My story of sexism on Parliament Hill
“So why don’t women jump into politics?” asks the Toronto Star, in a recent interview with Anne McLelland, a former Liberal federal cabinet minister. The real answer: very brutal sexual harassment and exclusion based on gender. She says it is work-life balance, people who don’t play nice in parliament and the harshness of media. I write a blog about my experience as a parliamentary staffer and intern on why this is not true at hillgossipchick.blogspot.ca.
Here’s my theory: In today’s Canada, if you are an ambitious woman whose last name isn’t Trudeau, you have to sell your body to get ahead, and many women don’t think it’s worth it. I am a visible minority immigrant woman, and here is the nightmare happened to me trying to work in my field: policy analysis at the Parliament of Canada.
When I studied public policy at Canada’s capital university, race, gender and ethnicity were of no importance: performance was the only evaluation criteria. In university, before I even became Canadian, everyone just assumed I was. I had a job conducting research with American Ivy League universities, spoke several languages, had excellent grades, won leadership awards, and wrote for the university newspaper. You could hear me argue passionately with fellow students about Kant and Hegel or updating Canadian labour policy in the hallways.
I witnessed everything from stalking to older married MPs/senior staff sleeping with 20/19 year old foreign interns to allusions to sexual innuendo about and in the presence of young women in every major party: Liberals, NDP and Conservatives are all guilty of harassing female staff and young interns.
A colleague who worked on the Hill for a party whose staff are unionized found out the hard way: you’re on your own. When she was harassed, she filed a complaint. They did nothing to rectify the situation, stating in a letter “Unfortunately, under our collective agreement you were still under the probationary period, and that allows an MP to terminate the employment without cause. So, we do not see an opportunity for a grievance in your situation.”
Men in Parliament operate with impunity, preying on vulnerable and eager-to-please recent grads. Young immigrant women are over-represented among interns and volunteers, but so few of them survive to make it as staff. Women of colour represent a particular experience in the Canadian population, of a triple pane glass ceiling that one can’t understand unless they have been there or are close to people who have. They can reach out to so many more groups of voters, and with innovative original ideas get their MP and party ahead in the polls, besides being hardworking, humble, and taking nothing for granted.
My second day on the Hill as a parliamentary intern I was told, “Parliament is not a place for women. Parliament is a mens locker room, where it is all about whose THING is bigger.” He pointed to his erect penis bulging in his khakis stuffed with his aging obese girth. He went on to sabotage my work after I refused to go on a date with him, and when I still refused his advances he fired me. Bald and pink from the summer, he had a striking resemblance to the cartoon character 'Porky the Pig'.
I was 22, just finished my last semester of university, and he was around 40. Within that month, he kept trying to touch my shoulders often, squeeze in and “fix the computer,” though I am more computer literate than he is. He talked about Asian women from Lebanon to Korea, but never cared to know or remember when I was actually from. I wasn’t a person, but represented a fetish. Within the first month, he said, "I love it when Muslim women walk around in Lebanon with huge cleavage and with a small Koran hanging between her tits,” as he tried to pat my arms.
Within the first month of my internship, my supervisor said, “You know the previous intern went out for dinner with me. You should too..[or else]" former boss (I politely declined, he felt hurt and retaliated). I began to notice that he was giving me all the work in the office and ran around and took notes, conducted meetings, did the paperwork, as he watched Star Trek with a collection of molding coffee cups accumulating enough waste to start a chemical weapons lab on Parliament Hill.
Entering his office was a health hazard. " WASH THE DISHES YOU LOWLY INTERN" he would shout as handed me his moldy coffee cup collection. With all the mold and bacteria had acquired, it had more culture than a museum. On my second week in parliament as an intern, from my first boss, “Did you know women can’t sue for sexual harassment on the Hill. It is the one place except from sexual harassment laws as no woman has ever won an action.” I don’t know if he is right on the legal side, but as a lawsuit is career suicide, most ambitious women I learned keep quiet.
