Campaigns strengthen harassment training in the wake of MeToo movement

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, left. The parties are stepping up harassment training as the campaign kicks off. (Canadian Press)

Patty Hajdu remembers encountering an angry — and racist — person at the doorstep.

“I hit a door where someone said, ‘Oh, you’re a Liberal?”‘ Hajdu, the federal employment minister seeking re-election in Thunder Bay, Ont., recalls of her experience in the 2015 campaign.

“(He) went on to make some of the most horrifically racist statements about Indigenous people that I have heard in a long time — and I’ve heard a lot.”

She says she told him that his views were repulsive and that the conversation was over.

One of her young volunteers was surprised by her response and asked whether she was really allowed to do that.

“It stunned me that he didn’t know,” she says.

Ensuring that everyone involved in an election contest is aware of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to discrimination and harassment, sexual or otherwise, is part of new mandatory training sessions for all Liberal candidates and campaign managers across the country.

The MeToo movement revealed Canadian politics is not immune from these issues and that the people, often young volunteers, who do a lot of the grunt work to run the party machines are particularly vulnerable — and demanding better.

The Conservatives are also running the biggest training program in party history as part of their response to a report on how former Conservative MP Rick Dykstra remained on the ballot in 2015 even after party insiders learned he had been accused of sexual misconduct. He has denied wrongdoing.

The New Democrats also have an anti-harassment policy, but did not say whether they are doing extra training for candidates when The Canadian Press asked.

Volunteers, workers not as safe as they could be

Dallas Thompson, who runs a consulting firm that has been helping U.S. political campaigns to develop anti-harassment policies, says campaigns often know little about human resources, given they pop up to fight an election and then disappear once the votes are counted.

“They are not built for the long term, and so they lack a lot of the traditional structure, which other workplaces have,” says Thompson, the founder of Bright Compass. “(That) oftentimes leads to workers not being as protected as they could be.”

She says sharing best practices on things like alcohol consumption at after-hours events or dating in the workplace can help save campaigns from having to reinvent the wheel — or flail about in a crisis.

A “Safe Campaigns” online training module developed by the Liberals touches on how politics can be different from the average workplace.

“Social activities are a key part of political culture — it’s how we form relationships and build a sense of community,” says one of the slides from the training. “But the rules apply there too.”

It also urges campaign leaders to “amplify” the voices of those who appear to be repeatedly dismissed or ignored, making sure to give them credit for their ideas — a practice commonly promoted by feminists and other social-justice advocates.

“What we want to have are respectful organizations and a campaign is no different,” says Hajdu.

Conservatives update their policy

The Conservative Party of Canada updated its own workplace anti-harassment and discrimination policy in July, and it also has a code of conduct for volunteers, campaign staff and those who work for electoral district associations.

Spokesman Cory Hann says the party is putting the finishing touches on an anti-harassment policy that will apply specifically to candidates in the Oct. 21 election, and expects to be done in time for the campaign to officially begin.

Julie Lalonde, a public educator who often conducts anti-harassment training, says that since it is not feasible for political parties to thoroughly vet the thousands of volunteers who stream into local campaign offices, it is important to have robust policies that can force problematic people to leave.

“That’s an issue when you’re talking about being desperate for folks to help with your campaign,” she says.

“Oftentimes, a huge reason why people don’t get the boot is they need those volunteers.”

Arezoo Najibzadeh, executive director of the Young Women’s Leadership Network, helped create a toolkit for campaigns seeking to make their environments safer for staffers and volunteers.

She says it can be as simple as making sure to avoid sending young volunteers to knock on doors alone and giving them bus tickets or other ways to get home or otherwise leave risky situations quickly.

“We’ve had stories of indecent exposure or sexual harassment that volunteers have experienced while they are door-knocking,” she says.

Najibzadeh says efforts to understand why harassment is happening can be more effective than any policy on how to respond to it.

“I believe that sexual violence, like every other form of oppression and violence, is a cultural one and policies can only go so far as to reacting to allegations and stories of sexual violence once survivors do come forward,” Najibzadeh says.

“I don’t think that political parties or a lot of political spaces have been proactive in ensuring that we are addressing this issue at its roots,” she says.

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