May wants to see all-party women’s caucus tackle issues of sexual harassment, misconduct on the Hill

‘As women working together in our all-party women’s caucus, I think we can do a lot,’ says Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

PUBLISHED :Monday, Jan. 22, 2018 12:00 AM

Amid the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says she’d “love” to see the all-party women’s caucus tackle the issue of sexual harassment on Parliament Hill and plans to raise the idea with colleagues when the House returns next week.

“Women in public lives could perhaps give women in other, less high-profile positions more courage to step up and say, ‘This is not acceptable, I do not accept this,’” said Ms. May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.), who first became involved in the all-party women’s caucus in 2011 and helped push for its re-formation this Parliament.

“I’d love to revisit what we do about sexual harassment on Parliament Hill through the women’s caucus,” she said. “I’ll be talking to my colleagues about it when we get back at the end of January.”

Ms. May noted, for example, that in late 2012, the previous all-party women’s caucus held a press conference to speak out as a group against an anti-abortion motion from then Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth.

Re-constituted at the start of this Parliament, the all-party women’s caucus is chaired by Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.), who’s also chair of the Liberal women’s caucus, and includes Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu (Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.), a former chair of the House Status of Women Committee; NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson (Nanaimo-Ladysmith, B.C.), chair of the NDP women’s caucus; Ms. May; and Bloc Québécois MP Monique Pauzé (Repentigny, Que.).

Speaking with The Hill Times last week, Ms. Vandenbeld stressed that the all-party women’s caucus is very much an “informal” one.

That means there is no Parliament-allocated budget, and no membership list—outside the five MPs listed above who work together to organize and put on various women-centric events on Parliament Hill, funded, when required, using their individual MPs’ office budgets.

“It is really very much just women of Parliament trying to create space where we can meet together and meet with external groups and have a convening kind of space,” said Ms. Vandenbeld.

“Often, because we’re across the aisle, there’s really very little space across parties where we can really sit together and talk about whatever it is that comes up. So sometimes it might be issues facing women here … a lot of it is international, you have women’s groups coming from other countries,” she said.

The all-party caucus put on its first event this Parliament in June 2016—an Indigenous blanket ceremony on the Hill, for reconciliation, with Indigenous elder Barbara Dumont-Hill and Kairos Canada. So far, Ms. Vandenbeld said the caucus has helped organize six or seven events since being reformed.

That includes a “launch” event with former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard in February attended by roughly 40 MPs; a reception put on with Equal Voice for Daughters of the Vote in March; meeting with a South Sudanese women’s group; a Hill reception with the Ovarian Cancer Society; and a meeting with female MPs from the ParlAmericas network.

The all-party women’s caucus is currently planning its next “big event,” a panel discussion and gathering of female ambassadors to Canada, on Feb. 13, said Ms. Vandenbeld, with a networking event on the Hill also in the works to follow International Women’s Day in March.

The caucus works strictly on a consensus basis, stressed Ms. Vandenbeld, communicating largely by email and in quick, in-person huddles when the House is sitting to decide on and organize events. Each member of the caucus executive takes responsibility for communicating events to their respective party caucus colleagues on the Hill. Ms. Vandenbeld said they’re also currently “working on trying to engage” female Senators to take part.

The Canadian Press recently did an anonymous survey—sent out to 89 female MPs and filled out by 38—about their experiences with sexual harassment or misconduct on Parliament Hill. Ultimately, 58 per cent of respondents said they’d been subject to one or more forms of sexual misconduct while an MP, four of whom said they had experienced sexual harassment and three who said they’d been victims of sexual assault. Of those who answered questions about the perpetrators, 10 said it came from an MP in another political party, while five said it came from an MP within their own caucus.

During its previous iteration in the last Parliament, under then-chair Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.), and current minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, caucus members met with the House Speaker in December 2014 to discuss how the all-party group could help to establish the since-enacted MP code of conduct and harassment policy, as reported by The Hill Times.

So far in this Parliament, the all-party women’s caucus hasn’t held an event focused on the issue of harassment or misconduct on Parliament Hill. However, Ms. May noted that during the all-party women’s caucus’ event with Ms. Gillard a “terrific conversation” on sexism and women in politics took place with the former PM.

