Is the Hill just paying lip service to the idea of sexual accountability?
Walking down the ornate hallways leading to the House of Commons, you reach an inescapable conclusion: it’s full of dudes. All but one of the hanging portraits of our prime ministers bear the pasty faces of Anglo-Saxon men.
Kevin Bosch leads me down that hallway, pointing at those painted faces as we pass. He gestures to one former prime minister, a man with whiskers: legend goes he, a doctor, performed abortions on his mistresses. He flags another: he carried on an affair with his law partner’s wife. And another: he, unmarried, loved a man who drowned in the Ottawa River.
Bosch’s tours of Parliament Hill are legendary, telling the long-forgotten misdeeds and unsavoury untold tales of the capitol. A one-time Liberal Party opposition researcher and spin doctor, Bosch now works in the private sector—though he remains an expert on the gritty detail that has been airbrushed out of Canada’s tome of responsible government. Here’s another salacious story from his regular tour: wannabe political assassin Arthur Bremer had planned to shoot United States President Richard Nixon as Nixon exited the main doors of parliament in 1972. Dissuaded by tight security and bad timing, Bremer opened fire on pro-segregationist Democrat George Wallace later that year, hitting the candidate four times. Bremer later became the subject for the 1976 film Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster; Foster became the obsession of John Hinkley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981. Bosch’s mental map of parliament is full of mind-bending tales like these.
But I hadn’t asked Bosch to give me the regular tour when we met up one day in January. Instead, I’d asked for the sex and power version. At the time, there were whispers that allegations would soon surface against federal and provincial politicians across Canada. And since then, many allegations have, in fact, been levelled—at Patrick Brown, Rick Dykstra, Peter Stoffer and Kent Hehr, to name a few—leading to serious public consequences for those men.
You couldn’t say the same for the figures in Bosch’s stories. He has scores of raunchy tales. Some are totally true, some are outrageous rumours and most fall somewhere in-between. What ties them together is that they’ve remained mostly within the stone walls of Parliament. As we pass portraits of the former speakers of the senate, Bosch recounts the three-decade-old story of a journalist-turned-senator scaling the gates of 24 Sussex Drive, butt-naked and red-face drunk; a fellow journalist had to retrieve his nude colleague from RCMP custody.
We pass the offices of Chief Government Whip Pablo Rodriguez. This hallway is also where, the story goes, one member of parliament—before Rodriguez’s time—was mid-coitus with a female staffer when a messenger opened the door and interrupted. The messenger, hot-footing it out of the room, was chased by the exasperated MP, who was still in flagrante. The MP’s partner bolted. The door locked behind her, leaving the MP naked and stuck in the hallway until a guard could let him back into his office. We pass the committee room where the Liberals met in 2014 while they were the third-largest party—the room where Trudeau made the abrupt decision to expel two of his own due to sexual assault and harassment allegations made against them.
That case was a hint of what was to come, in more ways than one. A very public reckoning is now facing men in positions of power, but a few years of reporting and socializing in Ottawa’s inner circles taught me that this isn’t what counts—it’s the ways the conversation changes below the surface that will make a difference. What have we really learned from scandals, both mythic and real? Will today’s public disgraces really force change, or will they simply become fodder for the next round of off-colour parliament tours?
Several months after revelations about Harvey Weinstein sparked the quick growth of the #MeToo movement, Parliament Hill finds itself wrestling with a litany of its own sexual misconduct cases. In public, political insiders and media have been fairly decisive in their attitude towards the men accused. Erstwhile Ontario Progressive Conservative bosses Patrick Brown and Rick Dykstra, former caucusmates in Ottawa, were felled when CTV and Maclean’s unearthed credible allegations against the two. Dykstra lost his job and Brown was forced to step down as party leader (Dykstra’s lawyers told the Canadian Press that he “categorically denies” the Maclean’s story and Brown is currently embroiled in a campaign to clear his name).
