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The #metoo movement and the receny resignation of several high-level Canadian politicians, including Patrick Brown (the former PC Leader in Ontario) and Kent Hehr (the former federal Sport and Disabilities Minister), has cast light on misconduct that may be happening in Canada’s political power centres and what is being done to address it.

Bill C-65

Last fall, Patty Hajdu, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development, introduced Bill C-65 intended to amend sections of the Canada Labour Code and create a more effective system of dealing with harassment and similar complaints in federal workplaces, including on Parliament Hill.

Ms. Hajdu was motivated to table the Bill after hearing multiple stories of sexual harassment, assault, and other misconduct in Parliament. She told CBC news that “[s]taffers talked about having a whisper network, knowing which parliamentarians to avoid and which ones were more lecherous when they were drinking”. Ms. Hajdu went on to say that “Many of the stories I heard were heartbreaking and woven into a power dynamic that is unique in some aspects”. Hajdu emphasized the unique nature of Parliament, noting that it is a workplace “…of powerful people, still mostly men”, staffed (generally) by young people, with easy access to alcohol and long work hours. It is also defined by partisanship and a team mentality and it is “hard to come forward when it’s actually a member of your own team because it politically could jeopardize your own team’s success”.

The Bill is still moving its way through legislature and will be subject to a final vote in the House of Commons, which Ms. Hajdu hopes will happen by June.

If the Bill passes, specific details (including how the actual complaints process will work on Parliament Hill) will be worked out in additional regulations and after further consultations. The regulations will be decided by the Board of Internal Economy, which is chaired by the Speaker of the Commons and also includes six MP’s from all major parties. Experts anticipate any new regulations under Bill C-65 will likely mirror those under the Canada Labour Code.

Sexual Relationships Will Not Be Monitored

The Globe and Mail reported this week that the federal Liberals have no legislative plans to ban or monitor sexual relationships between Members of Parliament and their staffers.

Ms. Hajdu notes that it would be too challenging to legislate relationships between politicians and staff. Bill C-65 currently includes no requirements to report such relationships as a way of determining whether they raise ethical issues or evidence of favouritism. Such reporting of sexual relationships and disclosure obligations are common in private companies and is often an HR requirement. Ms. Hajdu told the Globe and Mail that “[Bill C-65] isn’t about consensual relationships. It’s about power, and the abuse of power.

This approach to addressing sexual harassment differs from the approach taken by other countries. Last month, the U.S House of Representative passed a law banning relationships between politicians and their staff and created an employee advocacy office. Several weeks ago, Australia’s Prime Minister also expressly banned cabinet ministers from having sex with staffers, a move that social media called the #bonkban. This decision followed news that the deputy prime minister had an affair with and impregnated his former press secretary.

Both the British Parliament and U.S. Congress have also announced that they will be appointing independent, non-partisan advisors to handle harassment complaints at the early stages. Ms. Hajdu has said that such independent advisors are unnecessary here in Canada because occupational health and safety investigators in the Labour department will perform those duties.

What Might This Mean Going Forward?

Under Bill C-65, federal employees (including parliamentarians) accused of harassing other employees (including staff) would have to submit to mediation by an independent third party, (usually lawyers or others with experience in mediation and dispute resolution).

The independent third party would have to be agreed to by both the alleged harasser and the individual accusing them. It is currently unclear, under proposed terms of the Bill, what the potential consequences might be for someone found to have engaged in misconduct.

Bill C-65 is the first bill that contemplates including politicians in workplace legislation. Despite their inclusion in the new bill, politicians may still be able to benefit from two privileges that are unique to their position:

  • They cannot be sued for breaches of the Canada Labour Code; and
  • Unlike other federal employees, they cannot be fired or dismissed (but could be “named and shamed” and asked to resign).

This may mean that a politician who is found to have engaged in sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other misconduct may be subject to different consequences than a different federal employee.

We will continue to follow developments as this Bill progresses and will provide updates as they become available. In the meantime, if you are an employer and have questions about your obligations to provide a safe and harassment-free workplace, or if you are an employee and have questions about workplace violence and harassment, contact the knowledgeable employment lawyers at Sultan Lawyers. We help both employers and employees to plan proactively and mitigate risk, and to resolve disputes where issues escalate to the point where legal intervention is needed.  Contact us online or at 416.214.5111 for a consultation.

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