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IN-DEPTH: Long road to new Newfoundland and Labrador harassment policy

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett speaks Thursday during a news conference outside the House of Assembly, where she provided an update on the collective bargaining negotiations with NAPE.
Cathy Bennett - Joe Gibbons

Former cabinet minister says true change requires understanding

The provincial Liberals are about to introduce a new harassment-free workplace policy for core government, extending from recommendations dating back to the fall of 2015.

“We are putting forward what we feel is one of the most progressive policies in Canada. It is not an amendment to an old policy, but a new approach to this issue in government,” Finance Minister Tom Osborne said in a statement in response to questions from The Telegram this week.

“We will have a suite of tools that will allow us to bring greater awareness to workplace harassment, to increase accountability, to set a 90-day timeline for formal investigations and to put forward a comprehensive and consistent approach to the issue of harassment in government.”

Osborne is responsible for the Human Resources Secretariat, responsible for development and management of policies and programs for government workers.

Separate from private member’s motion

MHA Cathy Bennett issued a statement on Wednesday saying she plans to bring forward a private member’s motion to seek change to the province’s Labour Standards Act, Labour Relations Act, and Occupational Health and Safety Act to include specific language on sexual harassment in the workplace.

That move followed a court decision in which Justin Penton was found not to have legally caused a public disturbance when he shouted “F--- her right in the p----“ (FHRITP) at NTV reporter Heather Gillis, while Gillis was interviewing then-councillor Danny Breen at the Robin Hood Bay Waste Management Facility in St. John’s in April 2017.

“I fear our laws in Newfoundland and Labrador, like many places, are dreadfully outdated to reflect our current times,” Bennett said in the statement.

Premier Dwight Ball has said he will support the motion.

The government’s policy, to be addressed Friday, has additional history.

In an exclusive interview, prior to mention of the private member’s motion, Bennett spoke to The Telegram about the policy within government and generally the internal response to harassment complaints — including what she feels must come with any changes.

Change needed: Bennett

In the spring of 2015, The Telegram’s former political reporter, James McLeod, wrote about Valerie Penton, who started working with the provincial government in 2010, but walked away from her job because she felt unsafe going to work every day at the Confederation Building.

Penton’s harassment was at the centre of a four-part series, ending with an announcement by the then-Progressive Conservative government that a consultant would be hired for an independent review of government policies and response to harassment complaints.

Rubin Thomlinson LLP was hired, beginning its work at the end of June 2015.

As reported by The Canadian Press, that firm was more recently asked into the Prime Minister’s Office, to investigate allegations of workplace harassment against deputy director of operations Claude-Eric Gagne, who has denied any wrongdoing. Janice Rubin, a partner in the firm, also led the investigation into complaints against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

Reviewing the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s workplace policy, respectful workplace program and related supports, the firm found improvements were needed.

A final report offered 15 recommendations, including, but not limited to, adding a manager dedicated to creating a harassment and discrimination-free workplace, improving related documentation and a more consistent response when investigations are undertaken.

There should be more training for government staff, it said, mandatory training as opposed to voluntary, and a requirement for more formal disclosure up the ladder.

The report — dated Nov. 4, 2015 — came out just before the provincial election that year.

Delays in response

The changeover in government to the new Liberal leadership paralyzed movement on the report’s recommendations. When the wheels finally started turning again, Bennett ordered follow-up.

“I was dumbstruck when I reviewed these (recommendations) post-election, heads down, doing the work,” she said, highlighting one recommendation calling for the government to make conflict resolution training mandatory.

“In my experience, how could you possibly have thousands and thousands of managers without conflict resolution training? Because that’s so critical in a workplace,” she said.

If it’s not mandatory, not everyone will do it. If it’s mandatory and there’s no follow-up to assure compliance, not everyone will do it, she said.

Bennett also asked after a code of conduct for government employees, finding there was not an explicit code in the same way as there is one for members of the House of Assembly. The code for MHAs came out of the investigation by recently retired chief justice Derek Greene into constituency allowances and House financial oversight, on the heels of a spending scandal.

It directly addresses a politician’s responsibility from a financial perspective, but also ethics and integrity.

“But what we know — in either the corporate world, not-for-profit world, union environments, all kinds of different environments — is that preciseness of language matters. So for me, I believe we need to update the oath (of office), we need to update the code of conduct for MHAs, we need to update the oath for employees, we need to implement a code of conduct for employees,” Bennett said.

By the time she left cabinet in July 2017, after turnover in her deputies and periodic updates on the anti-harassment work, she said, a committee of government executives had been struck and was working to take action on the Rubin Thomlinson recommendations.

Expectations are high

“We need to modernize our workplace harassment practices, but that requires a lot of work to implement these 15 recommendations this organization made,” she said.

“While you read (the recommendations), while they might take only a sentence to say, with a government that has tens of thousands of people working for it, it is a complex change and management activity to happen.”

The Telegram will have more in The Weekend edition.

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