During this process, the Parliamentary Press Gallery has been forced to deal with an uncomfortable truth. Dykstra allegedly assaulted a young party staffer at his apartment after a budget night party—the kind of party where it’d be hard to swig your pint without elbowing a national correspondent or a syndicated columnist, even the ones who normally shy away from the parliamentary party scene. How did this happen without any journalists noticing?
It’s a fair question. To answer it, you need to delve into the capitol’s murky sexual politics. Ottawa is, after all, a seat of power. And power is supposedly the ultimate aphrodisiac. Moreover, the trappings of the Hill can’t hurt; some MPs have ample bars in their offices, and it’s not unheard of for others to sleep in theirs when they work late. The country’s lawmakers spend days and nights on the Hill, with their staff, away from their wives and husbands and kids.
Given that culture, consensual affairs do occasionally happen. Some are flings, some are hookups and some even morph into something meaningful. Ministers with staffers, MPs with other MPs, journalists and political attachés. The power dynamics can be troubling—it’s unsettling to see men shack up with women in precarious jobs, women who are technically their underlings. But it would be hard to call these relationships shocking. Often, there’s nothing more than a few arched eyebrows or pointed questions when a minister hops into the back of a cab with a younger staffer.
During Bosch’s tour, it strikes me that journalists and politicians in Ottawa—myself included—have helped mythologize a romantic, swashbuckling mythos of the Hill. One where men in power were noble, where office sexuality was fluid, where politics was organic. Take, for example, way we talk about the various monarchs whose portraits hang outside the senate chamber: plenty of tales of kings and their harems, complemented by stories of dour queens.
While women on the Hill may have always known the score, men—and, by extension, the media and actual leadership around parliament—are only beginning to rethink this collective self-image. They’re delving back into their memories to think of all the times a sauced MP put his hand on the shoulder of an attractive young staffer. Every time an older man in a position of power offered to drop an employee off at her home. Every photograph where a man’s hand appeared to rest a little too low on a woman’s lower back. Suddenly, excuses like “he’s just a hugger!” aren’t carrying much weight; it’s becoming clear that harassment, assault, and sexism aren’t far-off problems, but the banality of the everyday in political life. It remains to be seen whether men in Ottawa are quite ready to dive into an audit of this culture, from questionable dalliances with young staffers to an air of impunity that has provided cover for some men for far too long. To try to navigate the choppy waters of where sexual harassment begins and ends—what calls for raised eyebrows, what warrants admonishment and what constitutes a fireable offence.
It was a warm day in November 2014 when the Ottawa bubble lit up in reaction to a story by Huffington Post reporter Althia Raj: two Liberal MPs had been booted from caucus for allegations of sexual assault. I was standing in the shadow of the parliament buildings, out for a run on a snaking path that flanks the banks of the Ottawa river. Stopping for a breath and checking my phone, I saw the news. I turned on a dime and sprinted for home, making calls on the way. In the moment, the story felt like a signal that we’d turned a corner away from a scene where men in power were protected by a complicit system of sycophants and journalists, and towards accountability.
And, yet, it wasn’t that at all. Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, two long-time Liberal MPs, swore that investigations would vindicate them. They didn’t. Their actions—Pacetti allegedly coerced a colleague into sex, and Andrews allegedly followed a colleague to her home, where he allegedly assaulted her before she kicked him out—had been well-chronicled, and they were drummed out of caucus with scorn. Pacetti retired, defeated, but Andrews ran again, as an independent, coming second with 7,501 votes. There was much public tut-tutting, but in private, the tenor of conversation has often been different: even now, years after Pacetti was booted, for example, many men are still champing at the bit to come to his defence.
Instead of being a turning point, it was part of a larger pattern. Conservative Senator Don Meredith resigned last year after admitting to an ongoing relationship with a teenage girl. Liberal MP Darshan Kang quit caucus in 2017, facing an allegation of sexual harassment from one of his constituency staffers—a recently concluded investigation substantiated many of her complaints. Claude-Éric Gagné, a staffer in the prime minister’s office, was also suspended towards the end of last year, with former coworkers alleging “inappropriate behaviour,” according to Quebec’s TVA. He resigned in February.
