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OPINION

It's the same as it ever was for women in politics

As a young reporter working in Ottawa in the 1980s, Carol Off quickly learned that the nation's capital is a shark tank, a place where power and privilege allow for the most boorish behaviour imaginable. Recent allegations of sexual misconduct prove things haven't changed at all

NDP MP Margaret Mitchell speaks in Ottawa in February, 1983.

Carol Off is host of As It Happens and author of All We Leave Behind: A Reporter's Journey into the Lives of Others, winner of British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.

I flew to Ottawa one cold February morning in 1987 filled with anticipation, eager to start my first real job as a reporter. No one warned me that I was actually travelling there in a time machine, back to an age when girls were girls and men were men. It soon became obvious.

What I learned in the few years I worked in the nation's capital was that power and privilege allow for the most boorish behaviour imaginable. And before anyone suggests that I'm talking about the olden days, gather round and I'll tell you stories that seem all too familiar today.

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Seasoned veterans of the Parliamentary Press Gallery had advised me not to rely too much on Question Period or news conferences but to get out into the bump and grind of the Ottawa social circuit and make connections. I was chuffed when a senior member of prime minister Brian Mulroney's inner cabinet circle, a popular senator, invited me to a "5 to 7" reception at his Ottawa pied-à-terre (I'm not naming him because he's deceased and unable to respond to this story).

I don't recall the purpose of the gathering, but the senator's townhouse was abuzz with Ottawa insiders, a target-rich environment for journalists, and there were several of us there. As the party wound down and the crowd thinned, two other reporters and I agreed to share a cab home. The senator came to the door to say goodbye. He shook hands with the men, then turned to me. Suddenly, he had me pushed up against the wall while he groped and tried to force his tongue into my mouth. My colleagues stood by, aware of what was happening but not knowing what to do. I fought the senator off, grabbed my coat and fled the house, dishevelled and confused.

The two men with me in the taxi said they were shocked by what they had just witnessed. I don't recall their names but I do recall what they said: They cautioned me to be careful what I did about it.

"I hope you're not planning to report him," one of them warned. "Just remember what happened to Judy Morrison."

That was enough to send a chill down my spine.

Judy was the highly accomplished host of the weekly CBC radio program The House. About a year before I arrived in Ottawa, she became the object of scorn and ridicule when she dared to expose the appalling behaviour of the prime minister's press secretary, Michel Gratton. If you wanted an interview with Mr. Mulroney, you had to go through Mr. Gratton, and Judy had made several requests. He told her finally that she could have a one-on-one only if she agreed to go out on "a date." A reporter from the Ottawa Sun heard about Mr. Gratton's offer, confirmed it with Judy and reported it in the newspaper.

NDP MP Margaret Mitchell rose in the House of Commons a few days later to demand an explanation from the Conservatives. But instead of contrition, the House erupted into uproarious laughter, a rare moment of shared mirth among political foes. The mockery spread into the press gallery above, seemingly everyone enjoying the yuck fest. Judy was mortified, and the reaction should have shut down any further discussion.

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But a 20-something cub reporter with The Canadian Press welled up with anger as she watched the men chortle. She decided to act.

This was Kathryn Young's first job as a reporter, and she had been thrilled to be assigned to the Hill. As a junior staffer, she worked the late shift and often had to call the PMO press secretary after hours. Mr. Gratton was the gatekeeper, the most powerful person for any journalist trying to report on federal politics. He was a crusty, swaggering rogue, popular with the mostly male press gang. Columnist Val Sears once said he looked as though he had been raised by wolves.

Kathryn was leaving the Ottawa press club late one night when Mr. Gratton offered to share a cab. She was pleased – this must mean he accepted her as a peer – and eagerly accepted. She soon learned his real intentions.

In the taxi, Mr. Gratton mauled her. When they arrived at her apartment, he wouldn't let her go. Kathryn was confused, worried about the implications for her job. She invited him up, intending to tell him she was engaged to be married and hoping to repair any potential damage to their professional relationship.

