OTTAWA — A woman who says she was sexually harassed by two political staffers wants to testify before a parliamentary committee drafting guidelines for a new code of conduct.
Maria Al-Masani told The Huffington Post Canada that after unwanted sexual advances from male colleagues caused her to contemplate suicide and wrecked what she believes could have been a promising career on Parliament Hill, she has worthwhile suggestions to share on how to protect men and women who feel they have been victims of sexual assault and harassment.
Al-Masani, who first told her story to the National Post under the pseudonym Jasmine Ali, told HuffPost that she was harassed once as a Liberal staffer and again several years later as a NDP staffer. She is upset, she said, with the way the NDP treated her after the man she accused of harassing her spread rumours about her and hurt her ability to get work.
After she rejected a colleague’s advances, Al-Masani said, “he lied [saying] I got the job by sleeping with my MP. How I am a big slut and all these other things. He was very mad that I turned him down. And I couldn’t find a job as a result of that.”
After the Jian Ghomeshi allegations came to light, Al-Masani, who is no longer employed by the NDP, approached the union about her alleged harasser, who works on the Hill for an MP.
She was told there was little they could do because she is not a member of the union.
“The anti-harassment process outlined in our collective agreement provides a process in two circumstances,” wrote Anthony Salloum, the president of the UFCW Local 232 which represents staff of the federal NDP caucus, in an email. “ Accusations between members of our union local; and  accusations between a union member and an MP. It contains no formal process when an accuser is external to the local.”
Al-Masani also called NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s office. Mulcair spokesman George Smith said her messages were conveyed to the party’s human resources department, and that it is “taking this issue very seriously and is investigating the matter.”
Earlier this month, the Board of Internal Economy adopted a new policy on how to deal with complaints of harassment in the workplace, specifically between employees or between MPs and their employees. But Al-Masani believes the policy does not do enough to protect victims.
“The main concern of sexual harassment victims is their jobs,” she said. “Their first concern is to get out of the office with the harasser. And very often [victims] are contract workers or interns … and their contract can be ended if the harasser talks to the MP and the MP cuts the contract short. You have no recourse.
“So you are always afraid of reporting stuff and always afraid of the retaliation.”
After HuffPost reported on a former NDP staffer who alleged she was sexually assaulted by a provincial NDP candidate, one MP told HuffPost that, regretfully, women who report such incidents are often seen as “unemployable.”
Al-Masani believes at least one arms-length ombudsperson — possibly one for every party — should be appointed to deal with such matters so that the process can be taken out of the hands of political parties.
The Commons’ new policy states that if a staffer complains to the non-partisan House of Commons’ chief human resources officer, the complaint will be shared with their party’s whip.
Al-Masani believes that victims’ jobs should be protected while their complaints are investigated. She wants to make that point before a Commons committee tasked with developing a new code of conduct that will govern relationships between MPs.
She recently founded a group, Jasmine Empower, to encourage women to speak up and to offer support to those who do.
Conservative MP Joe Preston, the chair of this new subcommittee, said so far committee staff have been tasked with gathering research for members to review. Then, he said, committee members — three Tories, two NDPers and one Liberal — will decide what witnesses they wish to hear from.
Preston told HuffPost he thinks Al-Masani could come tell her story to the committee but that it is not up to him to decide.
“The answer is: If the committee decides it is [the right place for her to tell her story], then it is. But as the chair, I cannot unilaterally make the decision on witnesses or topics,” he said.
On Nov. 27, the Commons asked the standing committee on procedure and House affairs to:
(a) examine policy options for addressing complaints of harassment between MPs;
(b) make recommendations for a code of conduct for MPs for the prevention and resolution of harassment in the workplace, including a clear definition of harassment;
(c) make recommendations concerning a fair, impartial and confidential process, including options for the role of an independent third party, to resolve complaints under the code;
(d) make recommendations concerning training and education initiatives to ensure compliance with the code; and
(e) report findings and recommendations to the House with “all due haste.”
The committee had its first meeting on Dec. 8 and has no meetings scheduled yet for the new year.
MPs return to work in Ottawa on Jan. 26.
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