There’s one man who sticks with me, however: Kent Hehr. One-time veterans affairs minister, Hehr seems like an impossibly nice guy—he’s always in a good mood. It’s that charm that made me think that, when I saw him put his hand on the lower back of a young female waitress at a dinner in 2016, it was just friendliness. Hehr is quadriplegic, with some mobility in his hands. The waitress came by to take his order, and he wrapped his hand around her waist, seemingly to bring her down to his height. It didn’t quite feel right—he left his hand there even as the smiling waitress appeared somewhat uncomfortable. He talked to her well after he placed his order, keeping his hand there, to the point where I squirmed in my seat, wondering whether I should intervene. The scene stuck in my head for months.
I asked around, to staffers and journalists in the know: have you heard anything odd about Hehr? Does he have a reputation? Do you think this is weird? Most shrugged. Women I spoke to said that sort of thing just happens, sometimes. It’s not good, but it’s par for the course.
Then, this year, Hehr was called out by multiple women who described his sexually charged language, or who felt his hand on their ass. I even reached one woman, a staffer who works outside of Ottawa in a Liberal MP’s constituency office, who said she’d felt Hehr’s hand on her behind during a photo. The male staffer in the photo, who noticed and was alarmed by Hehr’s move, pulled her aside immediately afterwards to register how unprofessional the move was. When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for Hehr directed Maisonneuve to Hehr’s public statement, which says in part that he has committed to participating in a third-party investigation into the complaints brought against him, and that to ensure the process’s fairness, he won’t comment on any allegations until it has concluded.
The #MeToo movement is the closest men have come to hearing the other underground tour of parliament: the whisper network tour. That tour happens every day, when women on the Hill take their female colleagues aside and tell them which men to avoid. These blunt, collective judgments haven’t been shared with those who weren’t trusted, just as individual women have rarely been willing to speak publicly about their own experiences. Now, the strength in numbers that comes with #MeToo—and, I like to think, wider social change—means the impropriety and wrongdoing that we’d shoved to the back of the closet is now straining the door. Along with that release comes important lessons from women who have been quietly handling this problem for years.
Certain names have Long floated around the halls of power, women in Ottawa tell me. One current MP faced allegations from a staffer, only to have them resolved—confidentially—through an arbitration process. Still others—politicians, staffers and journalists—have been known to hug female colleagues a little too long, make jokes that are a little too off-colour, invite women back to their office to raid the beer fridge a little too late. “I was forcibly kissed in the lobby down the side of the chamber of the House of Commons in front of about twenty people and nobody batted an eyelid,” one ex-staffer says.
It’s worth noting that, on Parliament Hill, sometimes rumours are simply that. It is essentially a small town within a small town, with an array of different fiefdoms and camps. Sometimes a whisper or a joke can reverberate off the walls, coming out at the other end as a fully fledged story, complete with vivid details of the politician’s lewd deeds—none of them true. The baseless rumours, though, only occasionally take aim at Ottawa’s powerful men. More often, they target women or gay (usually closeted) men. Ottawa’s sexual gossip tends to be merciless on women in power, in a way that sometimes feels like a weapon, according to one veteran female Hill journalist.
“One of the things that used to bother me was that when a woman was successful, you’d hear she was sleeping with so-and-so,” she says. “That was typical male chatter. The only way that someone could be successful if you were a woman was because you were sleeping with somebody.” If a woman was “older or not considered hot,” she says, a different kind of gossip would spread—that she was unbalanced in some way. “‘She’s a bitch, she’s a bully, she’s this, she’s that,’” the journalist says. “You can’t get her for sleeping around, because she doesn’t look the part.”
