Meanwhile, staffers still feel vulnerable and don't trust complaint mechanisms, with almost half saying they'd rather find a different job than make a complaint
OTTAWA — Imagine being afraid to get into an elevator by yourself. Not because it is broken down, or because you have a phobia, or because you don’t want to lose a cell signal. But because you’re genuinely worried that somebody might come in, ride the elevator with you for 20 seconds or so, then accuse you on Twitter the next day of groping them.
At least eight people on Parliament Hill mentioned male MPs’ fear of riding elevators to a researcher this spring as she asked them about whether a culture shift was underway, months after the #MeToo movement began to affect Canadian politicians.
In her as-yet unpublished research paper, focused on conversations with about 25 MPs and 200 Parliament Hill staffers, Rose St-Pierre concluded that changes in elected officials’ behaviour have been driven by fear rather than introspection. Meanwhile, staffers still feel vulnerable and don’t trust complaint mechanisms, with almost half saying they’d rather find a different job than make a complaint.
“Over the past several months I have sensed that there is still a taboo surrounding this subject, and that it is an uncomfortable and unclear debate for many people,” St-Pierre wrote in the conclusion of her paper. “Sincere and open dialogue about sexual harassment in politics has yet to happen.”
While working as a parliamentary intern this year, St-Pierre set out to investigate whether any real transformation was underway in Ottawa’s halls of power after #MeToo stories began to emerge about Canadian politicians — people such as former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown, former Liberal cabinet minister Kent Hehr and former NDP MP Erin Weir. (The Parliamentary Internship Program annually hires a small group of graduates to conduct research projects of their choice while they spend six months each in a government MP’s office and in an opposition MP’s office.)
“I was skeptical and curious about this idea of a profound change,” St-Pierre said in an interview.
Over the past several months I have sensed that there is still a taboo surrounding this subject, and that it is an uncomfortable and unclear debate for many people
Staffers and MPs from all sides of the House of Commons, male and female, most of them speaking under condition of anonymity, described to St-Pierre a skittish atmosphere where male politicians worried about stepping into elevators alone or being at the office after-hours. Several people told her they were aware of a male MP who is no longer willing to hire female staff.
“Those changes (in behaviour) are related to fear, and some misunderstanding of what’s going on, and the idea that the price to pay if you’re wrongly accused is super high. So, they’re not even reflecting on the problem of sexual harassment on the Hill — they’re thinking, ‘What if I get wrongly accused?’ And that’s their main focus,” she said.
The sheer volume of commentary on not riding the elevator alone was shocking, St-Pierre added. “It’s sad that they think it’s the solution to sexual harassment.”
Of the 25 MPs St-Pierre interviewed, almost half expressed “confusion” as to the definition of sexual harassment. A little more than half felt they were seeing changes in behaviour, with nine MPs describing it as people being more on their guard and seven saying there is a “climate of fear.”
The paper quotes one anonymous MP who said they received advice when they first arrived on the Hill to never go out by themselves, and they have continued to pass this advice along to others. People are very much on their guard, another MP said, and it has been difficult to have frank, intelligent conversations about sexual harassment.
Among the 200 staffers who participated in the research, 58 per cent worried that their reputation would suffer if they made a complaint of sexual harassment, 54 per cent reported not even knowing how to make a complaint, 49 per cent said they would worry about causing a media frenzy and 44 per cent said they would rather just find a different job than complain.
One staffer said that if there’s an impression that less harassment is taking place in the past few months, it’s not because people have understood they shouldn’t objectify women, but rather because they are afraid of being accused. “People are more paranoid than anything,” a second said. “We’re nervous for our bosses,” said a third.
A fourth staffer said that some MPs privately joke about harassment, and the harassment training that MPs undertook earlier this year, behind closed doors. “Several have expressed to me that they believe it is now harder for men than women on the Hill, because men can have their careers ruined, either for harassment that they don’t see as a big deal or because a woman could purposefully ruin them,” the staffer told St-Pierre. “Some discuss the fact that male MPs won’t hire women anymore because it’s easier to not have anyone who might accuse them of inappropriate behaviour.”
The relationships that seem to be under threat are not just those between staffers and MPs but also those between MPs. A fifth of the parliamentarians that St-Pierre interviewed described a loss of trust between colleagues, and particularly between men and women.
An MP who identified herself for the research as a Conservative described such “negative consequences” in her own relationships. “I feel many of my male colleagues aren’t willing to spend time with me, they don’t want to be friends with me, for fear that it would be perceived as harassment,” she said. “I think it’s harder for men to trust women not to turn on them with some type of complaint.”
“I see a disconnect between men and women that I haven’t seen since elementary school,” one staffer said.
St-Pierre said she intends to pursue publication in an academic journal.