Vaughn Palmer: Report calls BC legislature’s culture toxic and degrading

Opinion: British Columbia legislature needs a more inclusive, modernized and decolonized workplace culture, new report says

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VICTORIA – British Columbia’s legislature received criticism from current and former MLAs when it launched a “listening exercise” last year about the state of its own “parliamentary culture.”

The resulting report, released last week, contained laments for an institution that is unwelcoming, degrading and, in some cases, downright toxic in its treatment of newcomers, particularly women and MLAs from diverse backgrounds.

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Many respondents also had good things to say about parliamentary culture.

But there was enough bad to give some credence to the complaint that prompted the exercise: the resignation last year of NDP MP Melanie Mark, who called the place a “torture chamber.”

A sample of the comments, collected confidentially by ADR Education, the external agency hired to conduct the listening exercise:

• “The bullying, yelling, and insults make me cringe.”

• “Men tend to forget their louder voices and greater presence when they are in the same space.”

• “I have periodically felt that my opinion is not valued as much as that of my male counterparts.”

• “Women were systematically attacked for being degraded and treated with less respect. If you were young, indigenous or a visible minority, it was worse.”

• “Comments about appearance, comments about smiling more, questions about whether I can be a good mother while serving.”

• “Women on camera face more derogatory behavior than men, including derogatory and rude hand gestures.”

A related complaint was the lack of child care, which “has a disproportionately negative impact on mothers and other caregivers,” as the listening exercise findings noted.

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“The lack of child care is shocking,” said one respondent. “I’ve heard from my colleagues with children that they don’t feel supported.”

“I desperately needed on-site child care,” said another. “It did not exist and the assembly did not give it priority.”

Most of the complaints concerned the highlight of the legislative proceedings: the 30-minute question forum four times a week.

“The warmth of the QP is important for debate and democracy,” acknowledged one respondent.

“But I can remember several instances, as well as patterns over time, where MLAs treated other members far worse than was acceptable in that setting and in a way they would never treat white men.”

The president of the legislature was also the target of direct criticism: “Screaming, mocking and attacks are allowed, and the president rarely intervenes.”

Other observations were more nuanced.

“A lot of what happens in the legislature would be considered disrespectful, but it’s actually the nature of debate, and I would say it’s good for democracy,” one respondent said.

“However, what I experienced and saw exceeded even those low standards because it was sexist, ageist, racist, homophobic, or ableist in nature.”

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The research firm said the chamber needs to adapt to recognized principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, also known as DEI.

“Given that the fundamental origins and structural foundations of the legislature are predominantly white, male and colonial, careful consideration must be given to building a more inclusive, modernized and decolonized workplace culture that fully embraces and actualizes the values ​​and objectives of DEI” .

Of the 87 current MLAs, 79 participated in the survey along with an unidentified number of former members.

“Overall, a small percentage of respondents (10 percent) indicated that they had regularly and occasionally experienced discrimination/unfair treatment based on their family situation and ethnicity,” according to the summary.

“While approximately 30 percent of respondents said they experienced discrimination or unfair treatment regularly and from time to time on the basis of gender.”

Some of those interviewed did mount a defense of culture in the British Columbia legislature.

“A parliament without strenuous and vigorous debate for fear of offending members who don’t like their opponents’ political views is not a real parliament,” as one respondent put it.

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Still, the result was 17 unanimous recommendations for improvement from the task force that commissioned the listening exercise: NDP MLA Mable Elmore, Green Leader Sonia Furstenau and BC United’s Elenore Sturko, plus Speaker Raj Chouhan and Legislative Secretary Kate Ryan-Lloyd.

His report was scheduled to be considered Monday night by the multiparty legislative assembly’s management committee.

At the top of their list of recommendations was “mandatory learning for all MLAs on Indigenous history, gender and diversity, cultural competency, racism and anti-oppression, and mental wellbeing and resilience.”

A call that is already underway is to definitively move to the hybrid session model that emerged during the pandemic. It allows MLAs to work from home and participate in internal proceedings via video link.

The MLAs are expected to have access to a new 37-space childcare center being developed for the legislative precinct. The preliminary budget is 1.6 million dollars and it could be inaugurated next year.

However, a pillar of legislative procedures is expected to survive the campaign for a more respectful workplace.

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When a reporter asked if the booing would continue, committee member Sturko (one of the most persistent booers on the opposition side) rubbed his hands and said “oh yeah.”

Decorum be damned when it comes to letting off steam in the legislature.

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