Rumours about straight men aren’t generally spread by straight men, and they don’t carry the same implications about whether or not the person in question is worthy of his career. Instead, they’re like the Hill’s form of community watch. Women and their allies keep an eye out, for example, for the fresh-faced staffer at the other end of the bar who’s caught the attention of a sloshed male politician. Depending on the man, you might insert yourself in the conversation to blunt his advances. Or, when he takes off to the bathroom, check in to make sure she’s comfortable. I suspect every woman on the Hill has done this at one time or another—even I’ve pulled this move on repeated occasions.
One reporter, wasted, thought it appropriate to grab a female staffer’s breasts in an open bar. Another, who has now moved on to civil service, gave off creepy vibes—an ex-staffer suspects he was responsible for a series of late-night phone calls after she caught him craning his neck as she entered her number into a friend’s phone. “You know the creepers,” she says. “You watch them. For everyone.”
“What will get you on the whisper network and kind of marked down by mainly women as somebody to steer clear of,” another ex-staffer adds, “[is not] the same criteria that party leaders, senior politicians, senior staff are using.”
To be clear, it’s not minor offences that get you consistently whispered about, I’m told. It’s obvious patterns and serious wrongs. If there’s an apparent power imbalance in a relationship, people generally won’t fuss—as long as it really is a relationship. “If people start seeing each other, they’re going for dinner, they’re going to the movies, that’s completely different from older men who go to these bars or who get younger women intoxicated and bring them back to the hotel room the first night that they’ve met them,” says a former staffer. “These men [talked about on] the whisper network, nobody waits to see [their intentions], because it was another girl the day before, and it was another one the day before that.” With men who touch women inappropriately, it’s the same thing. “Nobody’s panicking that one time you brushed an arm,” she says. “It’s repeated violations.” And if you assault someone? Usually, you can expect it to get around within a few days.
In the lead-up to the last federal election, BuzzFeed News reported that MP Rick Dykstra had bought drinks for underage partiers at a nightclub in his riding. When a picture emerged of Dykstra with the girls, a Dykstra supporter offered them VIP service at the bar for their silence, one of the girls told BuzzFeed.
This incident, which happened a year and a half after the alleged budget night assault, should’ve been considered a huge red flag. But it wasn’t. Dykstra was kept on as a candidate by the party, even after they learned about the earlier assault allegation, which had reached police. When the nightclub story broke, Dykstra simply denied the allegation and the story went away. He lost that election, but was later installed as the president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. It was only after allegations against Patrick Brown came out that Dykstra’s past resurfaced. That was telling, says one of the ex-staffers I spoke to.
“The problem with Patrick Brown, the problem with Rick Dykstra, was not that there was hidden information somewhere out there and oppo research was not good enough,” she says. “The problem was that everyone knew and didn’t think it was enough of a problem.”
Some people have criticized the women involved for making their allegations public through media. But women’s use of the media to tell their stories is the product of a formal system that often silences allegations of assault, harassment and misconduct. When these kinds of allegations are made internally in the House of Commons, they may go first to the Commons’s human resources department, which is not well-equipped to take action. Most often, these complaints end up in the party whip’s offices. Formally, whips are responsible for allocating a caucus’s resources—deciding who gets what office and who sits on what committee—as well as ensuring that members are in their seats for their votes and, in most cases, that they vote how they are expected to vote.
Historically, though, whips have also been called upon to act as political fixers, deep-sixing scandals when they can be hidden, and throwing politicians under the bus when they can’t be. “Their interests lie in minimizing the complaint and ensuring party loyalty,” an ex-staffer tells me. Many women feel that whips’ interests lie, ultimately, in promoting the party. Sometimes that means ousting the accused. Often, however, it means making sure the allegations stay private. (I reached out to the government whip’s office, but they—perhaps unsurprisingly—didn’t want to get into the specifics of how they deal with sexual assault and harassment allegations, instead pointing me to their written policies.)
