The dark side of Parliament Hill faced the full scrutiny of the House of Commons on Monday as female MPs described a workplace where sexual harassment is common.
During debate on legislation to curb abuse on the Hill and in federally regulated work forces, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel said senior officials in her party "should be ashamed of themselves" over the handling of allegations that Rick Dykstra sexually assaulted a young Conservative staffer in 2014, when he was an MP.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called the Dykstra allegations "disturbing" and vowed in a statement to immediately remove any future candidate who is accused of sexual assault, pending an investigation.
The debate took place as MPs returned to Ottawa for the first time since December. The theme of the legislation fit with the biggest political story of the day: a report that Conservative Party officials decided to keep the allegations against Mr. Dykstra private and allowed him to run in the 2015 election.
He told Maclean's – which first reported the allegations – that he would respond to them, but made no mention of the allegations when he announced on Sunday he was stepping aside from a top job with the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.
According to Maclean's, the former staffer said that after a night of drinking that ended in his Ottawa apartment, Mr. Dykstra forced her to perform oral sex on him.
In a statement sent to the Globe on Tuesday, Mr. Dykstra's lawyers said he "categorically denies" the Macleans story published on Sunday, and that Mr. Dykstra wasn't given enough time to respond to the allegations.
"...As a fair and just society, we must insist that a person be given more than four hours on a Sunday evening to respond to ruinous accusations," lawyers Chris Murphy and John Phillips said in a email.
In the House, Ms. Rempel – a former cabinet minister – said Conservative Party officials who failed to address the allegations should be removed.
"Is it possible for a drunk staffer to give consent for sex to a senior male who aggressively propositions them [in a workplace organization]? Within any standard workplace code of conduct, the answer to that should be unequivocally no," said Ms. Rempel, who said harassment is a regular occurrence on Parliament Hill.
"Today, there was a report that, at one critical point within my party, this was a topic for debate. And that is disgusting. In that incident, media reports say that people sat around a very senior table and argued semantics around whether action in our workplace should be taken because criminal charges weren't proceeded with. They should be ashamed of themselves and they should have no role or influence in this or in any political party."
Ms. Rempel said the issue of sexual harassment should not be used for political gain between parties. She also said sexual harassment must be addressed by all parties, as well as people in other professions with dealings on Parliament Hill, including journalists, lobbyists, diplomats and public servants.
Mr. Dykstra lost his seat in 2015, and went on to become president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. Mr. Dykstra resigned from that position on Sunday. Maclean's said the resignation came after the magazine approached him for comment before publishing a story with details of the alleged assault and the federal Conservative Party's response.
In its report, Maclean's said senior Conservatives working on the campaign were aware of the allegations and discussed dropping him as a candidate but ultimately allowed him to run. Mr. Dykstra is a friend of former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown, who is also a former federal Conservative MP. Mr. Brown resigned last week after sexual misconduct allegations, which he has denied.
Monday was the first day of debate on Bill C-65, which proposes amending the Canada Labour Code to address sexual harassment in federally regulated workplaces, including Parliament Hill. The House of Commons agreed unanimously to send the bill to committee for study.
Federal Employment Minister Patty Hajdu said legislation is needed to address the power imbalances in Ottawa. Ms. Hajdu said Parliament Hill is "ripe" for sexual harassment given that many young female staffers are in precarious employment situations, working for older, powerful men, in a workplace where evening social events with free-flowing alcohol are common.
"This is an environment that actually sets up a culture that allows and perpetuates this behaviour," she told reporters. "There is a whisper network. People do know who to avoid at receptions or in the halls. We do know who we shouldn't meet with alone. People will leave parliamentarians and try to find jobs with other parliamentarians because the workplace has been so abusive."
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett told The Canadian Press that MPs must be cautious about alcohol consumption as Parliament Hill looks to end inappropriate behaviour and sexual misconduct.
During the Commons debate, Conservative MP Rachael Harder, her party's status of women critic, raised concerns about the bill, and questioned how much power it would give the employment minister to handle complaints.
"Can Canadians rightfully expect that the Liberal minister would treat a Conservative MP and a Liberal MP the exact same way?" she asked.
NDP MP Tracey Ramsey expressed concern that the legislation does not define harassment. Ms. Hajdu said a definition will be added later through legislation so future governments can update it.
Jason Kenney, the Leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party, who worked closely with Mr. Dykstra when both were federal MPs, said in a statement that he is "very disturbed" by the allegations against Mr. Dykstra and was not previously aware of them.
With a report from Kelly Cryderman in Calgary