CALGARY – Jessica Littlewood was returning to her downtown hotel room after a night out with friends during the Calgary Stampede when she had an unsettling encounter.
It was 1:30 a.m. and the NDP member of the legislature was riding alone in the elevator with two men who seemed drunk. As the pair were about to exit the elevator, one asked Littlewood to go back to their room and give them oral sex.
Littlewood wondered if anyone would be awake to hear if she were attacked, or how quickly she could access her phone.
“It was just an offhand remark, but I didn’t know if I was going to get back to my hotel room in one piece,” she said in an interview. “They saw me as easy pickings.”
The men left, and Littlewood got back to her room safely. She tweeted about the incident on Tuesday to highlight an all-too-common reality for many women: “Sexual violence is real. Please help us fix this.”
Years before #MeToo, a group of Calgarians launched a social media campaign of their own to tackle some of the less savoury aspects of Stampede, an annual celebration of cowboy culture that for 10 days every July seizes the city with a party atmosphere.
Office workers trade suits for bolo ties, checkered shirts and jeans. Bars and patios are packed and there are corporate shindigs aplenty.
“We started talking about the not-so-great parts of Stampede, where for years and years the culture of sexual harassment and ‘anything goes sexually’ was rampant and no one was really talking about it,” said Pam Krause, CEO of the Centre for Sexuality.
The group started the #SafeStampede campaign on Twitter in 2015. It has since expanded to training Stampede staff, including those who work at the rollicking Nashville North music venue on the festival grounds, on how to respond to any untoward behaviour they witness.
“As #MeToo came along, I thought we started something really small along same lines locally a few years ago,” said Krause, referring to the social media movement that has inspired women to speak out against the sexual misdeeds of some of the most powerful men in Hollywood, politics and the media.
Krause said she was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastically Stampede officials embraced the #SafeStampede campaign.
In reiterating the Stampede’s support for the initiative, CEO Warren Connell said in a release last week: “We believe putting on a cowboy hat is an opportunity to elevate behaviour and I would encourage all citizens to be active bystanders — if you see something, say something.”
Krause said she’s also noticed a big difference in Stampede-week marketing this year, such as fewer scantily clad women on billboards and more of a focus on family friendly fun.
“The awareness that #MeToo has made is huge. The spotlight is shining. I think it has made people think about their actions.”
Debby Carreau, CEO of Inspired HR, said in the #MeToo era, Calgary employers need to take special care during Stampede.
“It’s a great opportunity for people to get to know each other, to build new connections, to have some fun and blow off some steam with coworkers,” she said.
But employers need to have firm sexual misconduct policies, train employees on the rules, communicate in advance what the expectations are in social settings and encourage moderation while celebrating.
When alcohol is involved, work and fun can get mixed up, said Carreau.
“Most often when we see challenges happen, it’s really the lines getting blurred between the two and people not clearly understanding what the expectations are around appropriate behaviour when it’s work or quasi-work related.”