A stock image of holding hands.
Stock image of holding hands.

According to a recent study released by the Canadian Labour Congress, seven-in-10 workers experienced sexual harassment in Canadian workplaces in 2020. Many workers didn’t share or report this violation of their human rights because of barriers they faced.

The Sexual Harassment and Assault Resource Exchange (SHARE) informs workers of their legal rights. The project also collaborates with community partners to support and empower workers to make informed decisions around accessing justice and personal supports.

Funded by the Department of Justice Canada, and under the umbrella of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, SHARE provides free, confidential and trauma-informed legal advice about legal and non-legal options.

These services are available to workers across Ontario experiencing sexual harassment and gender-based harassment in the workplace as well as those who have experienced workplace-related sexual assault.

Launched just before the pandemic hit, Program Supervisor and Legal Counsel Elsie Ikhariale said, “It was, at first, a challenge, but what we found out is that unfortunately, when people go remote, the sexual harassment doesn’t stop. It just changes.”

During the interview, she went on to say, “people, who perhaps were willing to come out to make a complaint, were facing job loss as retaliation that was under the guise of COVID and lock downs.”

Ikhariale finds the experiences clients share are very reflective of trends in society. SHARE is seeing an increase in calls from clients asking about their rights as they return to physical work spaces where they will come into contact with their harasser.

Supporting victims, wherever they are in their recovery process

“We know that not everyone who comes to us is ready, whether it’s the situation they’re going through or their life circumstances, to take legal action. So, we’re more focused on allowing people to take action by documenting what’s happening,” said Ikhariale.

In cases like this, clients can file a complaint with their employer and ask to be accommodated through a different working schedule or through less contact with their abuser.

All services provided use a trauma-informed approach.

“We see it as understanding that if someone has gone through something as traumatic as sexual harassment, assault even, in the workplace, we give legal information, advice and support. But there’s also the understanding that they just might not have the capacity, due to that trauma, to go forward,” said Ikhariale.

That’s when SHARE provides information and offers referrals to non-legal services in the community like counselling and crisis centres.

In some situations, there’s clearly an on-going danger or risk to safety. That’s when a risk assessment and safety plan for both work and home becomes essential.

“There was a cultural shift when the #MeToo movement happened. There were lots of conversations about power dynamics, what is right in the workplace, and what isn’t right. Coming out of that very public conversation with very public figures, Canada, specifically the Department of Justice, took an active step to challenge and address this issue that is happening across all workplaces globally,” Ikhariale recalls.

Since applicable laws don’t speak to immigration status, SHARE employs an inter-sectional, trauma informed lens. That’s because, the sexual harassment a client without status is experiencing may not be that client’s priority at that moment.

Instead, they may be more concerned about taking care of their family back home or focused on getting status.

In these cases, non-legal resources in tandem with deadlines for future legal action might be the preferred route. More importantly, asking if the client wants assistance regularizing their status and offering to refer them to agencies that could assist them in getting status might be what’s needed.

There are provisions within immigration law that allow for someone who has experienced violence or sexual violence to invoke a humanitarian or compassionate plea to get regularized status.

In these circumstances, SHARE would be able to refer clients to organizations that deal exclusively with immigration law to assist and support their immigration needs while SHARE addresses their sexual harassment workplace needs.

The former might look like a referral to the Barbara Schlifer Commemorative Clinic for women who have experienced violence. It could also mean a referral to a Community Legal Aid Clinic for clients located outside central Ontario.

SHARE staff will then ask clients what they need? That could include time off of work, counselling, other mental health supports, income support, or referrals to sexual violence supports.

Sexual harassment at work is undeniably a gendered issue. However, one in nine men report experiencing workplace sexual harassment. As a worker you have a right to work free from sexual harassment or harassment or discrimination based on any one of those protected rights that are included the Human Rights Code.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a human rights violation. It’s the law that every employer has a duty to investigate any complaint of sexual harassment or violence in the workplace.

Pride at Work was consulted during the creation of LGBTQ2S+ voices in employment: Labour market experiences of sexual and gender minorities in Canada (April 2022). The report, prepared for the Women and Gender Equality Canada, addressed issues 2SLGBTQIA+, trans-gender, and gender diverse individuals experience at work.

This excerpt from the report explains the range of circumstances 2SLGBTQIA+ clients may face in their workplaces and which can make it difficult for them to know how to enforce their rights:

“Experiences of harassment directed at individuals on the basis of their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation were also raised by participants. Here, we distinguish harassment as acts, comments, or displays that ‘demean, belittle, or cause personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat.’ This includes incidents in which slurs were used directly against participants in employment contexts. It also includes acts of dead naming – the use of trans/non-binary name, rather than the person’s chosen name – as well as purposeful misgendering – the identification of someone via a pronoun (she/her), form of address (Mr.) or other gendered label that does not align with their lived gender or with their preferred gender affirming pronoun.”

Helping navigate the criminal justice system

Much of the work SHARE does is on the remedial and restorative side rather than the criminal aspect. However, violent situations are reported to police and can progress to the criminal court system. Clients are often surprised to find police focus on the accused and criminal justice rather than the victim.

These violent incidents may be proceeding through the criminal system as well as the Human Rights Tribunal and the civil court process simultaneously.

SHARE is pivotal in helping clients navigate the multiple legal and human rights processes that do have an impact on one another.

Services are provided across Ontario irrespective of income, age, gender, sexual orientation, or immigration status. Help is available in English, French and 140 other languages remotely. SHARE also has resources available through their website for individuals who are not quite ready to contact them in person.

We know sexual harassment happens at work. SHARE is naming it, educating about it, and informing clients and the public about the laws that exist, all in an effort to reduce it.

To that end, SHARE is facilitating interactive online and in-person webinars for youth, newcomers, urban and rural Indigenous persons, 2SLGBTQIA+, and general audiences across Ontario.

For more information about outreach materials and webinars contact Shagufta Sadique, Outreach Coordinator at [email protected].

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct Elsie Ikhariale‘s name and title, and to correct that the Pride at Work report was funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada.

Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...