Their workplace memories involve degrading and violent comments, inappropriate touching, crude jokes, sexist power plays, drunken debauchery, physical intimidation and deep-seated misogyny.

This article was published 2/3/2018 (1586 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Their workplace memories involve degrading and violent comments, inappropriate touching, crude jokes, sexist power plays, drunken debauchery, physical intimidation and deep-seated misogyny. 

Troubling, considering their workplace — the hallowed halls of the Manitoba legislature — have seen women’s rights and gender-equality parameters enshrined into law. Despite that, the atmosphere behind the building’s majestic exterior can be anything but, as allegations about former NDP MLA Stan Struthers inappropriately touching women prove.

As news surfaced about Struthers tickling and groping more than a half-dozen women without their consent, the Free Press reached out to every living female MLA from past to present who could be tracked down. In total, 49 women were asked about their experiences with sexual harassment and misconduct during their time in provincial politics.

The overall experiences of the female MLAs who worked at the Manitoba legislature over the last four decades ran the gamut from "wonderful" to "awful," the Free Press investigation uncovered.

Twenty women were interviewed, two of whom requested anonymity. Four women formally declined interviews and the rest did not respond to interview requests.

The silence from many came as no surprise to Shannon Sampert, associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg and former perspectives and politics editor at the Free Press.

"These are things that are very personal and intimate. This may be something they don’t even talk to their partners about. When women are ready to talk, they will talk. And the women who have come forward have been incredibly brave," Sampert said.

Since 1870, 60 women have served as MLAs in Manitoba — roughly seven per cent of the 834 people elected.

The stories some of them shared show that the legislature hasn’t always been a safe space for women, although some respondents said bullying was a widespread problem for both sexes. The women also said inappropriate behaviour permeated party lines.

"I don’t know if I was just there at a bad time, but it was just incredibly unhealthy... I can’t believe I could be so grateful for having left," said one former NDP MLA, who asked to remain anonymous.

"It really depends on your definition of things. Things weren’t defined as they are now," said Norma McCormick, a Liberal MLA who represented Osborne from 1993 to 1995.

"I would say there was a fair amount of what I would call gender harassment. We were looked upon as less than equals, but you wouldn’t have called it sexual harassment back then."



Joy Smith

Joy Smith, a PC MLA representing Fort Garry from 1999 to 2003, said she wouldn’t want people speaking to her daughters the same way women were sometimes spoken to at the legislature.

"Directed at me, directed at anyone else; of course I saw it (sexist comments and behaviour). All of this was commonplace. It wasn’t appropriate, but nobody spoke out about it. Being a mother of four girls, I wouldn’t want them spoken to in that way. But at the time it was acceptable," Smith said.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Sharon Carstairs had a front-row seat for witnessing misogyny.

The former leader of Manitoba’s Liberal party, MLA for River Heights and Canadian senator didn’t feel she was a target of sexual harassment, although she recalled one instance where she received an anonymous card that read, "‘What you need...’ and then you opened it up, ‘ a good f---.’"

Carstairs is now retired and living in Ottawa after 17 years in Parliament’s upper chamber.

She previously spoke in the Manitoba legislature about being a victim of childhood sexual abuse and her views on sexual misconduct were clear to everyone in the party, former Liberal MLA Iva Yeo said.

Carstairs said she investigated many complaints of "people being overly friendly, as they would phrase it, and that was always disturbing."

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Judy Wasylycia-Leis with nine-week-old Joseph at a committee meeting in 1989. She was called a ‘high-priced babysitter’ by an Opposition member.</p>


Judy Wasylycia-Leis with nine-week-old Joseph at a committee meeting in 1989. She was called a ‘high-priced babysitter’ by an Opposition member.

She also confronted a Liberal MLA after rumours circulated that he was physically abusing his wife. But since there was no proof and the alleged victim hadn’t stepped forward, not much could be done.

In the late ’80s, evening sessions at the legislature were eliminated, a move Carstairs believes helped curb some bad behaviour.

"Many of the men had literal liquid suppers. I think that frequently would lead to unacceptable attention on some of the women," she said.

In addition, Carstairs remembers unsolicited arms draped around staff members’ shoulders and attacks on then-NDP MLA Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who took her baby to work.

"When I was first elected, my child was two years old, so I had a playpen in my office," said Wasylycia-Leis, who represented St. John’s from 1986 to 1993. 

"One of the Opposition members called me a ‘high-priced babysitter.’"  

Media coverage could also be unflattering and sexist, including a 1986 article about her in the Free Press.

