The politics of harassment-free workplaces – UCP House Leader Jason Nixon walks right into a trap of his own creation

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PHOTOS: A steely-eyed Alberta Premier Rachel Notley meets the media in the Alberta Legislature yesterday in this screenshot of a Government of Alberta video. Below: United Conservative Party House Leader Jason Nixon and UCP Leader Jason Kenney, the subjects of her ire. Mr. Kenney faces the voters in a by-election in the Calgary-Lougheed Riding tomorrow. Bill 30 sponsor Christina Gray, Alberta’s minister of labour.

You don’t often get to see stuff hit the fan the way it did yesterday when United Conservative Party House Leader Jason Nixon’s forgetfulness caught up with him after he’d argued in the Legislature governments shouldn’t legislate workplace sexual harassment policies because private companies do it better on their own.

The flaw in his attack on Bill 30, An Act to Protect the Health and Well-Being of Working Albertans? He forgot the shabby history of a company he used to run himself, which in the mid-naughts fired a single mom it employed in B.C. because she complained about being sexually harassed by a contractor.

Or maybe Mr. Nixon just blithely reckoned a normally well-mannered governing party and an inattentive media had forgotten all about the B.C. case, which was well documented at the time and remains easily available on the Internet.

At any rate, he said of workplace harassment last week, “the right way to deal with it is to get the industry to address it, to work through their safety associations.” They’ll take care of it, he promised. “They’ve already proven it.”

Alas for many victims of sexual harassment, that’s not the way things usually work when it comes to workplace complaints. According to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member who investigated the 2007 case at Nixon Safety Consulting’s Kelowna worksite, for example, the fired woman’s complaints were completely justified. The tribunal eventually awarded her $32,000 in lost wages and damages.

Unfortunately for Mr. Nixon, things in the Legislature didn’t work out the way he expected either. The irony of the situation was not lost on many Albertans. So, yesterday he walked right into the spray from the proverbial fan.

By last night, fallout from the controversy created when uncharacteristically feisty reporters reminded their readers yesterday how Nixon Safety Consulting fired the woman who complained, seemingly to protect the man who harassed her, was causing collateral damage. That is to say, some of it was also landing on Mr. Nixon’s boss, UCP Leader Jason Kenney.

This was potentially a problem for the UCP, since the vote in the Calgary-Lougheed by-election that is supposed to see Mr. Kenney smoothly elevated to the Legislature takes place tomorrow. Well, Mr. Kenney is said to have a commanding lead, but I imagine his House Leader is not in his good books today just the same.

Thanks to social media and good message management by the NDP Government yesterday, the issue turned into a major storm – illustrating for many Albertans just what’s wrong with the UCP, which under Mr. Kenney has quickly appeared to become a rebranded version of the most extreme elements of the old Wildrose Party.

Late yesterday morning at the Legislature, a steely-eyed Premier Notley, each word calmly enunciated, gave reporters a pitch-perfect response to Mr. Nixon’s arguments about Bill 30, and his self-inflicted predicament. It is worth quoting at length:

“As I’m sure will come as no surprise to all of you, in my view, this is a very, very serious issue,” Ms. Notley told the media. “We are at an important time right now, where courageous women across North America are coming forward to talk about the problem of sexual harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace.

“It’s a very difficult problem. We know it proliferates everywhere, and it’s not easy to address. What we do know, though, what’s going to keep women safe, what’s going to help deal with this problem … as a first step is assuring that they know they have the right to speak up, and that people will support them when they speak up.

“Mr. Nixon’s response when someone spoke up was to fire her. That is not the right response. Moreover, since that time, Mr. Nixon has gone into the House and fought against a bill that would have protected someone in Alberta in the very same situation as the woman that Mr. Nixon chose to fire.

“Mr. Kenney is actually the person that needs to answer questions about this now. This is his handpicked lieutenant. His hand-picked political lieutenant who is leading the caucus in this House, who fired a woman for speaking up against sexual harassment which was found to have happened, who is now fighting against a bill that would protect women in Alberta from the very same sexual harassment in the workplace.

“This is very, very serious. I think when women wake up this morning and read this article and hear more about what’s happened, they’re going to wonder where their government stands, and I want them to know that their government stands with them, and that is why we’re working so hard to get this bill through the House today.”

Social media went wild – all the more so when the UCP tried to spin Mr. Nixon’s troubles as understandable and forgivable because he was in his twenties at the time. The tone of the commentary was scathing.

Late yesterday – a day late and a dollar short, as they say – Mr. Nixon said he deeply regretted the events of 2007. “I deeply regret some of the decisions that were made by myself and my organization while handling that human resources issue.”

By mildly ironic coincidence, also yesterday, the New York Times published a major piece on workplace harassment that makes a compelling case that among the worst things a harassed employee can do is tell her employer.

Unlike Mr. Nixon’s opinions, the Times’ reporters’ conclusions are based on evidence.

Citing a 2016 study by the U.S. government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Times reporters explained that going to company officials, especially the Human Resources department, is dangerous because HR officials “while officially responsible for fielding employee complaints, also work for a company that faces potential liability – an inherent conflict of interest.”

What’s more, the article points out, HR officials who properly represent victims of workplace harassment are often at risk for their own jobs or careers.

“Even if human resources officials conclude that the accused should be disciplined or fired, they typically have no independent authority to make it happen,” the story says. As a result, “human resources personnel are more inclined to suppress allegations than get to the bottom of them.”

Talk to your boss? In the absence of legislation like Bill 30 – and even then, sometimes – it makes more sense for non-unionized employees to lawyer up and take the complaint to the authorities. If you are fortunate enough to have a union, take the problem there.

Because one thing we can be confident of, no matter what Mr. Nixon thinks, is that corporations are never going to deal properly with this kind of behaviour if there’s any danger doing so will negatively impact their bottom line.

Mr. Nixon also expressed the opinion in the Legislature that “any time we’ve made large advancements on occupational safety, it’s been driven by industry.”

This statement presumably reflects the views of the rest of the UCP Caucus, which we’re told also thinks Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s murderous rule in Chile was a big “success story” and that legalizing marijuana will turn us all into communists.

Bill 30, which is sponsored by Labour Minister Christina Gray, would also legislate the right of workers to refuse unsafe work without losing pay, protect them from retaliation, ensure workers continue to be paid if a stop-work order is issued for safety violations, and mandate joint worker-employer health and safety committees as in every other Canadian province.

Categories Alberta Politics