In recent years, parliament has tried to devise a new policy to handle harassment allegations: putting complaints under the purview of the speaker of the House of Commons—who is, of course, just an MP elevated to the job by their peers. But that system, generally speaking, feeds back to the party whips—the only offices on the Hill really enabled to mete out punishment or censure for MPs who are accused of wrongdoing, but not charged with a criminal offence. (While US Congress recently passed legislation banning relationships between politicians and their staff, Canadian lawmakers aren’t planning to go that far. Instead, a new bill proposes, in part, that MPs disclose these relationships.)
MPs with erratic or troubling behaviour do get monitored closely by their own party. But, according to one former staffer, signs of sexual misbehaviour don’t raise especially big alarms. “I remember sitting around meetings where you’d be like, ‘X MP was furious yesterday… staff have been saying their behaviour has gotten worse and worse lately, and I think they’re due for a bit of a breakdown,’” she recounts. “‘Who can we send, who can manage this person, who can talk them down off their cliff?’’’ She never saw the same red alert happen if an MP had been witnessed, for example, hanging around drunk eighteen-year-old parliamentary pages. “There are conversations where, like, yeah, he’s thrown staplers at his staff like three days running,” she says. “The issue is not that he’s thrown staplers at his staff. The issue is that it’s a sign that he’s going to go a bit crazy, and someone needs to intervene or else he’s going to find a TV camera and vent.”
With so little intervention from within the party, what’s left? An MP once told me that she preferred to rely on “street justice.” That could mean firing off a letter to your party caucus, as one NDP MP did regarding her colleague Erin Weir. It could also mean going to the media—one way to make sure it’s more politically expedient for a party whip to oust an MP instead of burying his scandal.
The reality is that, for all the talk of wanting to clean up the Hill, those who want that change the most are waiting less for expressions of sympathy than for action. Dykstra’s case, women say, proves the inadequacy of all the systems they have: the formal process, the idea of street justice and the whisper network. There’s no straight line between someone’s frat-boy antics and forcing a woman into sex, as Dykstra is alleged to have done—once things move to a bedroom, “you can’t know what happens in that space,” as one woman puts it—but there does seem to be an awful lot of correlation.
It’s disturbing that Dykstra was allowed to pass freely through the halls of power and fail upwards to ever-more important jobs despite it all. But it feels like déjà vu to those female staffers. “While most of us are outraged now and feel that [Dykstra’s] behaviour was unacceptable,” one says, “a lot of people didn’t, and still don’t.”
Men, undoubtedly, benefit from the status quo. They are the dominant gender in the ranks of MPs, senators and managers. Although things are slowly changing, women tend to be shut out of those jobs, hired instead in more junior positions. If there are repercussions from anything sex-related, they are generally not on the man. Women are often passed over for promotion, let go or admonished for their sexual dalliances, whereas men rarely are. Perhaps even more often, it’s women themselves who leave the Hill, disenchanted by its seedy culture.
When men’s consensual sexual escapades are made public, they rarely lead to real consequences. One senator was photographed in a room with several sex workers, and those photos leaked. He’s still there. An MP was accused of an affair with his babysitter. He’s a judge now. The bar to destroy a man’s career appears impossibly high. Women, however, don’t get quite the same benefit of the doubt.
Consider the following case: a cabinet minister has been, over the past few years, carrying on a consensual affair with a woman in his party. There’s not much to be said about the relationship itself, but there’s something to be said about who thought it was relevant. A self-styled journalist who managed to con his way into the parliamentary press gallery with a padded CV elbowed his way into drinks with the female staffer and some friends. Seemingly knowing his mark, he swiped her phone from her purse while she went to the bathroom, exfiltrated text messages and emails, and then spent weeks trying to shop a story based on her texts with the minister to various news outlets. Gossip magazine Frank later published an account of his failed effort to publicize the affair.
The episode didn’t spread too far beyond Ottawa, and did little to affect the minister’s social standing—many were, rightfully, quick to jump in to defend his reputation and admonish the smear job—but it was humiliating for the woman, as the incident appears as the second and third results when you Google her.