"The writer focused on the colour of my dress, my stockings, my jewelry. Contrast that to a new man in cabinet at the same time, Gary Doer. I don’t think there was any mention of what type of socks he was wearing or the colour of his tie," Wasylycia-Leis said.

TOM HANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Sharon Carstairs</p>


Sharon Carstairs

Other women who served in the ’80s reported no complaints, including four NDP MLAs: Muriel Ann Smith (Osborne, 1981-88), Doreen Dodick (Riel, 1981-86), Maureen Hemphill (Logan, 1981-90) and Myrna Phillips (Wolseley, 1981-88).

"I dare to say there was some of it going on. The general attitude towards women and women’s issues was concerning," Smith said.

Phillips, however, said she never suspected or witnessed any improper behaviour, adding she was always proud of her caucus and male colleagues. 

The next decade of Manitoba politics brought forth fresh faces and more conflicting views on what constituted appropriate behaviour in the workplace.

NDP MLA Marianne Cerilli, who represented Radisson from 1993 to 2003, described run-ins that were childish, sexist and, in one case, "borderline violent."

"They called me Karla Marx (as a reference to Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto) for 13 years. They called me Harla Karla, which was a name that obviously had some sexual innuendo there about me being a harlot. They never called me Marianne," Cerilli said, referencing the men in the Tory caucus. Some male members of the opposition also mimicked shooting a gun across the floor at her.



Former NDP MLA Marianne Cerilli

Cerilli has many "horror stories" about her time in provincial politics, but says one in particular — involving former PC MLA Don Orchard — sticks out.

While serving as environment critic in 1994, Cerilli claims Orchard, who was then-minister of energy and mines, spoke to her in a way that went beyond the run-of-the-mill sexism she was used to.

"(He) told me that I needed to be, ‘Taken out to the woodshed and slapped,’" Cerilli said.

She filed a formal complaint, which was bolstered by bipartisan solidarity from Liberal MLA Norma McCormick, who said she’d also heard Orchard’s comment. 

"But, of course, it was ruled it couldn’t be proved," Cerilli added.

At the time, Orchard denied making the comment in a Free Press article.

"This is grandstanding on a very slow news time in a very slow session by a very weak opposition joined by a very weak second opposition party," Orchard said at the time. 

Meanwhile, on Parliament Hill...

Former NDP MLA and current Liberal MP MaryAnn Mihychuk said she's witnessed more than 10 instances of inappropriate behaviour while sitting in the House of Commons. She has represented the Winnipeg riding of Kildonan-St. Paul in Ottawa for about two years.

Former NDP MLA and current Liberal MP MaryAnn Mihychuk said she's witnessed more than 10 instances of inappropriate behaviour while sitting in the House of Commons. She has represented the Winnipeg riding of Kildonan-St. Paul in Ottawa for about two years.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>MaryAnn Mihychuk</p>


MaryAnn Mihychuk

"I didn’t really see (sexual misconduct) in the legislature in Manitoba. It was surprising to see it in Ottawa now," Mihychuk said in a recent phone interview. "It’s done sort of just in passing. Or you’ll see individuals give extremely long, inappropriate hugs to certain people and they happen to be very attractive."

The MP said she hasn't pointed out the gestures in the moment, but she does take note of the more subtle behaviour and wonders if others do, too.

"I don’t think (male MPs) notice, no. They think, ‘Wow, there’s a gorgeous woman there. Can I get close to her?' But now, I’ve got to say, that a lot of men have talked to me about, ‘Whoa, what’s OK?’ (since the #MeToo movement began)," Mihychuk said.

Her recent conversations with some male colleagues have focused on what's workplace-appropriate, in terms of hugging or touching. But some men she spoke with have taken behaviour-policing to the extreme.

"I’ve had many colleagues say, 'I don’t even have a meeting with women now. I won’t be in a room with them. I’m nervous. I don’t hire female staff.' And it’s like, 'Whoa, just chill... let’s use reason here," she said.

The two other female MPs representing Manitoba are Candice Bergen, the PC MP for Portage-Lisgar, and Niki Ashton, the NDP MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski.

Bergen wasn't available for an interview, but her office sent a statement on her behalf.

"Harassment in all forms should not be tolerated in any workplace and should be subject to thorough investigation. Canadians should feel safe in their work environment," the statement said.

"Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has mandated that all members of our caucus participate in anti-harassment training. As Conservative House leader, I will continue to work with my colleagues to help create a workplace that fosters respect and safety for all."

