We recognize the value of improving awareness of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace among parliamentary staff, however this recommendation deals with matters that are within the responsibility of the Parliament of Canada and, as such, not within the purview of Ministers to address.”

Statement by Treasury Board President Tony Clement and Minister of the Status of Women and Labour,  Dr. Kellie  Leitch,  on  rejecting  Canadian  adoption  of  the  Inter-Parliamentary Framework for Gender Equality, June 2014

The sexual harassment charges that dominate today’s news cycle remind everyone that men are the captain’s of industry, that sexual predation is an assumed privilege of power, and that the status of women in Canada is less advanced than many of us had supposed.

Over and above claims last week of harassment by two Members of Parliament and an Intern, former Deputy Premier, Sheila Copps this week described being sexually assaulted by a colleague when she was a 28-year-old MPP and CBC journalist, Laura Payton, documented a taxonomy of unwanted advances from the time she was a page in the Senate to her current beat on the Hill. How bad is it for a woman? For starters, you leave parties early, you insist on meeting in public and you even make strategic clothing decisions: “You choose your wardrobe…to protect as much as possible from hands that might enjoy resting on bare skin rather than a clothed shoulder or back.”. Conclusion: harassment is part of this work culture.

And then there’s the former host of Q whose case has outlined a continuum of abuse extending from his private culture of dating and soliciting favours to the public sphere of his show and the life chances of the women who worked there. In private it’s alleged he struck, choked and degraded women and in public cupped, groped and expressed his desire to hate fuck female co-workers.

So far it’s the allegations of private abuse that have kept readers interested. But let’s take a look at this public piece in the Q work place. Roberto Verì was a chase producer at Q from Sept 2009 to Sept 2010 (he left Q 4 years before the scandal hit the fan). Recently, Veri told Jesse Brown about the open secret. He noted that soon after he’d been hired, an Executive Producer at Q alerted him to the host’s reputation for rough play and that staff had devised a hand signal to alert them to the host’s imminent arrival: they placed their hands on their necks in a choking position and stuck their tongues out sideways.

But despite the many who knew better or who suspected worse, few complained and no  complaints were taken seriously. Veri lamented his own moment of truth. After seeing the host approach a female staffer from behind and “drive his pelvis into her buttocks several times,” he’d just turned his head and did nothing.  For Veri, the host’s actions were akin to a Roman aristocrat doing whatever he wanted in front of the slaves. Conclusion: harassment is part of this work culture.

But harassment – ‘aggressive pressure and intimidation’ – doesn’t seem to go far enough. In Québec, labour legislation is very precise. It’s not just unwanted sexualization of a working relationship, it’s psychological harassment: “any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee.”

Here, at the crossroads between predator vexatiousness and workforce complicity I wonder aloud how these transgressions against gender equality so brazenly persist in 21st Century Canada? Are we simply shining a light into corners that previous generations were unwilling or unable to illuminate or is the status of women in decline?

Kellie Leitch, our Minister for the Status of Women, doesn’t think so. Speeches she’s given at the Empire Club, the Mary Kay Cosmetics conference and the Petroleum Club have all proudly stated that prosperity has ended old stereotypes, removed the glass ceiling and dissolved the gender gap. During her presentation at the Petroleum Club she noted how attitudes towards women were different from those held when the Club was incorporated in 1949. “One thing I know we can all agree on,” the Minister said, “times really have changed.”

And that is absolutely true. By 1949, only a single generation of women had been brought up in a country that recognized them as persons. The October 1929 decision by the British Privy Council to amend the British North America Act, effectively positioned women to be owners in a society in which they previously had not existed.

Eighty-five years later, one might ask, where are things changing for the better? Female participation in the workforce? Yes. Women in leadership positions and non-traditional occupations? Yes. Reduced vulnerability of women and girls? Maybe not. In addition to the cultures of harassment that we’ve discussed here, the Canadian Women’s Foundation has documented extensive and disturbing evidence that women and girls remain vulnerable:

  • a woman is killed by her intimate partner about every six days in Canada;
  • as of 2010, 582 Aboriginal women have gone missing;
  • violence against women in Nunavut is 19 times higher than the rest of Canada;
  • less than 10% of all sexual assaults against women are reported to police;

It is the reporting statistic that suggests that women in Canadian society are not really moving forward. When Minister Leitch made her one public comment about the raft of harassment allegations in Ottawa, she insisted that this issue was not about determining an appropriate protocol on the Hill, but about law. Harassment was “unacceptable” and she urged young women to come forward. But, Dr. Leitch, women are not coming forward and that’s a matter of policy, and yes, protocol.

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