The federal government’s commitment to combat workplace sexual harassment has begun in earnest.
Portions of a five-year, $50-million commitment announced in Budget 2018 are being doled out to organizations across Canada in an effort to address the issue.
So far, money has been dedicated to projects in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Ontario and Quebec — each supporting the goal of eliminating gender-based violence and harassment at work.
“Workplace sexual harassment is simply unacceptable,” said Justice Minister David Lametti. “It is crucial to fill the gaps in legal information and resources to support individuals who bravely come forward with complaints.”
While the solutions aren’t necessarily new, employers will need to prepare for systems and frameworks that employees expect to deal with these situations, says Heather de Berdt Romilly, executive director of the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia in Halifax.
“It’s really about effective communication and conflict management and people being trained… about how to properly navigate those often-murky waters on an issue which is very sensitive,” she says.
“Workplaces that have strong conflict management practices are going to be well set up to deal with any conflicts — not just sexual harassment. But sexual harassment tends to be such an emotionally charged issue that, if you can deal well with those types of issues, you’re likely going to be able to deal with the whole range,” says de Berdt Romilly.
“As we find out from employees what the issues are, where the gaps are, then we can try to develop tools to respond to that, that will further empower them and hopefully make it far less easy for employers to turn a blind eye.”
Boosted legal services, education
Half of the government’s financial commitment is intended to boost legal services for complainants of sexual harassment in the workplace; the rest is dedicated toward increasing public education and information, according to the government.
Through both initiatives, the federal government intends to help organizations take a stand against sexual harassment, says Ian McLeod, spokesperson for the Department of Justice in Ottawa.
“Sexual harassment in Canadian workplaces occurs too frequently,” he says. “It impacts the health and well-being of those involved, as well as their ability to perform their jobs.”
The Canada Labour Code defines sexual harassment as any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee or that might — on reasonable grounds — be perceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or opportunities for training or promotion.
Federal funding announcements began in May and have continued through the summer. Each initiative intends to improve access to justice for employees who experience sexual harassment at work, according to the government.
The projects will also put outreach programming in place to better inform workers about their rights and opportunities to access help.
Initiatives in Nova Scotia, Ontario
Each provincial and territorial project is unique.
In Nova Scotia, $2.4 million has been dedicated to funding the work of both the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia and the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies.
The first project will provide legal education and information, while establishing a lawyer referral program to provide free, independent legal advice to victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, says de Berdt Romilly.
“Most employees don’t really understand the process,” she says. “They tend to be afraid of their job security.”
Many victims of sexual harassment have no idea where to begin when it comes to possible legal action, says de Berdt Romilly.
“The #MeToo movement… is great on one hand, but what I see as the downside of it is what has been forgotten or overlooked,” she says. “There can be a complex framework of laws, collective agreements — what have you — with rules that have to be followed.”
High-profile public cases such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein are not typical, says de Berdt Romilly.
“By and large, that’s not how it works in workplaces.”
Employees need to be empowered on how to represent themselves in the workplace and beyond, and that’s why an online training platform will be developed for Nova Scotian workers, alongside an app for sexual harassment reporting, she says.
“The architecture of what we’re building could be useful for a whole variety of different legal-type issues, not just sexual harassment.”
Meanwhile, the human rights association will launch an online course meant to inform and educate workers on sexual harassment and applicable human rights obligations.
The ultimate goal is prevention, says de Berdt Romilly.
“It’s very powerful if the information is high quality… as long as people are receiving it in a way that they can actually process it and understand it.”
In Ontario, $3.7 million has been issued to support 20 legal clinics as they take a co-ordinated approach to the development and delivery of legal information.
“It is a combination of creating legal education materials [and] delivering those in various ways, and then providing legal advice to workers,” says Lois Cromarty, executive director of the Help and Legal Centre of Northumberland in Cobourg, Ont. — headquarters for the Ontario programming.
The five-year program will roll out in phases beginning in October, she says.
Creating province-wide educational materials does require some expertise in the subject, according to Cromarty.
“It’s not just something that you could walk into any law firm and get advice on,” she says. “Not every lawyer practises employment law, and there is a developing body of case law around sexual harassment in the workplace that our project can tap into, to better advise workers about what their rights are.”
Employers will also benefit from these projects, according to McLeod.
For example, funds dedicated to the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies in Nova Scotia are meant to aid in the development of national online training material supporting employers, he says.
“The funding will support the development, enhancement or expansion of community services for complainants of workplace sexual harassment, with an emphasis on collaborative models so that the justice sector is aligned to the social and health sectors.”
While much of the programming focus is on employees, employers continue to hold the “balance of power” in the workplace, including responsibility for policy, for example, says de Berdt Romilly.
“Our project is going to help increase awareness on the employer side around the specifics that they really need to have in place in their workplaces to complement the information that we’re providing to employees around their rights, their responsibilities, employer obligations… to try to have the best framework possible to actually minimize or eradicate sexual harassment, and where it occurs, to ensure that there are good systems in place that people are empowered to access and follow through.”
In Nova Scotia, the plan is to proactively reach out to employers to make them aware of the work that is being undertaken, she says.
And many of the tools will complement best practices already in place, says de Berdt Romilly.
“When we’re helping employees, we are, in effect, helping employers to build stronger workplaces with more productive employees. That’s better for their bottom line. It’s really a win-win situation.”
While the programming could initially fuel a spike in workplace claims, the ultimate goal is educating workers in a variety of mediums and formats, says Cromarty.
“Sexual harassment in the workplaces takes a different look if you’re in the hospitality industry versus if you’re in the trucking industry,” she says. “We want people to be able to see themselves in those work scenarios — to be able to say, ‘This is how I need to address it here.’”
The educational materials being created will provide information for both victims and perpetrators, says Cromarty.
“Even if you’re not being victimized by sexual harassment, you can maybe take other steps within your workplace to make it safer,” she says. “If you see that going on — happening to other folks within your workplace, for example — or if you are a perpetrator, you can perhaps see yourself in this and then realize that you need to change your behaviour.”
“An educated workforce makes life easier for employers.”
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