Toronto, Canada – Former Canadian deputy prime minister Sheila Copps was 28 when she was suddenly sexually assaulted by a fellow parliamentarian after she stepped out of a hotel elevator. The man backed her against a wall, fondled, and attempted to kiss her.
Copps drove her knee into her assailant’s groin area and escaped, and he never tried it again. The incident happened, ironically, while they were on a government trip to northern Ontario province to study violence against women.
Since there was no process in parliament to deal with sexual misconduct allegations, Copps never reported the assault. Now 62, she was the only woman in her caucus three decades ago. Copps said she felt at the time she could not safely talk about the incident.
More than 30 years later, her story is still a familiar one.
This isn't just a parliamentary problem - 40 percent of women in the workplace have been harassed - it's a societal problem.
A recent poll released by Angus Reid Institute showed 43 percent of Canadian women have been sexually harassed at work – receiving unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or subjected to sexually charged discussions at the workplace – while 76 percent of respondents reported it happened more than once.
The poll didn’t surprise Sandy Welsh, a University of Toronto professor specialising in sexual harassment and employment. She told Al Jazeera the findings are similar to Statistics Canada’s last study in 1993.
“It shows you that this continues to be a prevalent problem… There is still a lot more that needs to be done,” Welsh said.
Thirty-years after Copps was assaulted, sexual harassment in Canada’s political realm continues. Two federal Liberal Party members of parliament were suspended from caucus last month after allegedly harassing female New Democrat Party MPs.
Yet, there is still no process to deal with misconduct complaints between members of parliament in Canada’s federal House of Commons. Copps told Al Jazeera parliament is in need of a structure where members and staff are protected under a labour code like other Canadian workers, and that an independent commission be set up to deal with complaints.
“It’s difficult for victims,” Copps said. “This isn’t just a parliamentary problem – 40 percent of women in the workplace have been harassed – it’s a societal problem.”
Copps’ revelation comes amid a slew of sexual assault and harassment allegations featured on Canada’s front pages of newspapers and leading TV news broadcasts.
One of the most prominent accusation involves the former host of one of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s radio shows. Jian Ghomeshi, 47, was arrested in late November, charged with four counts of sexual assault, and one count of “choking”.
The allegations against the iconic radio host ignited widespread discussion on how Canadian society handles sexual misconduct. Twitter witnessed an avalanche of 50 million #beenrapedneverreported tweets from women worldwide who felt compelled to share their experiences amid discussion about the Ghomeshi story.
Failure to report
According to the Angus Reid poll, four-out-of-five victims don’t report sexual harassment to their employers. A large majority from the 1,500 people polled said they would prefer to “deal with it on their own”.
Other reasons for not reporting include feeling the issue was too minor, believing their employer wouldn’t respond well, and fearing their career would suffer.
For those who do report, there’s a 60 percent chance their employer won’t take action or will dismiss their complaint.
Kathryn Borel worked as a producer for the CBC on Ghomeshi’s show for three years. She told Al Jazeera she received uninvited attention from her boss that included back massages, groping, and offensive sexual comments.
Borel kept quiet fearing she would lose her job. When she decided to make a complaint to CBC management three years later, nothing was done, she said.
“I think it’s difficult to ask people to speak truth to power when they’re relying on that power for a paycheque,” said Borel. “This points to the fact that institutions need a much better system for help, protection, and remediation.”
CBC executive producer who received Borel’s complaint did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Sexual misconduct also plagues the Canadian armed forces, according to an investigation published by Maclean’s magazine in April 2014 that revealed each day five people are sexually assaulted in the military and only one in 10 cases is reported to authorities. Those who reported rape or harassment were met with reprisals, it found.
Following the publication, the Canadian military ordered an immediate internal sexual misconduct review.
According to a 2013 Statistics Canada survey, 15.6 percent of women in the armed forces said they have been sexually assaulted or touched sexually against their will.
“One of the things that research shows is that male dominated organisations are one of the factors where we do find sexual harassment and … sexual assault more prevalent,” Welsh said.
“These are serious problems that need potentially a different kind of policy, a different kind of reporting structure and hard thinking about the kind of culture that is in place that allows this to happen.”
Canada’s post-secondary institutions also have sex-harrassment issues. Ontario province’s Lakehead University is one of the few to implement a comprehensive sexual misconduct policy, after a former student wrote an anonymous letter to a local newspaper upon graduation detailing how the university offered little support after she was raped by a classmate.
“Conservative male faculty have come to me and said, ‘I am really appreciative because now I know what to do if a student comes to my office and discloses sexual misconduct.’ People were just really unaware,” said Lakehead professor Lori Chambers who led the effort.
“Universities need to take a lead in saying we’re doing what we can to educate people, to prevent sexual assault, to provide the best support services,” Chambers told Al Jazeera.
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