Ashton was first elected in 2008 and said she's been subject to sexual harassment in the time since, mainly from inappropriate comments made by other elected officials, she said. The culprits cross party lines.

"I would say that sexism, overall, is so prevalent in politics. It manifests. You can see it in very overt ways… and also behind closed doors," she said.

In the House of Commons, about 74 per cent of MPs are male. The gender imbalance in politics translates to “fertile ground for things like harassment and even assault,” Ashton pointed out.

The NDP MP said she has also raised misconduct issues to higher-ups on behalf of other political staff and volunteers. The momentum of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements is giving some women strength to talk about sexual misconduct, she said.

“I believe that we are seeing the potential for a culture change,” she said. “But I will say that there’s a lot of work to be done to change the culture and that work needs to be done by men in power — both elected and in senior positions of our parties.

“We’re not going to change the culture by just having women speak out. It’s going to change when men’s attitudes and behaviours change."

— Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

In 1994, McCormick told the Free Press the conduct in the house was an eye-opener when she was first elected.

"It was the first time where the expected code of conduct was to be rude and ignorant," she said nearly 25 years ago. "I’m very troubled by it. If we are truly wanting to address the issue of violence in society, then we have to start with the way we treat each other."

In 2018, McCormick also made a second accusation against Orchard. She claims not long after that initial incident, he approached her at a holiday party at the legislature and forcefully stomped on her foot.

"By nature, (Orchard) was just an abusive personality. But I believe women were more of a target for him," McCormick said.

Recent attempts to reach Orchard were unsuccessful.

McCormick thinks women often didn’t speak out against sexist treatment for fear of conforming to the stereotype that they weren’t cut out for the tough world of politics.

"You already knew people were looking at you with certain ideas and you wanted to disprove them. It wasn’t that we thought we didn’t deserve better treatment — we did," she said.

"But, at least personally, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same for others, there was this sense that I should just suck it up. Don’t let it get to me, don’t rock the boat."

In addition to name-calling and the incident with Orchard, Cerilli said there was also a time when two men in her party physically stopped her from distributing a paper in caucus.

"They stood in the way, between me and the table, so I couldn’t distribute the paper. I remember who they are, but am not going to name them. They didn’t want me to circulate this paper on a forestry issue and the clear-cutting of trees. So they physically prevented me from distributing it," she said.

Meantime, Linda McIntosh, the PC MLA for Assiniboia from 1990 to 1999, said she experienced "nothing that I considered to be sexual harassment, let’s put it that way."

"We had a number of people who were all huggy, huggy, huggy people ... both male and female. (There were) lots of hugs and shoulder rubs, but I never felt threatened. I never felt that they were sexually motivated," McIntosh said.



Linda McIntosh

"Today, I think people would look back at what we considered to be sort of normal friendliness as perhaps motivated by more than friendliness. But back then it was just considered, ‘Oh, so and so is just really friendly. Oh, he’s a huggy, kissy kind of guy.’"

Shirley Render, the PC MLA for St. Vital from 1990 to 1999, said she didn’t have any issues, either. That was echoed by Liberal MLAs Iva Yeo (Sturgeon Creek, 1988-90) and MaryAnn Mihychuk (St. James/Minto, 1995-2004).

Joy Smith saw things a bit differently. She said inappropriate comments and jokes were the norm.

"Women were not supposed to take offence or they were thought to be prudes, or not funny. They’d make comments that I thought were very inappropriate. This has been ongoing for a very long time in all political arenas," Smith said.

Sampert wasn’t surprised that women have different takes on what constitutes harassment and misconduct.

"There is a generational difference in terms of what is acceptable and what isn’t. The line varies. For older women, the line was a lot different than it is for women now," she said.

"Older generations really did have to suck it up. There were no laws to protect us. So we would brush it off and say, ‘That’s just what happened in the day.’ You also have to understand that for a lot of women, it’s not just one act. It’s a number of acts loaded on top of each other.

"It’s not just the sexist jokes told at a meeting or the creepy hands. It’s that, but a number of times, over and over and over again. After a while it happens so many times that I think you just sort of disassociate with it."



Eileen Clarke

Eileen Clarke, the current PC MLA for Agassiz and Indigenous and Northern Relations minister in Premier Brian Pallister’s cabinet, has had enough of the bad jokes in politics, which could be labelled harbingers for misogyny. 

"There was so much of it in my early years... it’s just not funny anymore," she said. "People have to be responsible for what they say and they have to be responsible for their actions." 

