Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on February 1, 2018

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Scope of sexual-harassment spreads


It’s starting to be counted down in minutes, rather than hours or days. How many minutes since the last revelation of a powerful man being accused of sexual harassment, sexual violence, sexual impropriety?

The disclosures are shaking halls of power — beginning with the powerful in entertainment, and now, in Canada, in politics. Men who were certain they would lead provinces have been forced to resign and step away because women made allegations. Certainly, a month ago — heck, even a week ago — Ontario’s Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown thought he was on the precipice of something big and now, well, you only had to see his face at the hastily called news conference late last Thursday to see that dream fade away.

Brown may have thought he was going to fight the good fight, but his team packed their bags before he’d even left the media scrum. He had no choice but to step down after two women made serious accusations of sexual misconduct.

Within 24 hours, three men had lost their positions of power in politics. Brown, federal Liberal cabinet minister Kent Hehr and Nova Scotia PC leader Jamie Baillie were all forced to take a step down as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct.

In my media and politics class on Monday, one of my smart students (and let me tell you, folks: these are all smart students) asked, “Should we really be trying these men in the court of public opinion?”

Good question. Should we?

But in a way, as women, we always have tried them in the court of public opinion. We’ve just never gotten a guilty verdict before. As women, we’ve always warned each other about the creep, the guy to be careful around, Mr. Handsy, the guy no woman can trust.

In fact, that was the thing about Hehr, wasn’t it? Women were being told not to go into the elevator with him because he was known to say inappropriate things. Call women “yummy,” for instance.

But it was more than that. There were also warnings circulating in Ottawa for more than a year to stay away from the cabinet minister at receptions.

I was talking about this with a friend here in Winnipeg last week, about the rumour mills and politicians women were warned to stay away from. He, too, had stories about a Manitoba politician, now no longer part of the political game, but once an up-and-comer, who also had a reputation for being a bit too friendly with women.

I wonder how his career would fare today if he were still an elected official in this court of public opinion. Would he also be branded toxic and a danger to women? It’s only a matter of time before these stories become more than just whispers. The #MeToo campaign will no doubt come to Winnipeg, too. It’s just a matter of time.

Let’s face it, the court of public opinion has been around for years, but only now has its verdicts begun to have consequences.

One of my favourite journalists, Jennifer Ditchburn, editor-in-chief of Policy Options, suggested last week that more gender balance in politics equals less BS in politics. In a series of tweets, she laid out her assertion there are a lot more women on the job on Parliament Hill these days, and as a result there is a difference in how women are treated.

That means now there are more women politicians and more women journalists, more women in positions of power to say that bad behaviour will no longer be accepted, and it’s time to change the power dynamic.

Another student in my Monday class says the #MeToo movement has made him feel like he has to act differently: be more careful about what he says and how he acts so that women aren’t afraid of him.

A female classmate responded by saying that’s exactly what it’s been like to be a woman in this world all along. And she’s right. For years, we’ve been warned about being careful about how we act. It’s high time for men to monitor their own behaviour. Start by not staring at a woman’s breasts. Or saying she looks yummy in an elevator. That’s a good place to start.

In Edmonton, Kristin Raworth, the woman who posted the first tweet alleging Hehr’s misconduct, has now received death threats. She told the Edmonton Journal on Sunday she wishes she hadn’t said a word about what Hehr allegedly said to her while she worked with him when he was an Alberta MLA. Now, she says, she’s afraid to leave the house.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still hasn’t kicked Hehr out of the Liberal caucus, even though he has done so in the past to other Liberal MPs in similar circumstances. Perhaps it’s because Hehr represents the last Liberal seat in Calgary — a city that, until 2015, hadn’t elected a Liberal MP since 1968. Calgary’s other Liberal MP, Darshan Kang, resigned from the Liberal caucus last year amid sexual-harassment allegations.

Of course, our feminist prime minister would never let politics get in the way of doing what’s right, would he? You decide.


Shannon Sampert is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Winnipeg.

This work is not part of our creative commons license and is used with permission from the Winnipeg Free Press.

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