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Unions have a lot to teach parliament in dealing with sexual harassment

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Back in the day, I was president of a small Local in the wider federal public service. One day a woman informed me that she was being sexually harassed by her manager.

What to do? This was well before the Bonnie Robichaud case, which established the employer's responsibility for maintaining a harassment-free workplace. Neither personal nor sexual harassment were mentioned in the collective agreement. We did, however, have a health and safety provision that I thought could be applied in this case. What was done? The employee was moved to a different location.

Some months afterwards, I was visited by an officer of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It turned out that the employee had lodged a complaint there, and I found myself under pretty intense interrogation. "The union seems to have abandoned her," he said to me. I was indignant. I pointed out that we had followed the grievance procedure, and had found her a different job -- at the same classification -- elsewhere in the organization. What more could we have done (besides expressing such displeasure to the Deputy Head that he had a word with the offender, who apparently cleaned up his act)?

The solution here was obviously very far from perfect. But the fact is that we had few resources available to us at the time. Robichaud finally clarified the issue; new collective agreements had strong language on it; and my union, the PSAC, developed detailed guidelines on how to handle cases of member-on-member harassment (which did not apply in the case I had been dealing with).

I was painfully reminded of how unprepared we were as I followed the events on Parliament Hill this past few weeks. Two NDP MPs alleged that they had been sexually harassed by two Liberal MPs; one of them had approached Liberal leader Justin Trudeau directly. Without naming them, detailing the nature of the alleged offences, or even specifying which party they belonged to, Trudeau held a press conference to announce that he was suspending two of his MPs.

So far, as I have argued elsewhere, well and good: he acted promptly, and, in my view, responsibly. But after that, everything seems to have come to a halt. There is simply no mechanism to deal with what seems to be an unprecedented situation (although I suspect that only the publicity surrounding this affair is actually unprecedented). The matter was referred to the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy, which is woefully unequipped to deal with anything like this; and the two women have now stated that they do not wish to pursue the allegations—in other words, they will not cooperate with any investigation that might be proposed.

That leaves two Liberal MPs in the outer darkness, and Trudeau far out on a limb. We cannot pretend, whatever we happen to believe, that the MPs in question have had anything approaching natural justice. Their political fate is sealed, without either an investigation or a hearing.

Clearly novel situations demand effective new procedures, but none are as yet in place, and the Harper government quashed a proposal to create them several months ago. MPs are not "employees," as the pedants point out, and they presently lack the protections that Hill staff already enjoy. Yet this hardly seems an impossible situation to resolve.

For many years, union conventions and assemblies have opened with a statement on harassment, explaining in detail what the term means, noting that it will not be tolerated during the proceedings, and identifying anti-harassment coordinators to whom delegates may speak in confidence should such objectionable conduct occur. The delegates aren't, in that context, "employees" either. But clear rules are established regardless, and a procedure for dealing with offenders.

I see no reason that something similar could not be established to govern the conduct of MPs. You don’t need a committee with a token woman on it to reinvent the wheel. The rules against harassment should be clearly set out, and a standing independent body should be in place to which individual MPs could take their complaints in confidence and which would be empowered, under the authority of the Speaker of the House, to carry out investigations and make appropriate remedial recommendations. It would be up to the House, and, more specifically, to the party leaders, to enforce the rules; and in the current climate, I venture to suggest that failure to do so would have significant political consequences.

This isn't rocket science, but plain common sense. In the absence of credible procedures, an ad hoc approach is all there is to fall back on -- but, as we have just seen, no one remotely benefits from that. Perhaps our government -- ostensibly so concerned about bullying elsewhere -- might for once take a leaf from the union book and set the House in order.

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