After first denying allegations of sexual harassment that surfaced Thursday night, former NDP MP Peter Stoffer has apologized.
“Everybody knows that I’m a hugger and a touchy person in this regard, everybody knows that, and if anyone feels that those actions were untoward in any way, shape or form, then I humbly apologize,” Stoffer told reporters during a press conference in Halifax Friday morning.
The allegations come as the #MeToo movement that started in the U.S. continues to sweep Canadian politics, with several high-profile politicians and media figures accused of harassment in recent weeks.
In a report Thursday night, three women told the National Post that Stoffer had acted inappropriately toward them. The allegations include forced kissing and unwanted sexual comments.
After hearing reports from staff that Stoffer was behaving inappropriately, former NDP MP Dawn Black told VICE News she brought concerns to the leader’s office in 2006 or 2007, and he was “chastised” by Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who was chair of the women’s caucus at the time. Black, who left the Hill in early 2009, said she thought that his behaviour had changed after that.
But former NDP staffer Lauren Dobson-Hughes told VICE News the MP’s behaviour continued, and that he forcibly kissed her in late 2009 or early 2010.
“It was the way he operated, and was allowed to operate,” she said.
At a function at 200 West Block on Parliament Hill a decade ago, Dobson-Hughes says the MP grabbed her and kissed her on the cheek without her consent. She described this behaviour as “routine,” and said he would also make unwanted sexual comments to her.
In 2007, the former staffer says she went to Black to report a pattern of inappropriate behaviour by Stoffer. Black told her she wasn’t the only one who had reported similar behaviour, and said she would bring concerns to party leadership.
Black told VICE News she brought those concerns forward to party leadership in 2007, and Stoffer was spoken to by Wasylycia-Leis.
Then, in late 2009 or early 2010, Dobson-Hughes says she was in the lobby outside the House of Commons before Question Period, where at least 10 people were standing around.
“The MP came over to me. He grabbed me by the waist and groped my waist, and then used one hand to push my face toward his, and then he kissed me just around my cheek and near my mouth, very forcibly.”
When he let go, he left saliva on her face. She looked around and saw that no one had reacted.
“People I think saw, but nobody intervened and nobody really batted an eyelid,” she said. “It just felt very normalized.”
“I don’t think anybody thought it was odd,” she continued. “It was a fairly routine thing to happen. People were very accustomed to this MP physically pulling women, young women, into unwanted embraces or kisses.”
She went to the bathroom and washed the saliva off her face, and returned to the lobby to continue working.
NDP leader reacts
In a statement, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said he was “deeply disturbed” by the allegations against Stoffer.
“I believe the women who have come forward and I want to acknowledge their courage and strength,” Singh said. “It’s clear our anti-harassment policies and protections for workers were insufficient and failed to appropriately deal with this behaviour.”
“We will continue to review, renew and expand our policies regarding harassment at all levels of our organization, including our candidate review process.”
“In addition to the policies, we are committed to changing the culture in and around Parliament Hill. Men in positions of power must take responsibility for creating safe spaces free from any form of harassment or sexual violence. That’s a role and a responsibility I take very seriously.”
Stoffer said he had spoken with the current NDP party president and would no longer be attending party conventions.
Dobson-Hughes said she feels “heartened” by Singh’s response, but said these stories are “only the tip of the iceberg.”
The power imbalance on Parliament Hill needs to be addressed, she said. While staffers are vulnerable and can be fired for any reason, MPs can only be removed by the electorate. Parliament Hill employees are also not protected by Canada’s Labour Code, something Liberal Bill C-65, currently being fast-tracked, aims to change.
While reporting mechanisms have changed since Stoffer’s alleged behaviour occurred, including changes to the NDP union’s grievance process, Dobson-Hughes said a complaint mechanism is no good if nobody trusts it.
“If the process itself is more painful than the original experience, people are not going to use it,” she said.
She emphasized that preventing harassment requires leadership “from the top to the bottom” to create a safe space for survivors to come forward.
Parliament should look at adding bystander training, Dobson-Hughes suggested.
“Many men have been bystanders to this behaviour and have known about it, and it’s really time for men to step up and apply pressure on their own colleagues,” she said.