Recent Federal and Provincial Responses to Sexual Assault are Much Needed
Sexual harassment is an issue that is increasingly receiving public attention due to attention in the media, movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, and increased encouragement of victims of sexual harassment to speak up about their experiences. Both the Canadian and Manitoba governments are taking steps to address sexual harassment through legislation and policies.
Canadian news has been filled with headlines about situations where politicians and political staffers have been sexually harassed across the country.i Sexual harassment allegations know no geographic or political party affiliation limits. Many victims of sexual harassment may be reluctant to seek legal action, either criminally or civilly, and would simply like for there to be a means to address inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
Last November, the federal Liberal Government Introduced Bill C-65, An Act to Amend the Canada Labour Code (Harassment and Violence), which amends the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act and the Budget Implementation Act.ii Bill C-65 expands the definition of an employee to include individuals working in places such as the Senate, House of Commons, as ethics commissioners, as clerks of the Senate and House of Commons, and at the office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
One of the more significant changes created by Bill C-65 is that is amends the Canada Labour Code’s definition of harassment to now state:
“Harassment and violence means any action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee, including any prescribed action, conduct or comment”.iii
The offices of members of Parliament will now be required to have sexual harassment policies, and where the MP is a minister there will be different sets of policies for ministerial and political staff.iv Additionally, employers will be required to respond to reports of harassment and give employees the option of using an informal resolution process or have a third party investigation take place.v
If an employee chooses to have an investigation take place, the employer will be required to implement the investigator’s recommendations, to protect the privacy of victim, and to prevent retaliation.vi
Although the discussed changes are only a few highlights from Bill C-65, they are integral to improving the quality of workplaces for political staffers. In 2017, the federal government conducted a survey of female federal staffers, where 60 percent reported having experienced harassment at work, 30 percent reported experiencing sexual harassment, and 75 percent of females reported the most recent incident of harassment that they faced.vii These figures demonstrate that there is a high rate of harassment in federal workplaces and that political staffers deserve broader protection from harassment and that there should be increased employer obligations towards political staffers.
As a former political staffer myself, I understand why a political staffer may be reluctant to report workplace harassment. When working with individuals in positions of power, staffers act carefully not to “rock the boat” or tarnish their reputation or the reputation of others. Reporting situations of harassment can have a significant impact on the reputation of politicians and other staffers in positions of power and influence, and being behind tarnishing another person’s reputation can make a staffer appear to be untrustworthy. The federal provisions within Bill C-65 allow for a more private means of reporting harassment by ensuring that employee complaints remain confidential and by requiring employers to implement third party investigation recommendations. By requiring employers to create harassment policies, there is an implied creation of increased employer obligations to treat employees with respect, which should hopefully deter future misconduct.
While the changes to sexual assault legislation at the federal level of government pertain to non-criminal means of addressing workplace harassment, Manitoba has introduced policies to encourage women to report sexual assault in an anonymous manner while also working with the criminal justice system. In April, the provincial government launched an online website that offers information about recognizing sexual assault, understanding the criminal justice system, how to report sexual assault, and how to access counseling and support.viii The government also granted a total of $38,000 to fund initiatives to increase awareness about sexual violence and to support survivors.ix Lastly and most importantly, the government announced a strategy to allow victims to report sexual assault to staff at Klinic Community Health Centre, Sage House at Mount Carmel Clinic, and Heart Medicine Lodge at Ka Ni Kanichihk.x Staff at the agencies then pass on the information to the police while keeping the victim anonymous and allowing the police to track information.xi
This strategy could be very effective in increasing reporting of sexual assault, allowing victims to access services, and to allow victims to avoid any fears or apprehensions regarding becoming directly involved with the criminal justice system. While deferring reporting to agencies rather than the police can create concerns about the quality of documentation and reporting to the police, agency staff can be trained by the police to ask victims questions in ways that obtain essential information for the police. Victims who approach the agencies can also decide in the future to approach the police to provide more information, and may feel more inclined to speak to the police after accessing agency services.
Overall, there continue to be various forms of legislative response to address sexual assault and harassment in Canada. Enacting Bill C-65 would be a significant step in the right direction to protect political staffers and other federal employees from harassment. By taking creative approaches to offering services to victims of sexual assault and harassment, provinces can possibly increase the reporting of sexual assault while ensuring that victims access services. Although there has been significant progress with addressing sexual harassment and assault, more work can continue to be done.