Inside the flat, Mr. Gratton attacked, pinned her down in a chair and tore open her blouse while she fought his advances. She yelled, "No!" several times and insisted strenuously enough that finally, in a huff, Mr. Gratton departed. Kathryn called a friend to come stay with her. She kept the encounter a secret – until that day, 18 months later, when she watched the men in Parliament howl with merriment over the revelation that Mr. Gratton had offered access to the PM in exchange for possible sexual favours. She promptly gave her account to the Ottawa Sun.

Both Judy's and Kathryn's stories appeared in the news in diluted versions. The reports still should have caused alarm about Mr. Gratton. And they revealed that other women had also complained about his behaviour. But nothing came of it, except a grudging apology from Mr. Gratton. The Mulroney damage-control team went into high gear but they needn't have bothered: The media did the job for them. Columnist Don McGillivray wrote: "Michel Gratton has doubtless suffered, perhaps horribly," but the affair is now settled with the apology. The Globe and Mail's George Bain wrote: "It may be that I talk with the wrong people, but in three days I met no news person who said he or she thought the press secretary had done anything more reprehensible than to be a somewhat macho self."

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In 2014, following revelations that female MPs had been sexually harassed by male colleagues, I asked Kathryn and Judy to come on As It Happens and tell their full stories for the first time, hoping to illustrate how long this abuse had been going on. Kathryn talked about the terror she felt in her apartment when Mr. Gratton attacked her: "I thought, 'This is it. I'm going to be raped.' " The encounter was violent and scarring. Judy described the reaction to their complaint. She said Mr. Mulroney's staff intimidated them and called them in for probing questions. Someone dispatched a powerful lawyer to dog the two women around the Hill. "I was running up and down back staircases to avoid him," Judy recalled.

But their fellow reporters were worse. With a handful of exceptions, Kathryn's colleagues continued to mock and ridicule her, including her own bureau chief. She was ostracized in the press club. Her professional ambitions were crushed. Judy described how she was bullied and harassed, her CBC bosses in Ottawa shunting her off to a small office and hoping she would go away. The two women were branded as troublemakers; their tattered careers stood as totems for those who might contemplate making the same mistake. Neither woman ever fully recovered from the events, and both eventually left journalism. But neither regrets what she did.

Mr. Gratton died in 2011, after penning a memoir titled So, What Are the Boys Saying? – the question Mr. Mulroney asked of his press secretary at the end of each day.

As for me, female friends in Ottawa said I would get used to the antics, but I never did. Men on the Hill would proposition, tease and harass. They shook hands with other men and then indulged in the quaint custom of a kiss on each cheek for the women. And if they could cop a feel mid-peck, all the more fun. I met a senior bureaucrat at a reception and asked him for an interview. He sent word to me later: Yes, please come by – but wear a shorter skirt.

Women were tolerated, many even respected, for their work. But Ottawa was a shark tank. A number of women learned to swim with the sharks without being bitten. But they were fair game. You accepted that or you moved on.

I escaped from Ottawa in the same time machine in which I had arrived. As the decades went by, I just presumed things had changed. How could it still exist in that warp? But all the stories I'm hearing now are the same. Young women in politics – whether they're reporters, staff members, aides or MPs – say they have to watch where they go, with whom they talk, what they wear, what they say – just as we did. Michelle Rempel, Catherine McKenna and Rona Ambrose have used their senior positions to denounce the offensive behaviour, but to no avail. The allegations of the young woman who says Rick Dykstra assaulted her are shockingly similar to the story Kathryn Young tells. Except Kathryn revealed her name, whereas the identity of the 20-something victim of today is undisclosed. How's that for progress?

I often berate myself for not having had the courage to speak out 30 years ago. And I'm convinced many men shared the view that this was wrong. But we all came to accept that this was a reality we could not alter. The status quo was too useful and too comfortable for too many. I doubt the offenders even see the effect their behaviour has on the lives, careers and psyches of the women they take for granted.

In recent days, we've heard about proposed legislation and new codes of conduct in the works. I will leave that to lawmakers. But if the words "Remember Judy Morrison" could no longer be a warning but instead a rallying cry, that would be a start.

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