#MeToo Movement Spills Across a Border and Intensifies
Posted January 29, 2018 8:06 p.m. EST
Updated January 29, 2018 8:12 p.m. EST
OTTAWA, Ontario — Michelle Rempel was debating a sexual harassment bill in Canada’s House of Commons on Monday when she suddenly fell silent. Rempel, a Conservative lawmaker from Alberta, dropped her prepared remarks onto her desk, stretched out her arms and turned her palms up.
“I don’t want to sit in this place and have this conversation again,” she told the chamber. “I don’t want another woman coming into my office. This needs to stop and it needs to stop now.”
Monday’s frank debate in Canada’s seat of power about sexual harassment and politics was the latest, and most potent, response to the #MeToo movement that is sweeping the nation in ways that have surprised even hardened Canadian feminists.
In a country that often defines itself in the ways it is different from its larger and more bellicose American neighbor, Canadian women have been both inspired and dispirited by what is happening across the border and moved to speak out themselves.
One notable difference, however, is that Canadian politicians from all parties are strongly calling for changes and supporting victims who are increasingly coming forward.
“The MeToo and Time’s Up movements have helped women and other survivors from around the world to bring their stories forward and shine a spotlight on harassment and sexual violence,” said Patty Hajdu, Canada’s labor minister, while opening the debate on stronger sexual harassment protection legislation in the House of Commons, “and it’s our responsibility to ensure that light does not fade.”
One lawmaker after another rose to support her bill, and in some cases, argue that it should be strengthened.
The debate came, coincidentally, as Canada is reeling from a maelstrom of accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior against men in positions of power, and their swift removal.
Just last week, two provincial Conservative Party leaders and a federal Cabinet minister resigned. Outside politics, one of the most prominent members of Toronto’s theater community quit the company he founded, accused in a lawsuit of sexual harassment. And last fall, two of Quebec’s most well-known celebrities disappeared from stages and television screens amid accusations of sexual impropriety.
All of the Canadian cases came after revelations last fall about American film producer Harvey Weinstein set off a wave of accusations of sexual harassment and impropriety, with women speaking out loudly through the #MeToo movement and dozens of men resigning from their posts in entertainment, politics, publishing and journalism.
Canada had already been grappling with the issue of sexual assault in various cases through the years, but the volume of women’s voices across the border gave many reason to believe that the climate in their country might have changed, too.
“It’s a perfect storm for reform,” said Michelle Coffin, a political-science professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who worked in provincial politics for more than five years.
It is not only that Canadian women feel emboldened by their American counterparts, she added. They also feel propelled by U.S. politics, she said.
Women are speaking up to make sure “that we do not get to that place where we have a prime minister accused of sexual assault, where there’s a tape of him talking about women in a misogynistic way,” Coffin said, referring to the “Access Hollywood” recording in which Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals.
Paulette Senior, president of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which finances gender equality projects across the country, said the election of Trump galvanized Canadian feminists, too.
“It woke up women out of their slumber, those of us, even me, who took it for granted that could never happen,” Senior said. “We realized that all we have worked for can be lost.”
Over the past week, as the accusations piled up, Canadian politicians from all parties have been swift to demand change and, even more unusually, publicly applaud female victims for disclosing their stories of abuse or assault, even anonymously.
Lisa Raitt, the deputy leader of the Conservative Party, called the women whose disclosures have toppled two provincial leaders from her own party “brave young women” on the national Canadian Broadcasting Corp. over the weekend. “I commend them for coming forward. Now, it’s caused an awful lot of turmoil in politics, but that’s OK.” Rachel Notley, premier of Alberta, put out a message on Facebook on Monday evening: “I say to everyone in Alberta who has been subject to sexual harassment, you have a right to tell your story and share your experience. And that right must come without fear of retribution. Any form of intimidation is wrong. Threats associated with speaking out are also wrong. Completely.”
Notley’s public announcement came after an Alberta political staff member last week on Twitter accused Kent Hehr, federal minister of sport and persons with disabilities, of making sexual comments about her, prompting his resignation. The staff member told various Canadian media outlets that after her accusations she received a barrage of death threats, including one slipped under her door at home.
Unlike the government in Washington, the federal government in Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a self-described feminist, has been leading the push to address sexual harassment. The legislation his government introduced Monday defines it broadly, as any comment, gesture or touching “of a sexual nature” that could offend or humiliate an employee.
The bill also includes as sexual harassment any “condition of a sexual nature” that might affect a worker’s job security or opportunities for promotion. If passed, the changes will set up a formal complaint system and give the labor department sweeping investigatory powers.
The proposed measure also extends the rules to political staff members for the first time. Over the past week, many former political staff members have told personal stories of unwanted groping, kissing and lewd comments they suffered so regularly they thought it was part of the job.
“Things need to change and it starts with saying emphatically that it is never OK,” said Hajdu, the labor minister, on Monday. She said Parliament was “a place where often the victimized individual is blamed for the harassment that she herself has experienced. We are all familiar with this phrase: ‘She brought it on herself.'”
The new definitions and complaint systems will, in practice, benefit a minority of Canadian workers — those who work in the federal government and in federally regulated businesses like banks, airlines and railways. Just over three years ago, the debate over sexual harassment flared up in Canada after the firing and arrest of a prominent musician and radio host, Jian Ghomeshi. That brought the topic of sexual assault out from women’s shelters into coffee shops and onto daily radio shows, where it has mostly remained.
But instead of emboldening other women, the spectacle of Ghomeshi’s criminal trial proved to silence women. In declaring Ghomeshi not guilty, the judge described the female complainants as insincere and deceptive.
Now that the movement is back on its feet, Canadian feminists say, they hope the grass-roots movement catches up with the political leadership, and changes spread from politics and the media into other domains.
“It is a very interesting political time,” said Lise Gotell, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Alberta. “There is a lot of space for feminism. I certainly would not have predicted this.”