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Lana Payne: Add women, change politics

Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu arrives for a Liberal cabinet retreat in London, Ont., Jan. 12. — Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu arrives for a Liberal cabinet retreat in London, Ont., Jan. 12. — Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

This past week, it became obvious, if it wasn’t before, why having women — and I would argue progressive women — in politics matters.

Lana Payne
Lana Payne

 


To be clear, when women are at the table, they change what gets discussed. They change the conversation, the priorities, and as was apparent last week, they are also more likely to work together on matters that cross party lines such as sexual harassment in the workplace, including their workplace.

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu, NDP House Leader Ruth Ellen Brosseau and Conservative MP Michelle Rempel showed that solidarity among political parties is possible.

Working together to see the quick passage of Bill 65, which lays out how federally regulated employers must now handle sexual harassment complaints and provide for harassment-free workplaces was an important moment in Canadian politics. The message from Canada’s lawmakers was clear. This will not be tolerated any more. And it’s time.

It was important because these women and many others on Parliament Hill are seizing a moment, using their considerable voices to change things for women. Their efforts will help to change workplace cultures. And they must continue to expose and tackle sexism and sexual harassment head-on and also be prepared for the backlash, the inevitable outcome from nearly every transformative change.

Last week while I was in Toronto for meetings, a taxi driver brought up former Ontario Conservative leader Patrick Brown and the sexual harassment scandal that forced his resignation. He was quick to blame the young women. “What took them so long? I don’t believe them. Why now, just months before a provincial election?” And then finally, he pointed out rather vehemently, Brown didn’t really do anything wrong, it was the fault of the young women. In other words, they were asking for it.

It was an uncomfortable taxi ride. First for me and then for him as I challenged his victim-blaming with as much calm as I could muster when truthfully all I really wanted to do was scream. His comments were a reminder that the power imbalance between women and men is so profoundly misunderstood, ignored, abused, and a big part of why progress has been so incredibly slow.

So while we are witnessing a revolution of women saying enough is enough, the victim-blaming won’t end any time soon, which is why the conversation has to keep going. Sexism must continue to be challenged every single day. As Hajdu noted: “It’s our responsibility to ensure that the light does not fade. Things need to change and it starts with saying emphatically that it is never OK.”

For the first time, the Canada Labour Code changes proposed in Bill 65 around workplace sexual harassment will apply to political staff and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

For those who have been pushing hard for better workplaces for women, against some pretty tough circumstances, by making these issues a priority at the collective bargaining table, the fact that politicians are finally stepping up is long overdue.

Hajdu, who is, without a doubt, one of the best performing, articulate, capable ministers in the federal cabinet, is not shying away from the problem and how the culture on Parliament Hill has been so poisonous for women, particularly young women.

Indeed, her tone, her words, her calm willingness to confront what has for so long been a culture of silence, and her apparent ability to work across party lines, is truly indicative of how recruiting women to politics can result in generational change.

This is what she said in a CTV interview last week:

“I used the word crisis, but what I should have said is actually it has been an ongoing crisis probably for as long as Parliament has existed, because it’s an environment that is ripe for a high propensity of harassment and sexual violence. You have very powerful people, often men. We still only have 26 per cent of elected officials as females. Often the staff that serves them, that work for them, are women, young people, vulnerable people. This sets up the condition where people who have experienced harassment or sexual violence really don’t have anywhere to turn. We have heard many powerful stories about the existence of this on the Hill; certainly we have heard some stories about people coming forward. But we know that it is an all too common experience.”

Sexual harassment at work is an all-too common experience. And ending this in the workplace will lead to broader societal change.

Hajdu made these comments as male politicians were being brought down, dropping like flies, by complaints of sexual harassment, including her cabinet colleague, Kent Hehr, as well as Patrick Brown, the now former leader of the Ontario Conservatives; and Jamie Baillie, the now former leader of the Nova Scotia Conservatives.

If this past week proved anything, it is that a new revolution has taken hold.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at
lanapaynenl@gmail.com. Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

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