When it comes to sexual harassment, Canada’s parliamentarians have long lived in a painstakingly maintained glass house.
From the moment the Jian Ghomeshi story broke last week, it was only going to be a matter of time before cracks appeared in the politically correct façade of Parliament Hill.
The allegations of sexual improprieties that have been levelled at the former CBC broadcast star will eventually be sorted out in court.
But they opened the floodgate for a host of previously untold stories of sexual assault and/or harassment.
With more women coming forward daily with bad experiences of their own, the question was not if but when the fallout would reach Parliament.
Some cracks surfaced on Wednesday when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau turfed two MPs out of his caucus.
Montreal MP Massimo Pacetti and Newfoundland MP Scott Andrews were ejected pending an investigation of allegations of “personal misconduct” made by two female NDP colleagues. Their candidacy in next year’s election is on hold.
Also on Wednesday, the National Post’s John Ivison reported the story of a former intern who allegedly was sexually harassed while assigned to the office of a Liberal MP eight years ago.
She asked Ivison not to use her real name. The identity of the MP was also withheld.
But based on his knowledge of the culture of Parliament Hill, the veteran columnist decided that her story was “entirely plausible.”
In Ivison’s place, I too would have gone out on a columnist’s limb for this former intern — based on my own generic knowledge of the place.
Among the women who currently toil on or around the Hill, there are few whose institutional memory of the ways of Parliament Hill goes back as far as mine does.
I first came to Ottawa to report on federal politics in 1977 as a very junior twenty-something Radio-Canada reporter.
It was a brief sojourn.
Within a few months, I came to the conclusion that the then-male bastion of Parliament was not the best working environment for a young female journalist to spend her formative professional years in.
A few days before I headed back to Toronto and a freelance journalism gig my colleagues invited me to tag along to a Quebec MP’s annual Christmas office party.
There were a few other women attending the party but they had been hired for the occasion and each had settled on a male guest’s lap by the time we arrived.
It was a decade before I returned to the Hill. There were more women in Parliament the second time around but its boys’ club mentality seemed fundamentally unchanged.
Over the years that followed, I remember counselling a younger colleague who wondered if she was cut out for political coverage after a failed attempt to connect with the Liberal leadership team she had been assigned to.
A dinner with one of the candidate’s organizers had ended abruptly when her guest called for the bill and chided her for not having understood that she was meant to be dessert. I suggested sticking to lunches in the future.
On the constitutional road show a few years later, I remember how women staffers and reporters all knew better than to risk being cornered in a seat by a certain MP on the committee’s bus.
On two occasions, people associated with the parliamentary page program casually dropped hints that their protégés sometimes had to interact with MPs or senators whose hands tended to travel.
Over time the number of women in the press gallery reached a critical mass.
A more egalitarian generation of politicians found its way to the Hill. It includes a significant contingent of women.
A washroom off the lobby of the House of Commons was even made accessible to them!
But it apparently takes longer to change attitudes than it does to relocate a washroom.
The allegations that have surfaced this week suggest that some old habits die hard — including that of sweeping harassment issues under the rug.
Few are more vulnerable to allegations of personal misconduct than elected politicians and there has long been an implicit gentlemen’s agreement (pun intended) between the parties to deal with such matters under the radar.
Until now …