He said "Asia is a great place to get a girlfriend like in Korea my friends say because Asian men oppress women. So even an ugly man can get beautiful women because we don't beat them up all the time." Same man, as he tried petting my shoulders as I escaped. His friend, an intern coordinator for another internship program waxed poetic about his University of Toronto degree. I said I had to work, and then he asked me out and I said NO! I then restarted a parliamentary committee on my own, working with several offices which should have been my supervisor’s work. When I worked on a project with another very professional male MP’s office my father’s age, he said “You should do the hot and cold on him, flirt with him… no wait, he isn’t into you, he is into blondes with big boobs.” I said, “the project sir is of a professional nature, I have no interest in that MP.” He just didn’t believe me.
The Hill environment itself was toxic with free booze provided every day by lobbyists to attract MPs and staff. I felt like a zebra on the savanna surrounded by hungry lions. My supervisor and his friends were out partying, making connections while I was inside working (being naive). He gossiped with the MP about how they speculated a highly educated BROWN skinned IMMIGRANT younger female MP got her job through sleeping with the elderly head of the party. First of all if the country is so sexist that the only way a traditional ethnic young woman can get somewhere is sleeping with an old man, it says more about our dysfunctional political system that keeps out those who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth than about her.
Prostitution had radically dropped in 1917 in Russia after the communist revolution except for courtesans for high officials, as women were able to find other forms of employment in Lenin’s new factories. If the. When he had to speculate on the sex life on any female MP, it was always that young Asian female MP with skin that is brown like mine in the summer. They even debated if she was a porn star in front of me (not true). That was very discouraging for me as a young female intern of colour to see young female MPs only, to be discussed in that manner.
Meanwhile I was working from 9:00am, opening the office until 11 pm. He would give me busy work, like writing a law in both official languages that required 4 lawyers, unbeknownst to me. It past first reading. He would edit my drafts 9 times and when the MP saw them she was horrified how partisan it was, and when I showed her the first draft she said that it was perfect and didn’t require changes. He would frequently pass off his work as my own.
My MP became suspicious of his increased productivity and notes that sounded more like me than him. I was asked by my MP to put on an event for an ambassador/dignitary. The only thing my supervisor had to do is give the correct date for hosting an event. My supervisor never let me see the MPs’ schedule as if it was a matter of national security. I booked the interpreters, translation, coordinated everything but only two people aside from the ambassador, my supervisor and I came.
I understood why the secrecy: he sabotaged the event by booking it during a vote so MPs couldn’t make it as they had to vote. It was one of many attempts to sabotage my work when I said no to going out with him or his friends. While I was doing his work and mine he seemed to be spreading lies of my incompetence. When I complained to my MP, and asked him why did he sabotage work, the next day, I came to work, he packed my things, shouted at me that I am fired. I had to pack the rest of my stuff and run downstairs. I had to ask security to help me with calling a cab as he didn’t even give me time to do that.
Part II: A doctor told me Post Traumatic Stress is a result of trauma + helplessness. Eleven per cent of soldiers but about half of rape victims develop PTSD. It is a horrible incapacitating mental illness that makes one feel as though someone took a saw to your brain, poured kerosene and lit it on fire.
I developed PTSD as a result of the internship. When I called for help to the HR department, of course they were of no use. I tried to even volunteer on the Hill but every opportunity was blocked for me due to the false rumours my former supervisor spread and his attempts at setting me up to fail. I later learned this is the same for all political parties, even those with labour unions.
People aren’t suddenly harassed 6 months into their job: they are preyed upon when they just start out and don’t know their rights. My face became an open wound during the internship, yellowed, lost its colour and collected scars that I struggled to hide with make up for burn victims. When I saw a dermatologist, they asked me if I had a serious physical illness and needed blood work. I took every blood test and was found negative for everything. PTSD doesn’t hit immediately – first you are frozen in shock, then denial, then the disease falls onto your brain like a wall of bricks and attacks.
