‘Hostility has only escalated’: Two Brampton councillors speak out about harassment they face on the job

Coun. Rowena Santos delivered a 15-minute presentation at Brampton city hall ahead of International Women's Day, where she spoke up about facing harassment and discrimination on a daily basis. She received a standing ovation. (City of Brampton) © Provided by cbc.ca

Two Brampton councillors are speaking out about the harassment and sexism they’ve had to face while on the job, and say it’s only getting worse.

At a council meeting Wednesday, Coun. Rowena Santos and Coun. Navjit Kaur Brar made a presentation ahead of International Women’s Day — which is on March 8 — saying they face harassment on a daily basis.

The councillors say they are speaking out about the vitriol they experience to effect change, and to shine a light on the behaviour that women in politics are forced to endure. As an example, Santos pointed to former mayor of Gatineau, France Bélisle, who resigned last month because of what she called an “often hostile” work environment.

“The hostility has only escalated,” Santos said. “As women in leadership roles, we’re already working two to three times as hard just to constantly prove ourselves to other people.”

Santos says she’s also experienced some colleagues re-sharing online posts targeting her or laughing at them. She hasn’t reported the incidents to the integrity commissioner because the reshares were not captured before they were deleted.

Coun. Rowena Santos delivered a 15-minute presentation at Brampton city hall ahead of International Women’s Day, where she spoke up about facing harassment and discrimination on a daily basis. She received a standing ovation. (City of Brampton)© Provided by cbc.ca

In January, Santos says, a handwritten letter addressed to her was delivered to city staff in which the sender complained about Brampton having only one hospital.

“You are a piece of garbage who deserves to be raped and killed,” it read in part, she said.

Peel Police confirmed they are investigating that incident along with others reported by Santos.

“It’s scary,” Santos told CBC Toronto. “Criticize my job, but do not threaten to rape and kill me.”

Councillor’s staff now maintaining ‘harassment folder’

During the 15-minute presentation, Santos gave examples such as being stalked to her car outside of city property, receiving emails where she was called “stupid,” accusations of wanting sexual attention simply because she posted a picture on her social media and threatening messages referencing her son. The presentation was met with a standing ovation from the council.

The incidents have prompted Santos’s staff to maintain a “harassment folder” which contains 29 reports since it was created last month. On top of that, she says she’s received dozens of Facebook messages since becoming a councillor from members of the public containing images of male genitalia.

“I can’t even open my own Facebook. I get my male colleagues to look at the messages for me,” Santos said.

Brar said during her presentation that she faces comments about her appearance and what she wears.

“I have walked into rooms, into events, in public spaces, and felt overlooked, singled out, and even excluded,” she said. “At the same events, I see my male colleagues seamlessly enter conversations and be introduced as stakeholders and be included without much effort on their part.”

Both Brar and Santos introduced the motion to declare gender-based violence an epidemic in Brampton last year. It was unanimously passed. Peel Region, along with 25 other regions and municipalities also declared violence against women an epidemic.

Increasing harassment reported: lawyer

Nearly one in two women experience workplace harassment or sexual assault during their career, according to a Statistics Canada report last month, up from one in four according to a 2021 report. Two thirds of women reported facing harassment outside the workplace.

Employment lawyer Jonquille Pak says she’s seen an uptick in calls from women reporting harassment as people increasingly return to workplaces, saying it’s “far too common.”

Employment lawyer Jonquille Pak says she is seeing an uptick in the number of women reporting harassment at work, which in some cases has led to women quitting their jobs. (Yugo Takahashi)© Provided by cbc.ca

Pak says harassment isn’t always communicated directly. “It comes down to job opportunities,” she said, including promotions, salary, and recognition.

Even though Pak has over 15 years of experience as a lawyer and is the founder of a law firm, she says she isn’t immune to the behaviour either.

“I have been told how to lawyer,” she said. “It can be very demeaning… and unfortunately leads to a lot of women feeling forced to leave the employment relationship,” she said.

‘A systemic issue’

Oyeyinka Oyelowo, a lawyer at Chin and Orr Lawyers, points out the gender pay gap in Ontario has not changed for about a decade.

Women make $0.87 for every dollar a man makes for the same job, according to a May 2023 report from Financial Accountability Office of Ontario. The report also found after having a child, it takes Ontario mothers up to four years to return to their pre-childbirth earnings level.

Lawyer Oyeyinka Oyelowo at Chin and Orr Lawyers says harassment in workplace is a systemic issue and women are often left to navigate male dominant industries fearful of speaking up. (Submitted by Oyeyinka Oyelowo)© Provided by cbc.ca

“The numbers are proof that discrimination and harassment against women is a systemic issue,” Oyelowo said.

As for councillors who engage in harassment or violence, in February, advocates and opposition parties called on the Ontario government to pass legislation that would hold municipal councillors accountable.

Emily McIntosh, founder of Women of Ontario Say No, told CBC Toronto she started the non-partisan advocacy group in 2022 to lobby the government to address the problem.

Currently, councillors can only lose their seats or suspension pay when they break election spending rules and certain conflict of interest policies — something McIntosh says deters victims, particularly women, from coming forward. Many leave their jobs instead, she said.

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra said the Ontario government is working on bringing “something forward” that will help boot out local councillors who are found to have harassed staff.

Source: CBC News