MPs have unanimously agreed to pass legislation aimed at cracking down on harassment in federal workplaces, saying it’s time for things to change on Parliament Hill.

CTV's Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme spoke with Labour Minister Patty Hajdu to discuss the impact of Bill C-65.

LaFlamme: You use the word “crisis” to describe the situation. Why is there so much harassment occurring within the federal system?

Hajdu: I used the word crisis, but what I should have said is actually it has been an ongoing crisis probably for as long as Parliament has existed, because it’s an environment that is ripe for a high propensity of harassment and sexual violence.

You have very powerful people, often men. We still only have 26 per cent of elected officials as females. Often the staff that serves them, that work for them, are women, young people, vulnerable people. This sets up the condition where people who have experienced harassment or sexual violence really don’t have anywhere to turn. We have heard many powerful stories about the existence of this on the Hill; certainly we have heard some stories about people coming forward. But we know that it is an all too common experience.

Why up until now has there been no protective legislation?

Well, you know, that is a really good question. I can’t answer why previous governments didn’t take this action. What I can tell you is the prime minister, being an ally to women, who has been a staunch feminist himself, who has talked about gender equality, it’s an underpinning of everything we do, made it very clear to me when I became the Minister of Employment, Workforce, Development and Labour, that in order to get to gender equality in the workplace, there has to be fundamental safety for people that are often the most vulnerable, that are working in federally regulated spaces, and in fact on the Hill. We knew we needed to take action. We are proud of this historic legislation that actually for the first time, as you point out, protects political staff.

Why do elected officials need a code of conduct to recognize that inappropriate behaviour is wrong?

I think it reflects the culture that we live in. It is a patriarchal culture. In politics, it’s actually even more so. It’s a system that is designed by men; it has been inhabited primarily by men. What I can say is the legislation will compel all kinds of members of Parliament along with all other federally regulated employers to have a policy in place, to prevent the experience of harassment in the workplace and workplace violence, but also to take it seriously if it does happen, to make sure that we have a regime in place to respond to complaints, and then finally to support people that experience it. I think, as you point out, we expect that especially Parliamentarians are acting with respect. But as we know, that is not always the case.

Are you surprised by the criticism that these women who come forward face?

It speaks to just how systemically-rooted this problem is, that we criticize those people that often come forward at great expense to themselves, who are criticized when they come forward, who often times risk their own professions, their careers, their job, their own reputation. And often times we have systems and structures that punish people who come forward. It is no surprise to me that people who have experienced violence in the workplace, harassment in the workplace, want confidentiality and privacy. Every person should have the right to determine how public they want to be.

How will the new legislation ensure powerful people are not shielded?

First of all each employer, and that would be each MP, each Parliamentarian, but also federally regulated employers will be required to have a policy that will spell out how they will address the issue of harassment and sexual violence in the work place. They will be required to provide training for all of their staff so all the people know what harassment is, and what to do in fact if it happens, and how to have a respectful workplace. They will be compelled to take action if in fact somebody comes forward. They will be compelled to have a third-party available so that if the person is being harassed by their employer, they will have another person that they can go to and talk about their concerns. And finally, they will be compelled to take action to support people who are experiencing harassment. At no time does this replace the criminal code. So if someone has experienced something that they feel is a threat to their safety or violated the criminal code, they are encouraged to go forward to law enforcement.

Is Kent Hehr now the subject of an independent investigation?

Currently the legislation that we are proposing is not in place. Right now, that investigation sits with the prime minister and the Prime Minister’s Office will take action as necessary. In the future, if a complainant feels that their concern has not been taken seriously and the process has not been followed, they will be able to come to the Ministry of Labour and inspectors from the Ministry of Labour will come into the work place and examine the process and determine if in fact the policy and the process has been followed.

Have you ever been personally impacted by the issues this legislation addresses?

I often get asked that question, and I would say not in this particular sphere. Simply because I am a cabinet minister and I would be considered one of the people with the most power in this particular workforce. I have the ability to set boundaries for myself. Often times, should somebody cross a line that I am [not] comfortable with, I can immediately push back. But that is not the case for millions of vulnerable people across the country, and in the federally regulated space and on the Hill. Often times the people that serve us are the people with the least power. That is what this bill is meant to address, people that don’t have the power or the resources or the support to actually take actually and move forward, to create a safer workplace for themselves.

You are, of course, a role model. What advice can you offer?

I think it is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on how we can’t just be bystanders. How when we hear complaints about people’s safety that we need to support each other, that when women and other vulnerable people are talking about their experience, that we need to step up and support that person to take action. Those of us with power have a responsibility to consider how our actions impact other people. This legislation talks about not just sexual harassment. It talks about the full range of harassment all the way up to sexual violence. That could be bullying and intimidation. It could be threatening behaviour. When you are in a position of power, when you are an employer, it is incumbent upon you that you consider how your leadership style is the mental health and in fact safety of the people of the people who are working so hard to provide services for your organization.