident, a young tour guide recalls a security officer making a lewd gesture as they rode in an elevator together.
This year, the Hill has been rocked by a number of high profile allegations involving MPs.
Maclean’s spoke with more than 30 women working in various capacities in politics across Canada — including three cabinet ministers and MPs from four parties — about their experiences of verbal and physical sexual harassment in the sector. They all agree that sexual harassment and violence in politics has gone unchecked for too long.
They recounted incidents that span inappropriate comments, like requesting women staffers to wear high heels, to sexual assault. Some are indisputably more heinous than others and, indeed, should not be conflated. But all of it stands to diminish women’s value in politics, and none of it belongs in a workplace purported to be the centre of Canada’s democracy.
Now, as swaths of society demand a cultural correction — a reckoning — parliament is having its own #MeToo moment. “This isn’t anything new,” Labour Minister Patty Hajdu said. “But this is a boiling point.” In November, Hajdu tabled anti-harassment legislation promising to crack down on what she called a crisis of sexual harassment and violence on the Hill. While a positive step, many argue it’s far from the transformation that’s needed.