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Policies and Mechanisms for Responding to Harassment Complaints against Senators—Inquiry

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of Senator McPhedran’s timely and necessary Inquiry No. 26. As you know, this inquiry calls on the Senate to ensure that we deploy the strongest, most effective policies and mechanisms to respond to complaints against senators of sexual and other kinds of harassment.

According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission:

Harassment is a form of discrimination. It includes any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates you. Generally, harassment is a behaviour that persists over time. Serious one-time incidents can also sometimes be considered harassment.

As senators, we are members of a protected class who are granted extraordinary privilege. This privilege carries with it a great responsibility to ensure that we carry out our duties with respect to the people who work with us. This includes but is not limited to our office staff, administration staff, procedural staff and each other as fellow senators. Respect cannot be legislated. It is a way of life and a foundational behaviour that should ground us all.

Colleagues, if we as senators are to look at prohibiting harassment in a meaningful way in every room and hallway of the Senate, we first need to look at how we interact with each other. This includes both in committee as well as on the Senate floor.

This chamber is uniquely distinctive. Something transcendent and very special takes place every time we meet here. We begin this ceremonial gathering when the Speaker enters with the Usher of the Black Rod and the Mace Bearer.

We then say a prayer, giving acknowledgment to a higher being. In our ceremonial space, we stand at our seats during this portion. We have a reviewed scroll that describes in advance of our gathering what will be occurring, which lessens confusion and should prevent unexpected occurrences that may distract from the proceedings.

We conclude with a motion that adjourns the gathering until the next mutually agreed-upon date, followed by the procession out of the chamber by the Speaker and his entourage. This is an obvious signal to the closing of the ceremony.

As a senator with an Indigenous heritage, I look at this chamber as sacred space. With that, I regard our debates, dialogues and interactions as ceremony. This ceremony entails adopting good intentions and a positive regard for all those whom we work with in and out of the chamber. It requires us to speak truthfully, act respectfully, listen actively and fulfil our duties with transparency and humility.

We are responsible for looking at the issues and problems of this great country and seeing how we can best support Canadians by addressing their concerns and moving forward towards positive, transformational and lasting change. In short, we are each directly responsible for acting in a way that upholds the decorum of this storied institution.

Our ceremonies here involve healing, transition and celebration. As herbalist and ceremonialist Elchai describes it:

My goal is to celebrate the normal, the ordinary and the everyday events with ceremony because, in fact, your whole life is one magnificent ceremony, one long dramatic myth with you as its central character.

The transitional ceremony is especially poignant here since we, as Canadians, constantly stand on the threshold of significant change.

Honourable senators, in my Cree heritage, we use the word ke-nis too teen na? It means: do you understand? It involves the concept of three: Me, the collective you and a higher being — in my case, the creator. This means that anything we do and say involves a spiritual component. Part of my responsibility is to ensure that I hear your story and understand your perspective and that you, in turn, will do the same. This includes actively challenging language and behaviours that make me feel less than, which offend me and which humiliate me, regardless of intention.

It is with this top of mind that I address the prevalent issue of harassment within the hallways of our beloved Senate.

I am concerned, colleagues, because within my comparably short time here, I have witnessed a number of instances of what I would classify as personal harassment on this very Senate floor. The harassment I speak of is bullying in its most basic form. Although some may not view these as terribly serious offences, it is nevertheless personally damaging to the victim. We have to address issues and problems that arise swiftly and at their source. They do not have to be illegal for us to be prompted to actively promote change and betterment.

Honourable senators, as I alluded to at the outset of this speech, harassment cuts a number of ways for us as senators. We must ensure we are held accountable and made fully aware of each of these instances to safeguard against their continued existence.

The first type is harassment against other senators. I have experienced or witnessed this in several forms in the chamber and in committee. This includes inappropriate comments, intimidation tactics, raised voices and interrupting the individual who has the floor.

The second type of harassment, and arguably the more serious type, is harassment against staff. This includes office, administration and procedural staff. I have witnessed our valuable Senate staff endure offensive language, personal humiliation, ostracizing behaviours, intimidation tactics, publicly made critical remarks and inappropriate comments. I would like to repeat these instances were levelled against our staff, the very people we rely on most to ensure we are able to do our jobs and uphold our public responsibilities.

Colleagues, we are currently living in a very unique time in human history, with the current #MeToo and #TimesUp movements maintaining their prolonged deserved and hopefully permanent time in the public’s consciousness, those in positions of power and authority are being held accountable to a degree never before seen.

Harassment is not a gendered issue, neither is harassment correlated to age, race, religion or any other identifying feature. Harassment, at its root, is the pressure, intimidation and bullying that one person inflicts on another.

As we have seen, harassment can become dangerously natural and normalized when the relationship involves someone in a position of power and someone else in a position of subordination. Oftentimes the subordinate simply does not have the ability to overcome this scenario on their own. They are trapped in a toxic relationship, in this case in a working environment where voicing their concern or discomfort can lead to immediate termination and have permanent, negative ramifications on their career. I am heartbroken to think that there may be staff here in the Senate who face such horrific and unacceptable working conditions.

As I said, and it bears repeating, these are individuals who serve us not only as senators, but who serve Canada in their own right. They make it possible for us, those in a position of power and privilege, to successfully discharge our duties as parliamentarians. These individuals should be given our deepest gratitude at every turn, not our ire and anger.

The Senate has come under fire for being found guilty of such abuses. Let it be said that we are not immune. However, I am pleased to be a part of the modernization process wherein our staff are empowered and liberated to speak openly and without repercussion, that they are able to begin to feel safe and secure in their jobs and workplace environments. The Senate is making a sound effort to ensure we all go through a transformative behavioural shift in how we treat each other and our staff.

As you know, the shift began in earnest when our Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets, and Administration struck their Subcommittee on Human Resources. It was through in camera and private meetings of this subcommittee that our staff were given the opportunity to speak candidly and bluntly of any harassment they have witnessed and suffered during their employment here.

It is the courage of these individuals that has given the Senate the wake-up call it so dearly needed. Their strength in testifying enabled members of that committee to understand the scope of the issue. With this understanding, the goal now is for us to effect the necessary widespread change to our culture here.

Honourable senators, the first tangible step in this process occurred last November. As you will remember, it was at that time that all senators and members of the Senate administration in managerial roles were required to undergo mandatory training on how to prevent harassment in the workplace. This three-hour training session was a key recommendation of the Subcommittee on Human Resources first report to CIBA. In my estimation, it was a welcome and needed recommendation as it enabled us to have a stronger grasp of identifying and addressing the underlying causes of harassment in the Senate.

For colleagues, if we cannot treat each other civilly and respectfully, how can we possibly serve as an example for our staff and Canada at large? How can we expect Canadians to hold themselves to a higher standard of living and acting if we are unprepared to do so ourselves? It starts with us, colleagues. We must ascribe to a better mindset. We must strive for civility, respect and compassion. We must approach each other, our staff, our family and our neighbours with love. It is with this radical, transformative, constant approach to standing up for what is right and standing unified against harassment that we can improve ourselves and our country. I am prepared to stand up for this cause.

I extend my hand to each and every parliamentarian who is willing to stand with me. Thank you.

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