Asked if she would like to see the all-party women’s caucus tackle the issue of harassment on the Hill in the coming year, Ms. Vandenbeld said the caucus had yet to discuss the possibility and, as it works on a consensus basis, she didn’t want to speak for it.

“I’d have to talk to the other members,” she said. “One of the good things though about having an all-party women’s caucus is that a lot of discussions can happen when you build trust.”

“As we meet in these events, as we work together, [we] can build a little bit more trust across party lines. So that probably leads to a lot of unofficial conversations—a better environment to have those conversations—but I have not heard any appetite for that at this point,” said Ms. Vandenbeld.

Pressed on if she personally would like the all-party caucus to discuss the idea of tackling the issue of harassment on the Hill, Ms. Vandenbeld said “not necessarily in this forum,” leaving the door open to other possible avenues.

But generally, Ms. Vandenbeld noted the issue is one that MPs are talking about amongst themselves.

“We’re not isolated as politicians, this is an issue that people—women and men across the country and internally—this is something that’s being talked about,” she said.

In its earliest iteration, in 1988, then Liberal MP Mary Clancy, then NDP MP Dawn Black, and then Progressive Conservative MP Pierrette Venne got together, with the support of then House of Commons Speaker John Fraser, to found a parliamentary women’s association.

That effort lasted until the 1993 federal election, which saw the Reform Party swept into official opposition and put an end to the cross-party women’s association, recalled Ms. Clancy in a phone conversation from Halifax with The Hill Times last week. But during its existence, the group pushed, and got action, on a number of changes, said Ms. Clancy, for example, more women’s washrooms in the Centre Block building.

Ms. Clancy, who served as an MP for Halifax from 1988 to 1997, said incidents of sexual harassment on the Hill are “nothing new,” but said she’s been surprised at the reluctance of female MPs to “go public” with complaints today, something she said she thinks women she served with, across party lines, would not have feared doing.

“We would have felt it was our duty,” she said. “But also, I understand the vulnerability many women feel in this situation, and therefore I’m not faulting them—I am questioning what’s changed in the atmosphere that made them feel that vulnerable.”

While she said she hopes the current all-party women’s caucus tackles the issue of harassment on the Hill, Ms. Clancy said “it doesn’t look like it’s high on anybody’s agenda,” and she thinks the highly polarized Hill atmosphere, and a corresponding loss of collegiality, is one cause.

The recent “episode” involving an inappropriate comment made by Conservative MP James Bezan’s (Selkrik-Interlake-Eastman, Man.) “threesome” comment to Liberal MP Sherry Romanado (Longueuil-Charles-LeMoyne, Que.), which led Mr. Bezan to apologize in the House, highlighted “some weaknesses” in the new harassment policy for MPs, and a need for “fine-tuning,” said Ms. May.

Coming up with “concrete suggestions” of ways to improve this fledgling process is one way the all-party women’s caucus could work to address the issue of harassment, she said, but stressed her “ideas aren’t set in stone,” though it’s definitely something she plans to raise with the caucus for discussion when the House returns.

“I’d be surprised if it wasn’t seen to be a very appropriate thing for us to do as a committee, as an all party women’s caucus I think it’s highly appropriate,” said Ms. May.

“Our male colleagues play a role in dealing with this, absolutely, but there’s a role for all of us, and I think the role for women MPs is one that is best taken with both hats on. Women in their caucuses can do things, with their partisan hats on, but I think with our non-partisan hats as women working together in our all-party women’s caucus, I think we can do a lot,” she said.

Speaking with The Hill Times last week, Ms. Malcolmson said the question of whether the all-party women’s caucus should do something to address the issue of harassment on the Hill for MPs isn’t one that’s been discussed within her own party’s caucus so far this parliament.

“But absolutely, if there was a motion from anybody in the other parties … to add this as an agenda item [for the all-party caucus], then I would certainly participate in that conversation and certainly support it being added as an agenda item,” said Ms. Malcolmson.

Instead, Ms. Malcolmson said she and the NDP caucus are primarily focused on the government’s Bill C-65, which seeks to amend the Canada Labour Code to address workplace harassment and violence, including for staff on Parliament Hill.

“Solidarity is always a powerful tool and that’s where we’re going to get the most impact and focus, but honestly, the stories that have come through the #MeToo movement and the [Time’s Up] movement, they don’t suggest to me that MP-on-MP harassment is our highest area of priority,” she said.