It was 2007 and Lauren Dobson-Hughes was a young, ambitious NDP staffer on Parliament Hill when a much older MP suddenly kissed her in front of at least 20 people — and no one seemed to bat an eye.
The MP, himself a New Democrat, grabbed her around the waist and dug his fingers into her body before planting his lips on hers.
“He pulled in my head right to him and he gave me this giant wet kiss,” said Dobson-Hughes, who was 25 at the time and shaken by the encounter.
”I went to the washroom to wash his spit that was dribbling down my cheek.”
Male politicians wield enormous power on the Hill, and yet MPs and staff members alike continue to be little more than bystanders who do nothing to help create a safe workplace for female counterparts, said Dobson-Hughes, now a prominent advocate for women’s rights.
“Nobody else thought it was weird,” she recalled.
“You take your cues from people around you who are in positions of power, and if they don’t think that’s weird, if that didn’t even momentarily give them a second glance, then (you think), ‘Maybe the problem is me then … OK, that’s just normal.’”
Sexual misconduct is nothing short of “rampant” on Parliament Hill, a place that runs on a steady supply of cheap young labour, usually female, she added.
And by their very nature, political parties are built off perverse incentives to ignore or even actively bury allegations of harassment or sexual misconduct.
“It is not in a party’s interest to highlight, investigate, that one of their own MPs has been accused of sexual harassment or that everybody knows this person is a sexual harasser,” she said.
“It damages the party electorally, it causes a media fuss, diverts your message … staff know that. They don’t come forward.”
In a voluntary survey of female MPs last month, The Canadian Press found more than half of respondents — 58 per cent — had personally been the target of one or more forms of sexual misconduct while in office, including inappropriate or unwanted remarks, gestures or text messages of a sexual nature.
Thirty-eight of 89 female MPs took part in the voluntary, anonymous survey.
Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and Green party Leader Elizabeth May say they worry the most for vulnerable young staffers and interns on the Hill who might resist speaking up about misconduct for fear of losing what little job security they might already have.
“I think of staffers — where do they go?” Ambrose said in an interview.
“My appeal to them was, ‘Come to me … please know you can come to me.’ But the truth is, would they? I don’t know.”
Ambrose agreed parties are naturally inclined to protect their brands, as opposed to encouraging staff to come forward about misconduct.
“Do you want to be the political staffer that comes forward to say that this particular person in this particular party is a problem?” she said. “I can see all kinds of backlash against a young woman like that … there’s even more reason to not speak out because of the whole political image issue.”
May and Ambrose both say it’s high time male MPs started calling out their colleagues.
“If you hear something in your caucus meetings you think is just bad form, tell your male colleagues,” May said. “Politics and power run together, which means power and politics and sex run together, and men in positions of power are going to abuse that.”
For her part, Dobson-Hughes said she’s pleased veteran New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen is calling on his male counterparts to usher in a culture change and combat sexual misconduct.
Cullen, elected in 2004, said he’s heard no end of stories about male instigators on the Hill.
“Asking women to carry this load … while owning none of the responsibility ourselves is ridiculous and unhelpful,” he said.
“People know it has been going on, we haven’t done anything about it … With some effort and with some thoughtfulness, it could become a good example of a workplace. It is not right now.”
Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press