Canada Grapples With Its Own Deluge Of #MeToo Allegations

Parliament is fast-tracking a new workplace harassment bill after a number of political leaders were forced to resign over alleged misconduct in recent weeks.

What started in October as a rallying cry to purge Hollywood of sexual predators has evolved into a global reckoning ― ousting alleged abusers from the U.S. Senate, Westminster in Great Britain and beyond. The #MeToo movement, sparked by women demanding accountability for sexual misconduct, is now exposing an ugly side of Canadian politics.

On Friday, HuffPost Canada reported that a senior member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party team stepped down after multiple women accused him of behaving inappropriately in the workplace. The departure of Claude-Éric Gagné, who allegedly harassed female staffers while serving as Trudeau’s deputy director of operations, is the latest in a shocking wave of misconduct-related resignations shaking up the capital.

Political upheaval

Late last month, two provincial Conservative Party leaders stepped down within 24 hours. The Nova Scotia Tories’ Jamie Baillie was the first to go on Jan. 24, after an independent investigation found that he breached workplace harassment rules. The next morning, Ontario Conservative leader Patrick Brown resigned, leaving his party in disarray months before provincial elections. Two women have accused him of committing graphic sexual offenses several years ago.

The Ontario Conservative Party president, Rick Dykstra, who allegedly sexually assaulted a young employee in 2014, stepped down days later.

On Thursday, the New Democratic Party announced the suspension of Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir, pending an investigation into harassment allegations. Months earlier, a teenage student claimed that a former candidate of the Saskatchewan NDP had raped her.

Trudeau’s Liberals, haunted by sexual misconduct scandals preceding the 2015 election, lost federal cabinet minister Kent Hehr on Jan. 25. Hehr quit his post as sport and disabilities minister after his former colleague, Kristin Raworth, accused him of making inappropriate sexual remarks years earlier. Raworth said she decided to eventually speak out because “it’s incredibly important in the current climate we are in that we have these conversations about abuse of power and sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The government’s response

The prime minister also accepted the resignations of Nunavut MP Hunter TooToo in 2016 and Calgary MP Darshan Kang in 2017 as similar allegations emerged. But the flood of recent revelations has forced him to explicitly address the #MeToo problem brewing in Canada’s Parliament.

“Sexual harassment ... in business and in government is a systemic problem and it is unacceptable,” he told world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, last month. “We must each have a well-understood, established process in place to file allegations of workplace harassment, and when we receive those complaints, we must take them seriously.”

When pressed about how he’s handled allegations within his own party, Trudeau said he considers each situation inidividually.

“I don’t have a rule book that’s been handed down to me from [former Prime Minister] Wilfrid Laurier, as leader of the Liberal Party, on how to handle these situations,” he said during an Ottawa news conference. “This is new for organizations to have to deal with in this way and we are doing the best that we can on a case-by-case basis.”

Last week MPs agreed to fast-track legislation introduced last fall to address workplace harassment in federally regulated industries. Once passed, Bill C-65 would enforce strict privacy rules to protect victims who speak out, and would bring parliamentary staff under the protection of the Canada Labour Code for the first time. It will not apply to people working in the private sector.

Beyond Ottawa

The country’s foray into the #MeToo spotlight has uncovered a culture of sexual harassment and abuse that far transcends the political landscape. Two prominent Canadian gymnastics coaches were recently charged with sexual offenses, and a third was suspended amid allegations that he sexually abused minors decades ago. Albert Schultz, the co-founder of one of Canada’s leading theater companies, was forced to step down last month after four actresses accused him of sexual harassment.

More than 2,400 women have initiated sexual harassment or discrimination claims against the RCMP, Canada’s national police force, and lawyers expect that number could soon rise to 4,000. The organization has a long history of mistreating its female recruits. Currently, two former RCMP doctors are facing a total of no less than 80 complaints of sexual misconduct.

In Quebec, the head of “Just for Laughs” comedy festival, Gilbert Rozon, stepped down in October in the wake of bombshell allegations of rape and other forms of sexual assault spanning decades from well-known actresses and media personalities. On the day of Rozon’s resignation, French media broke a story detailing a series of sexual misconduct accusations against Quebec radio host Eric Salvail

And on Saturday, a HuffPost Canada investigation leveled allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of power against a high school principal in London, Ontario. Two teachers and a former student accuse Michael Deeb of sexual misconduct, including complaining about his married sex life, talking about his sexual desires and making unwanted advances.

Moving forward

The deluge of allegations confronts Canada with some of its most high-profile sexual misconduct scandals since the Jian Ghomeshi case. In 2016, the former CBC radio host was acquitted of numerous counts of sexual assault, despite damning testimony from multiple women. Ghomeshi’s accusers and their supporters used the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported to share their experiences and to demand accountability. His stunning not-guilty verdict later spawned the #IBelieveSurvivors movement.

HuffPost Canada editor-in-chief Andree Lau has noticed clear parallels between the Canadian and American movements that have shone a light on so many previously unheard accounts of alleged abuse.

“It’s no surprise that women in Canada have been galvanized by what’s happening with #MeToo in the U.S. since media coverage flows so easily across the border,” she said.

Lau said she believes the media has a responsibility to listen to and amplify survivors’ stories.

“This time is yet another reminder for us in media to work harder to reach people whose experiences have not been shared and their voices not heard,” she said, “and at the same time to strive for fairness, accuracy and due diligence.”

Follow HuffPost Canada’s coverage of the #MeToo movement here.