Allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Patrick Brown, the former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, took the news cycle by storm. In many ways, this was an event that ushered the #metoo movement into Canadian politics. The quick resignation of Brown’s top team members paired with the statement from PC MPP Lisa MacLeod, indicating that she had reported concerns of sexual misconduct against Brown to the PC Party which were dismissed, heavily suggested that Brown’s alleged inappropriate behaviour was an open secret.
Shortly afterwards, accounts of sexual misconduct and harassment in Canadian politics surfaced. Allegations against men in all three major parties emerged, revealing the pervasiveness and impunity of a culture of abusive behaviour. Most of those who spoke out against this culture in Canadian politics were young women who experienced it firsthand when volunteering or working in local campaigns and as staffers on the Hill. In a CBC interview, Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a former young staffer on the Hill, described being grabbed, groped and kissed as a normal part of her every day.
Unfortunately, this has meant that young women who are eager to get involved in politics are too often confronted with normalized sexually abusive behaviours. Too many young women leave their political careers before they reach positions of power because of gendered barriers. Arezoo Najibzadeh from the Young Women’s Leadership Network noted, “Women leave politics because the political structure is not made for women to succeed.”
Often overlooked, however, are the effects that this systematic exclusion of women from politics have for our society and democracy as a whole. These barriers result in the underrepresentation of women among politicians and judges, which in turn lead to policies and laws that ignore women’s experiences, realities, and perspectives. No doubt this exclusion is responsible for the large number of cases that have been tossed out by judges and juries who dismiss women’s experience of sexual abuse. For instance, only 12% of sexual assaults reported to police have led to a criminal conviction and only 7% to a custody sentence.
As it stands, 50% of our population is not being meaningfully represented because we have allowed a brutal culture of abuse to stop women from achieving high positions in politics. If we want a truly democratic society that represents all of its members, then we need to fight the culture of sexual assault in Canadian politics, not only because it’s unethical but also because it threatens the legitimacy of our democracy.