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Women can help change the culture on Parliament Hill

Ottawa Citizen by Nancy Peckford and Raylene Lang Dion 15 November 2014

To say it’s been a tough few weeks for Canada’s members of Parliament would be a massive understatement. Already very weary from the gunman who forced his way into the Hall of Honour three weeks ago, the Hill was rocked last week after allegations of serious misconduct came to the fore and two male MPs were suspended from the Liberal caucus.

For an organization like ours, geared to getting more women to stand for office, the story – it seems – couldn’t get much worse. MPs ducking for cover as they feared for their lives, one of whom was nursing her infant child in an alcove in that very Hall where the shooter was on a deadly rampage. Two female MPs reporting allegedly traumatic behaviour on the part of two male colleagues – only to have their allegations go public in a way that they had not wished. And all four MPs are now awaiting the results of a process yet to be determined and dearly hoping that the outcome does justice to their experiences.

And yet, more than ever, we continue to need strong women to get elected so that we can transform Parliament into the robust and exemplary institution it should be for all Canadians.

You can forgive many women for giving it a pass. The allegations from last week are, no doubt, the tip of an iceberg. Countless women and some men, MPs and staffers both, have wrestled with unwanted harassment, something many never anticipated and nearly all knew they would pay dearly for if they made an issue of it. It has been a longstanding job hazard for most women, regardless of age, party or status for decades now.

Remarkably, however, in the federal arena, women are coming forward in encouraging numbers – both seeking and often winning nominations for the upcoming federal election. In the by-election in Whitby-Oshawa to fill the late Jim Flaherty’s seat, three dynamic women are duking it out. While Pat Perkins, former Whitby mayor, is regarded as the front runner, she is up against the NDP’s Trish McAuliffe, a long time General Motors employee and community organizer who came second in the 2011 election. The Liberals’ Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a distinguished businesswoman recognized by the Toronto Board of Trade for her leadership, will no doubt give both candidates a run for their money.

Women like these, strengthening the voices of those women who are already there, will make all the difference. Up to now, the current level of women’s representation at 25 per cent has simply not been sufficient to meaningfully change the culture on the Hill. Global research from the United Nations has clearly indicated that for women to have significant influence over the norms and practices within any legislature, they need to occupy a minimum of one third of the seats.

When Canadians learned last week of the very minimal processes available to MPs for matters such as misconduct, it came as a shock to many. It didn’t to us. This past May, Equal Voice launched a social media campaign entitled #RespectHer to respond to anecdotes of a disturbing culture of sexism on the Hill for which no one was being held to account.

In future, it shouldn’t be the Speaker who is charged with the enormous challenge of establishing a process to adjudicate matters as serious as misconduct. These issues need to rest with a completely independent and expert player who has the full confidence of all MPs and who can act as the situation demands. This person should be guided by a code of conduct that outlines the expected behaviour of MPs. Any process exploring harassment allegations must be both fair and completely confidential. Lost in the noise of the explosive allegations last week and the debate about which party handled it better was the fact that a largely male culture of entitlement and power has so permeated Parliament, MPs are serving in a workplace that knows few bounds.

It’s not only MPs who suffer – it’s Canadians. We applaud every woman who stands for office and will be working hard to ensure they get a fair shot because, without more of them, redeeming our Parliamentary institutions will be that much harder.

Nancy Peckford is the Executive Director of Equal Voice and Raylene Lang-Dion serves as Equal Voice’s National Chair.