Following new U.S. legislation against sexual relationships between lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill, the Canadian government is open to requiring lawmakers and staff to disclose their relationships, employment minister Patty Hajdu told VICE News in a sit-down interview.
“I think it’s an interesting idea,” the minister said on Monday, adding that she looks forward to hearing what the committee currently tasked with strengthening legislation to combat sexual harassment in parliament has to say about it.
But Ottawa would not ban those relationships like in the U.S., the minister said. She called the American ban on staff-lawmaker relationships a “knee jerk” reaction, and said the new law was potentially unenforceable.
The minister’s comments come in the wake of a series of sexual harassment allegations against politicians in the U.S. and Canada. In Canada's Parliament, the accused include sports minister Kent Hehr, who resigned following allegations of inappropriate remarks to a female staffer, former MP Peter Stoffer, who apologized after he was accused of forcibly kissing a female staffer, and current MP Erin Weir, who has had no specific allegations levied against him but has been suspended from his duties pending an investigation.
The #MeToo movement has exposed people who used their power to harass, intimidate and sexually assault those in vulnerable positions, and the two countries’ responses to the issue is revealing a cultural divide.
While the U.S. is banning relationships between politicians and their staff, the Canadian government has introduced Bill C-65, which would bring all of Parliament Hill under Canada’s Labour Code, and give political staffers better access to sexual harassment complaint mechanisms. Currently, anti-harassment policy in Canada’s Parliament is a patchwork of grievance and complaint processes that allows many cases to fall through the cracks.
Hajdu told VICE News she had resisted the idea of banning staff-lawmaker relationships “simply because I think legislating relationships is a really hard thing to do.”
“As an employer, as an employee, I have been in circumstances in my life where employees have had relationships, people have had relationships, with their manager,” she explained. “I think it’s really hard to legislate relationships.”
When she was an employer, she said one of her supervisors began a relationship with a frontline staffer.
“Do you fire the supervisor?” she asked. “Do you discipline the staffer? Do you force them to separate? And then, do they sneak around behind anyway because they’re in love? It sets up a whole bunch of stuff around monitoring and compliance that I’m not sure employers are equipped to deal with.”
“There was a call for, somebody mentioned … that maybe you should have to disclose if you’re having a relationship with your staff,” the minister said. “I would say that I’m interested to hear what the committee has to say about that idea, but my challenge with anything like that is, how do you monitor it, how do you enforce it, how do you determine who has agency of their own decision-making or not?”
She said the U.S. is “struggling with very similar things.”
“I think it’s probably a cultural choice,” she said of the different approaches. “We’re trying to be thoughtful in what we propose. … If you have policy out there that you can’t enforce, it’s almost as good as having no policy at all.”