Now that Canadians are finally opening up about it, our political leaders seem determined to shut down the conversation on sexual harassment and violence flowing from the Jian Ghomeshi affair.
In Ottawa, partisan jousting between two male leaders pits the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair against the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau over the handling of high-profile sexual harassment allegations. The NDP’s bitter attacks against Trudeau for daring to air the accusations (and act on them) have poisoned — and paralyzed — the parliamentary debate.
Lacking impartiality and credibility, the House of Commons has dealt itself out of the equation. That creates an opportunity for Canada’s second-biggest assembly, at Queen’s Park, to step into the political vacuum.
What better way for Ontario MPPs to show leadership than by creating a safe and dignified space for people to come forward on the once-taboo topics of sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual violence outside the workplace, and everything in between?
Bizarrely, however, Premier Kathleen Wynne is closing her ears to the idea. Her Liberal government is stonewalling perfectly reasonable requests from Progressive Conservative MPPs to conduct public hearings across the province.
Not every issue cries out for a special committee of parliamentarians, but this one lends itself to the format. Politicians cannot produce miracles, nor play the role of a truth and reconciliation commission. But the legislature could break new ground merely by giving women a voice — and by listening to experts in the field who can break down pernicious and persistent myths about the perpetrators and victims of sexual violence.
The fact that female parliamentarians — not just unnamed New Democrat MPs, but now former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps — are coming forward with belated allegations of harassment and assault attests to the universal nature of the problem. The latest reports of sexual assault by doctors — and the secretive, hesitant responses from the College of Physicians and Surgeons — also cry out for reassessment.
Why are Wynne’s Liberals so reluctant to listen? The premier asserts that she has handled the problem within her own party by acting on confidential allegations while respecting requests for privacy.
But how is Wynne helping everyone else? Led by veteran MPP Laurie Scott and her female colleagues, the Tory caucus wants the premier to look outside the Liberal party’s interests to consider the public interest.
Many complainants — even people in public life — are still reluctant to come forward and name names. But we can still give voice to those who want to share their stories — with or without names — if only to raise public consciousness and awareness.
We know that the criminal justice system can be a hostile environment for female victims who are doubted, cross-examined, and sometimes humiliated for the seeming “crime” of reporting a crime. Public hearings — and occasional closed sessions — might raise better ways of preserving the rights of women while protecting the rights of the accused.
Experts could lay out a compelling case for why victims should at the very least report the details of an assault to police, so that there is a paper trail of so-called “similar fact” scenarios to help build a case against an accused that goes beyond simple he-said she-said conflicts. Within the workplace, the committee could recommend updates to the human rights code, or ad hoc university panels, which operate outside of the criminal justice system and therefore accept a lower burden of proof.
Ignoring the opposition’s compelling arguments, and oblivious to the Liberals’ past promises of open government, Wynne has rejected Tory overtures for a co-operative approach. After winning a majority last June, the onus is on the premier to rise above past resentments and reach out to the opposition for the greater good.
That’s how MPPs from all parties came together years ago to tackle mental health issues and, before that, family violence. It was as a young female politician, serving on a committee studying “Wife Battering” — as it was then called — that Copps says she was assaulted by a male MPP. Notwithstanding that ugly incident, the committee as a whole did important work on spousal abuse in the early 1980s.
If the Tory majority could support those groundbreaking hearings on a little-understood issue three decades ago, why should a Liberal majority be so resistant to realities in 2014? We know politicians are good talkers. Can they also be good listeners?
Will they talk to each other — please — and find a way to hear the personal stories of Ontarians?