OTTAWA – The #MeToo movement may have given national prominence to the issue of sexual misconduct on Parliament Hill, but some of the responses to a recent Canadian Press survey suggest bullying and exploitation of those who work for political bosses are largely unexamined problems.
“Sexual harassment happens and is devastating to those that experience it, but it is dwarfed by ‘regular’ harassment that is far more prevalent and just as destructive,” wrote one respondent to the anonymous online survey, which asked political staffers in Ottawa for their views and experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment.
“Many staffers have broken down, were forced out of their jobs, and many have contemplated suicide over the intense harassment and exploitation of staffers.”
The Canadian Press questionnaire was distributed among those who work in the Hill offices of MPs, senators and cabinet ministers. There is no way to verify the size of the population, so the non-representative results of the survey do not allow for broad conclusions about the prevalence of the problem.
Still, the 266 responses do provide a rare glimpse into how both male and female employees perceive the challenges they face as they work behind the scenes for powerful political superiors.
Sixteen of the 75 people who responded to an open-ended question at the end of the survey inviting additional comments or feedback raised the issue of workplace bullying, abuse of power, exploitation or other forms of non-sexual harassment.
“You would be surprised by how many offices burn through staff and how many staff are afraid to speak out because there are no good options for recourse,” one respondent wrote.
“I’m more concerned about a different type of power play on the Hill,” wrote another, noting the lack of job security leaves staffers vulnerable to exploitation. “I personally have more than 300 overtime hours each year, which are not even recognized in any way.”
One respondent wrote that while it is difficult to believe sexual harassment would be more common in politics than elsewhere — especially considering the higher risk that allegations against elected officials become public — day-to-day workplace mistreatment is another matter entirely.
“It seems clear that psychological harassment is a much more widespread (and very serious) problem in politics compared to other workplaces,” the respondent wrote. “This is because it is an environment where employees are treated as disposable resources and it is much more difficult to prove.”
Another respondent described the bullying as sexist — rather than sexual — in nature.
“My boss has made sexist comments towards me, belittled me and bullied me for the primary reason of me being a woman,” she wrote.
“His microaggressions have resulted in increased stress at work, and I am actively seeking another job outside of Parliament Hill. I can no longer tolerate this abuse and I cannot depend on anyone here to make it stop.”
The Canadian Press emailed the online survey, which was available from Feb. 20 to March 12, to staffers currently working in the parliamentary offices of MPs and senators, as well as to key ministerial aides.
The emails were sent to roughly 1,500 people, although it is difficult to determine precisely how many actually received the message, since recipients were also encouraged to share the survey with any colleagues currently in qualified roles.
The Canadian Press has agreed to shared anonymized, aggregated data with Samara Canada, a non-partisan charity that promotes civic engagement, for further research. The organization also provided feedback on the design of the survey.