Canadian politics can be an incredibly toxic place for many — especially those who do not fit the traditional straight, white, male politician mold. For women working on Parliament Hill, this often manifests itself in the form of blatant sexism and sexual harassment. Woman staffers from all parties endure regular comments about their bodies, sexual jokes, unwanted touching, and sexual assault. This behaviour is largely ignored and, even when it can’t be, is ultimately upheld by the toxic male insider culture of Ottawa.
The power dynamics that exist between boss and employee on Parliament Hill make it extremely difficult for people to share their experiences of sexual harassment without fear of repercussions. When your job security depends on these relationships; depends on your boss’s popularity and re-election, it is easier to put your head down and excuse unwanted advances from your boss. No woman wants to be labeled as difficult to work with. Just speaking up can end your political career.
Back in 2014, two Liberal MPs were removed from caucus when their NDP colleagues spoke up about their ‘personal misconduct’ on the Hill. During the 2017 Daughters of the Vote event, delegate Arezoo Najibzadeh intentionally abstained from taking her seat in the House of Commons to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence on the Hill. She called on politicians to put their words into action. By 2018, it looked like Canadian politics would have its own #MeToo moment. Sexual harassment became a non-partisan issue. Several high profile male politicians including Patrick Brown, Kent Hehr, Peter Stoffer, Erin Weir, and Jaime Baillie were forced to resign due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Mounting pressure from ex-staffers across the political spectrum pushed then Minister of Labour, Patty Hajdu, to pass legislation to address harassment in federal workplaces, including Parliament Hill.
Despite these gains, the sexism that many staffers experience has not changed. More women are running for office in the 2021 Federal Election, but the toxic culture of misogyny that treats them as sexual objects still exists behind closed doors. High-profile women are not running to represent their communities again; notably, Indigenous women have been clear that they cannot work in the toxic environment allowed to thrive on Parliament Hill.
Those of us who live in Waterloo Region must recognize that sexual harassment remains a pervasive issue with our local MPs. This past week, former Kitchener Centre MP Raj Saini suspended his re-election campaign after allegations of inappropriate conduct towards female staffers emerged. This is the second MP in recent years facing harassment allegations. News broke in June 2020 that then Kitchener South-Hespeler MP Marwan Tabbara was facing criminal charges for assault, break and enter, and criminal harassment. Our community voted these men into power.
As a feminist writer and activist, I want to state this unequivocally: I believe survivors. The allegations against Raj Saini are serious, inexcusable, and show that the culture of cover-up remains alive and well in Ottawa. As a queer woman living in Kitchener Centre, I am furious and hurt. How could this have been allowed to happen? The Liberal Party of Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew about Saini’s behaviour. Multiple Liberal staff members reported it to them over six years. Even though they claim to have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, they allowed and initially defended the decision to allow Saini to stand for re-election.
It is clear that nothing substantive has changed in Canadian politics despite us living in the #MeToo era. Powerful men will continue to protect each other until it becomes politically inconvenient to do so. Trudeau now claims that new allegations against Raj Saini forced the Liberal Party to reconsider his candidacy. Saini continues to deny any wrongdoing and will not take responsibility for his actions. Who is going to be accountable? We must take on this responsibility, as a community.
If citizens and neighbours in Kitchener Centre want to change this culture, we have to change the kind of people we elect. Representation matters, but it is not enough. We need folks in Ottawa who understand that these are systemic issues. We can elect MPs who will work to change the system and hold each other accountable, MPs who represent parts of our society that have been historically excluded from the halls of power. We have to change how we vote.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen my friends and neighbours in Kitchener Centre show up for each other and truly work to understand the systematic inequalities that exist in our community. So many of us are working to have hard conversations about racism, Islamophobia, colonialism, capitalism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, ageism — human rights issues that intersect and impact the people of Kitchener Centre.
The concept of intersectionality, coined by Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw, helps us articulate why COVID-19 has worsened the inequalities that already existed in our society. Women, in particular, have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and Indigenous, Black, and other racialized women have been hit the hardest. So what does it mean to vote through the lens of intersectionality? Whoever becomes the next MP for Kitchener Centre needs to be able to actively create space for survivors of sexual violence. They must demonstrate how they have and will make their campaign, their constituency office, their federal office, places where women can work, volunteer, and thrive.
I question whether Kitchener Centre Green Party candidate Mike Morrice can do this given that he has yet to formally address concerns about misogyny and racism during his 2019 campaign. Committing to listen to survivors no longer meets the moment — a serious candidate needs to show the receipts for their actions and lay out their plan for the future. How do they plan to create the space in which they, and their team, can do politics differently?
We should be asking what steps each of the remaining candidates will take to actively address the harm male politicians like Raj Saini and Marwan Tabbara have caused in our community. This is not a new issue; it is systematic. We need an MP who will prioritize these issues and hold their colleagues accountable when they do not follow through. Survivors need to know when they speak up that their voices matter and that we are not just going to sweep their experiences under the rug.
The endless news cycle makes it easy for us to move forward when these issues do not impact us directly. We have to prioritize this change with the same urgency that we take on climate change and safe returns to work because these issues are all connected. We have seen this over the last 15 months with COVID-19 that one individual cannot solve these problems, but a collective response could. Kitchener Centre residents have a responsibility, to survivors and to each other, to get this right.
The 2021 Kitchener Centre campaign now offers our community an opportunity to demonstrate meaningful allyship at the ballot box. As individuals, we cannot hope to possibly change this violent and sexist culture if we keep doing the same things, hoping for a new result. We can demonstrate our collective power. We need to stop prioritizing our individual solutions over community well-being. One clear example of this is the lack of action around the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls by all Waterloo Region MPs. This report, which highlights the very real need for action to stop Canada’s staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people, was released in 2019. At the bare minimum, we must ask all our political candidates what steps they would take to implement the report’s calls to action. Simply saying that this violence is unacceptable was never enough. Voters should not accept this. We have the tools to address these inequalities in our community and we need our leaders to use them.
I want my neighbours in Kitchener Centre to rise to this moment. It’s too late to drop Raj Saini’s name from the ballot, but there’s good chance we could be sending someone new to Ottawa. This person can continue to perpetuate the rampant misogyny on Parliament Hill like so many before them, or they can begin to heal the very real harm men like Raj Saini have always caused with their words and actions in Canadian politics. Individual solutions cannot change the system. We need to change the kind of people representing us if we want to end this cycle of abuse and enact systematic change. Survivors deserve a champion.
Robyn Schwarz (she/her) is a feminist writer and activist living in what is now called Kitchener. She does reproductive justice based organizing and is a trained Canadian historian. She has been a volunteer with the New Democrat Party since 2018, and is currently the acting Secretary of their Kitchener Centre Riding Association.