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Michelle Rempel speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 4, 2013.


In her first year on Parliament Hill in 2011, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel began hearing the rumours.

A male MP was telling people that he had "tagged" her – meaning he was sleeping with her. He wasn't.

She heard it everywhere she went, so often that she started avoiding receptions – the networking events that are considered crucial for new MPs trying to make contacts.

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"It was done as a way to demean me, and to own me and to put ownership over my career and my voice," Ms. Rempel said.

"It really affected me. I changed my behaviour because of that."

Opinion: Sexual-harassment legislation is long overdue

Renzetti: The price of silence versus the cost of speaking out: A painful calculation

Like many women working in politics, she won't name names, only to say the MP is no longer on the Hill.

As allegations of sexual harassment and assault continue to pour out of Hollywood, places of power in Canada are now facing similar scrutiny. Parliament Hill, still a male-dominated workplace, where young staffers from across the country come to make their careers, has had its own high-profile incidents to contend with in recent years, from Liberal MPs kicked out of caucus to a former Conservative senator resigning in disgrace.

Other stories stay out of the headlines, whispered only in the ornate halls of Parliament. Stories about groping, touching and lewd comments. An MP who tells a colleague he wants to run his fingers through her hair. A female intern promised an opportunity if she has sex with her boss.

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"Sexual harassment, certainly, is almost a daily occurrence," said Laurin Liu, a former NDP MP who was one of five McGill students elected to the Commons in 2011.

"Almost every single young woman who works on the Hill experiences it."

But the problem is not limited to politicians, or even Ottawa. Ms. Liu said in her former area riding on Montreal's north shore, the standard double-kiss greeting was often used as a sexual opportunity by male constituents. "Different men would lick my ear or put my ear in their mouth," she said.

Successive governments have taken steps to address the problem, including a new bill introduced by the Liberal government last week intended to strengthen protections for public servants and employees in federally regulated industries, including, for the first time, political staff members and interns.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who recently confronted a reporter from far-right website The Rebel for labelling her "Climate Barbie," said the issue is prevalent and needs to be taken seriously.

"Harassment is a problem all over the place – Parliament Hill, but also workplaces across the country," she said.

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"We know we need to be doing more, we need to counter harassment, sexism of all sorts."

Members of Parliament have their own process for reporting complaints, through their party whips, which are handled by the House of Commons chief human resources officer.

But many people are skeptical that such formal processes can counter the culture in the capital that deters victims from coming forward and bystanders from speaking up.

"I've heard from enough young women that in the past, that they had terrible experiences that drove them away from the Hill," said NDP status of women critic Sheila Malcolmson.

Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based social activist who has helped train NDP staffers and caucus members in how to deal with sexual harassment, said staffers are keenly aware that they are easily replaced.

"It is understood that if you are seen as a complainer, as someone who is making life difficult for people or rocking the boat, there are a hundred people standing behind you waiting to get your job," she said.

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Staffers and interns also quickly learn that the best connections on the Hill are made after-hours, at events or in popular bars in the capital – settings that can be easily exploited, or where harassing behaviour can be excused as part of the political social scene. Female employees, said Ms. Lalonde, "don't want to painted as the women couldn't take the joke, who couldn't kick it with the guys on the Hill, and that's going to follow them for the rest of their career."

Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, who first wrote a book about workplace sexual harassment in 1979, said she has seen a familiar and disheartening pattern over the years: Specific cases start a public conversation, a law is introduced or amended, but on the ground, in offices and work environments, the problem continues.

Now, with the allegations out of Hollywood and the swift censure of those alleged perpetrators, Dr. Backhouse says, yet another opportunity exists to sustain change. There needs to be "more voices speaking out, and lots of public focus on those voices, and a quick and fulsome response to backlash," she said.

For Ms. Rempel, the need to speak out is juxtaposed with the challenges it can create in one's career.

She doesn't want to get into a publicly fought "he said, she said" campaign. As her party's immigration critic, she has other issues she wants to focus on.

But she admits that Parliament Hill has changed her.

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"I am not the same person, by any means, that I was when I came here," she said.

"I am hardened."

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