Within days, top civil servant given the boot from legislature
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/02/2018 (1935 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Long before Stan Struthers became the subject of allegations of sexual harassment, and even before #MeToo became part of the global social and political lexicon, Premier Brian Pallister was forced to deal with an ugly allegation of misconduct against a senior civil servant.
It was mid-2017. According to multiple sources, the senior bureaucrat — a man with a decades-long history of involvement in government, who is not being named out of respect for the victim — was alleged to have sexually harassed a junior staffer.
Within days of the allegation, he was terminated and escorted from his office by security.
Sources confirmed that this incident was one of two referenced by Pallister recently in response to questions about whether he has, since taking power in 2016, had to deal with allegations of sexual harassment. Pallister would not say who was involved, or what specific action was taken in the two instances. Only that in both instances, the incidents were resolved to the satisfaction of the women who made the allegations.
This incident and the way it was handled is, Tory sources said, a graphic example of what the premier has referred to as a “one strike and you’re out” approach to allegations of sexual harassment or other misconduct.
It also stands in stark contrast to the way the former NDP government handled allegations against former finance minister Struthers.
In at least one instance, a serious allegation of unwanted touching was lodged with a senior political staff member of the former NDP government. Although accounts of what happened next have varied, no action was ultimately taken against Struthers. The details of the unwanted touching only surfaced after other allegations of sexual harassment were levelled against Struthers in the media.
These two incidents, and the ways in which the government of the day responded, is an example of the past inconsistencies when allegations of sexual misconduct were levelled against a bureaucrat, political staffer or politician. Even with a fairly strict sexual harassment policy in place at the time in Manitoba, it appears that every case was dealt with a little differently.
There are multiple initiatives underway now that seek to better standardize the administrative and legal responses to allegations of sexual misconduct. Some will be revealed in the next few weeks.
Pallister revealed this week that his government will unveil new protocols around how government will investigate sexual-misconduct allegations. At the same time, Speaker Myrna Driedger has promised to deliver updated and strengthened harassment policy for MLAs and all political and non-political employees of the legislature, “regardless of employment status.”
The NDP has launched a commission to examine past incidents, while also inviting any current and former employee of the party or government to come forward with additional concerns or allegations, and “to identify the systemic failures of the work environment that allowed incidents of harassment and misconduct to occur.”
Out of these efforts, the political structure of the province should be able to move to a new and, one would hope, more sensitive culture when it comes to incidents of sexual misconduct.
That does not mean it will be an easy path.
Public sensibilities around sexual misconduct in all forms is a dynamic and fluid subject in the #MeToo era. Some are concerned about the flood of allegations being made via social media, and the real-time consequences for the powerful men being named. Others still believe that not enough has been done to make women feel safe and secure when coming forward with concerns, either internally or externally.
There is also a question of how the various initiatives will define inappropriate behaviour and appropriate penalties.
Pallister’s “one strike and you’re out” approach suggests that any act of harassment could be grounds for termination. That plays well as political hyperbole but will no doubt be much more complicated as an administrative or legal remedy. Does someone telling an inappropriate joke fall under the one-strike policy? Will mediation — the preferred method of resolution — be a realistic option under a zero-tolerance policy?
And what about privacy issues? The Free Press is not naming the senior bureaucrat who was terminated last year out of respect for the victim, who does not want to discuss the incident and does not want to see any information published that could inadvertently reveal her identity.
However, not naming the man involved allows him to escape any long-term consequence for his actions. It has been a common practice to allow harassers to leave one organization under cover of darkness, only to repeat the same behaviour at another organization. If #MeToo has been effective at doing anything, it has been forcing men to publicly acknowledge their actions and suffer the consequences.
New policies are forthcoming, and that’s a good thing. The Struthers incidents show that more direction is needed to deal with harassment.
At some point, someone is going to have to come up with a system that protects women from any form of retribution while also holding the men responsible for their misery to full account.
One can only hope that the Speaker, or the premier, or a political party will figure out how to do that.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.