I felt my brain cut open and burned alive as I was awake: the sheer pain caused me to attempt suicide twice. I was incapacitated completely for a couple years, being in such pain I couldn’t even hold a job, then I managed to finish my thesis and find retail part time work. The work was a nightmare, as there are no labour laws governing minimum wage part time retail work. So even if you are there for 3 months, go up and greet customers, they can just hire new people at random they don’t have the money for and cut your hours so you can’t pay your rend just to give the new people the illusion of hours.
I was despairing, almost 30 and not finding work in my field since graduation. I recovered slowly but my twenties were a lost decade of life thrown into the garbage bin.
One lucky day I went to a star bucks and randomly met an MP that just fired an employee and was looking to hire someone that had my exact qualifications to aid his assistant. So he gave me her contact information. She interviewed me, we were a perfect fit and I was hired.
My new MP was amazing, he was a gentleman, respectful, came to work at 8:45 before anyone else, very hard working. Everyone was happy, hardworking, my MP was happily engaged to be married. It turned out the young man who was fired was spending his time socializing instead of working like my former boss. He wanted to secure his job and not have rivals who actually did work so as to be replaceable.
Result: he overspent the budget.
When I discovered that and alerted my MP and fellow assistant, my MP set us down. He said there was not enough room in the budget for three people, so one of us had to be let go. I was there the shortest so I had to be let go. My MP said he would call Sammi with the party to rectify the situation, as I worked hard and it was not my fault. Well, the man whose place I had taken had spread false rumours that I and my female colleague slept with my male MP (who was a lot older than me). I come from a traditional ethnic background where we aren’t intimate before marriage, and I chose to stay traditional. As I tried to network to get my job back at political events on the Hill, if you have a vagina, your gender is a weapon used against you to shut you out of a job.
At a networking event for my party as I was networking trying to get my job back a former bald corpulent colleague (resembling a pudgy turtle that escaped from its shell) recognized me and said, "Wow, you immigrated from [country x]... do you wear hijab (wink wink), because I have a fetish for women who wear hijab (wink wink). I find it very sexy when a woman wears hijab (winking on steroids)..." me: "No?! I do not wear hijab."
He later invited me to an event where I could network with former colleagues. I went there to network and inquire about job opportunities. This staffer took it as an opportunity to try to get me to drink and stay up late. He used waiting for a bus at his place as an excuse for him to try to grab me and make moves on me. He sat me down in the living room with his computer as I was exhausted (it was so late) and he came back in his underwear! This staffer then tried humping me and grabbing my breasts in his underwear! When I kept trying to push him away with my tired and shocked arms, he complained, “But consent is sexy!”
Eventually when I had enough strength I managed to walk home and leave. When I was at a networking event, I noticed his friend, a former colleague had a job posting in his office and refused to recommend me to his boss. A woman working for the party pointed this out to my friend, why won’t he put in a good word for me. He refused as I didn’t have the reputation because there were rumours that I slept with my boss and that was the cause of his divorce. It was absurd as my boss was getting married to his finance, not getting divorced as he has not been married for years. The colleague who attempted to date rape me had earlier told me how he found his job in circumstances similar to mine. I saw him at an event and confronted him: what rumours were said about me? He had heard that I was sleeping around with everyone, and being a slut was how I, a traditional ethnic woman, got the job.
I was more competent than this man and had more professional awards in my field the short time I managed to work in it. He had a penis for a brain, so when he heard rumours of a woman being a slut, he’d try his luck on her. My attempts at networking were the same as his and yet, they were mistaken for sexual advances.
Salon magazine aptly wrote Now, you established people, listen up. You will occasionally meet younger people who go out of their way to speak with you at professional events, ask you interesting and sometimes personal questions, and hang on your every word. Those are not puppy-dog, crushed-out eyes staring up at you. These are eyes hungry for a professional break. These people are not trying to sleep with you. They are trying to get hired by you. –Salon Magazine
When I see the boys I went to school with on Facebook, they head institutes while girls struggle finding a permanent job. If you find an ambitious immigrant woman of colour applying, she will work hard, is humble, and likely hasn’t had a break. Mentor her, introduce her to your contacts, as chances are nobody else has. Between erratic part-time minimum wage work and welfare handouts, she dreams of a hand up.