Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he believes society is still lagging behind the systemic changes he is trying to make on Parliament Hill when it comes to preventing and responding to sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour.
“We recognize that this particular workplace that is Parliament Hill is one that is rife with hierarchies and power dynamics wrapped up in and around an institution that for centuries has been the purview of a certain type of person — older, male, successful,” Trudeau said this week in a roundtable interview with The Canadian Press.
That, however, has started to change, the prime minister suggested, with the election of a more diverse group of MPs and political staff — although the consequences of that long-standing, male-dominated hierarchy have clearly not disappeared overnight.
“We have a system that has changed, but a society that is changing not fast enough, and that is going to lead to difficult situations.”
Trudeau, who self-identifies as a feminist and says he has zero tolerance for sexual assault, harassment or other forms of misconduct by his employees or caucus colleagues, was asked to address the fact that allegations surfaced last year involving someone in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Claude-Eric Gagne, who is deputy director of operations for Trudeau, has been on a leave of absence Nov. 1 pending an investigation into allegations that came to the attention of the PMO. Gagne says he challenges the veracity of the allegations, but is co-operating fully with the third-party investigator.
The PMO hired high-profile employment firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP to examine the case.
Without commenting specifically on the case, Trudeau said he hopes to set an example in how he responds to the situations.
“I think the measure of it must be how we are changing and how we are responding to allegations, how seriously we take them,” he said.
“The fact that we have no tolerance for this — that we will not brush things under the rug, but we will take action on it immediately — is part of the modelling that we hope to see taken on elsewhere across the Hill, but also throughout workforces and workplaces in Canada.”
The Canadian Press surveyed current female MPs from all political parties last month to find out the extent to which they had been the targets of sexual harassment, assault or misconduct of all kinds, including during their time in elected office.
Some 58 per cent of respondents to the voluntary, anonymous survey reported having personally experienced one or more forms of sexual misconduct during their time in politics.
The results also suggested the problem also hits other players in the parliamentary system.
Seventy-six per cent of respondents said they had either witnessed, or been told about sexual misconduct targeting another woman, including a staffer, page, intern, House of Commons employee or MP.
Thirty-eight of the 89 female MPs participated in the survey.
Joanna Smith and Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press