Since being elected, Clarke took a misconduct complaint forward to her superiors and human resources staff on behalf of someone else working at the legislature. She said she was satisfied with how the complaint was handled and later encouraged by a lengthy meeting on workplace conduct at a PC caucus meeting earlier this month.

Clarke highlighted that men and women are both susceptible to bullying at the legislature.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Fort Richmond MLA Sarah Guillemard</p>


Fort Richmond MLA Sarah Guillemard

"Let’s be very clear: this is not just against females. This is against males, as well. And we have not heard from males, but believe me, I know for a fact it’s out there," she said.

Sarah Guillemard, the PC MLA for Fort Richmond, said the entire party was "cautioned to be very respectful of each other and to remind ourselves of the workplace policies," after two misconduct complaints landed on the premier’s desk.

While she hasn’t experienced or witnessed any sexual harassment or misconduct, Guillemard said the reminder was appreciated.

"Remember, if you wouldn’t say this in front of your spouse or children or even your own parents, then you probably shouldn’t be acting that way around your co-workers," she said.

Pallister announced mandatory respectful workplace training for all cabinet and political staff last week, emphasizing no government employee should fear reprisal for raising a complaint.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Former NDP and independent MLA Christine Melnick.</p>


Former NDP and independent MLA Christine Melnick.

The provincial NDP is doing its own soul-searching as well, in the wake of the allegations against Struthers, a former NDP MLA from Dauphin who held several cabinet posts in the governments of both Gary Doer and Greg Selinger.

Two female MLAs and at least five other women told media they were subject to Struthers’ tickling or groping them. Kemlin Nembhard and Sandra Delaronde will lead an independent commission investigating the allegations and later establishing new protocols to create a harassment-free workplace.

One of the former MLAs who requested anonymity said Struthers, who served as an MLA from 1995 until 2016,  tickled her twice and was told to stop on both occasions. The incidents happened when they were alone in the legislature.

"I just said, ‘Stop it. Don’t do that. What are you doing, you dope?’ It just didn’t cross my mind that it was something he was doing all the time to people," she said.

Christine Melnick, a former NDP — and briefly independent — MLA, who represented Riel between 2003 and 2016, says long-term efforts to stamp out future toxic behaviour should be a priority for everyone.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Current Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux</p>


Current Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux

"We need to take this opportunity to really work on societal change and really work not only in the political framework, but throughout society in general, to make it easier for people who are having these experiences to come forward with them. And to make it easier, quite frankly, to prevent this sort of thing from happening," Melnick said.

Cindy Lamoureux, Liberal MLA for Burrows since April 2016, said she has called out anything that’s made her feel uncomfortable during her time in provincial politics.

"I think that it’s very important that we’re not talking just sexual harassment, although it’s very, very real. Physical harassment (and) verbal harassment is just as prominent and it’s happening all around us," Lamoureux said.

Another Liberal is hoping the momentum of #MeToo and #TimesUp will lead to some tangible change in both political circles and society generally.

"You can’t investigate something that the young woman doesn’t want investigated. Now I’m hoping that the climate — with the #MeToo movement and other types of things — is beginning to dissipate," Carstairs said.

Former NDP and independent MLA Christine Melnick (left), current Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux, and former NDP MLA Marianne Cerilli


Former NDP and independent MLA Christine Melnick (left), current Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux, and former NDP MLA Marianne Cerilli

The bottom line for one former NDP MLA who asked not to be named is this: gender-based discrimination is commonplace and that’s not OK.

What she experienced during her time in provincial politics ranged from disrespectful and demeaning comments to sexual misconduct and harassment.

"One of the things about (the legislature) is that there are a lot of men who make you feel uncomfortable, period. If you ask around you’re going to find stories about actual flat-out harassment, but you’ll also find stories about people just being patronizing," she said.

"But it’s not about the scale. It’s not like somebody has to be raped then suddenly it matters. It’s the fact women are made to feel uncomfortable. We need to expect (men) to step up their game and behave properly."

She believes the experiences of women at the legislature aren’t all that different from the experiences of women in every other sector. The world of politics, while placed under a microscope, is really just a microcosm of society at large, she said, adding since reporters don’t reach out to women in other industries, their stories are rarely heard.

In her opinion, it’s not a story about Stan Struthers, a handful of MLAs, one political party or provincial politics as a whole. Rather, it’s about how women are treated, in general. In schools and universities, classrooms and lecture halls, boardrooms and newsrooms, hospitals, private businesses and pretty much everywhere else, she thinks the story is largely the same. 

And now is the time for a rewrite. Twitter: @_jessbu Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.