This is all part of the way many men talk to each other about sex on the Hill. While publicly shaming the women involved in consensual affairs, Ottawa culture rewards the men involved with back-slapping and knowing grins. I do, after all, have membership in Ottawa’s old boys club, by virtue of my gender if not my sexuality. I can attest to the fact that, once women leave the room, the wolf-whistling antics of Canada’s most powerful men continue unabated. Once the door shuts, men uncork and foam over with comments on their female colleagues’ appearances and how they—by reputation or imagination—are in bed. It’s toxic.
It is the mantra of Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, that the more women in the room, the better. That is, that their mere presence can start a seismic cultural shift. But that’s not enough. “I’ve never seen a male MP stand up against any harassment or misogyny or even [another MP] putting down a female staff[er],” one staffer tells me. “We take our cues from those around us, and if everyone knows Kent Hehr is creepy, but he’s still in cabinet, colleagues still interact with him just fine, you do what you need to survive,” she says. “You know the famous experiment where someone’s collapsed on the street? If you’re the only person who sees it, you’ll likely go. But if it’s a busy street and lots of people are passing by, people will not intervene individually.”
Along with the bystander effect, there’s the simple fact that politics is a 24/7 affair that comes with its own set of blind spots and illogical thinking. In his 1975 book, Thinking About Thinking: Do I Sincerely Want to Be Right?, philosopher Anthony Flew wrote the prime example of my favourite logical fallacy: “Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the ‘Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.’ Hamish is shocked and declares that ‘No Scotsman would do such a thing.’ The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, ‘No true Scotsman would do such a thing.’”
Of course, it’s easy to condemn an opposition party for the misdeeds of its predatory member, but much harder to fault your own caucusmate—no true member of my party would do such a thing. But political self-interest, in this respect, isn’t just partisan. It’s less about Liberals protecting Liberals; Conservatives, Conservatives; NDP, NDPers—it’s often just men protecting men, because taking aim at a colleague across the aisle may only invite attacks on your own party, or even your own conduct. “Mutually assured destruction,” as a female former staffer puts it.
One member of parliament made an observation to me over beers after I finished Bosch’s tour in January: the fifth-largest caucus in the House of Commons, right between the Bloc Québécois and Green, was the sexually inappropriate caucus—those who’d been ousted from their parties after facing allegations of misconduct. This parliament’s iteration consists, so far, of two former Liberals: Darshan Kang, accused of sexual harassment, and Hunter Tootoo, booted after admitting a “consensual but inappropriate” relationship with, as the Globe reported, his staffer and, later, her mother. And those are only the politicians who have been named and disciplined. How many more have escaped any repercussions, avoided the shame caucus?
We can’t, and shouldn’t, measure progress by the number of men who have lost their jobs. Still, by any measurement, Ottawa is a universe away from where it ought to be—and, while the world has changed, the Hill hasn’t come too far from where it was a decade or two ago.
Another former MP told me a story of her first day on the job: after her first question period, when heckles and jeers can often be deafening—and, usually, indecipherable for those watching at home—she ran into the washroom to cry. Not because she was weak or fragile, but because the aggressive sexism from the other side had been worse than what she would’ve heard in a full year on a construction site. We rarely get to put those sorts of words into print, but every once in a while they come out—like when a PC MP derided his Liberal colleague Sheila Copps as a “slut” during a 1991 debate, or when erstwhile Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay supposedly referred to ex-girlfriend and political turncoat Belinda Stronach as a “dog” in 2006.
This past fall, it was still, apparently, okay for Conservative MP James Bezan to remark “this isn’t my idea of a threesome!” in a group photo with female colleagues. And for Liberal MP Nicola Di Iorio to ask a fellow MP “where’s your pole to slide down on?” after hearing her jaunty ringtone.
These are just the comments that MPs feel comfortable making in public, on the job. Imagine what they say in private.
An earlier version of this article stated that Rick Dykstra allegedly assaulted a young party staffer at her apartment after a budget night party; in fact, Dykstra allegedly assaulted the staffer at his apartment. Maisonneuve regrets the error.