This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner February 12, 2018.
There is much to ponder in the latest dispatch from the world of #metoo — if indeed what I think of as the latest in the cascade of distressingly similar stories of inappropriate conduct by men in positions of authority hasn’t already been superseded by even more recent, ever more egregious, latest revelations of same.
Last Thursday, the National Post published the results of an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against former Nova Scotia NDP MP Peter Stoffer by three different women, each independently describing separate incidents during and after his time as an MP.
Let’s rewind. Peter Stoffer, a popular 62-year-old populist union activist from Fall River, spent 18 years as a member of parliament, winning five consecutive elections and creating — by the force of his own “gregarious, loud and [occasionally] politically incorrect” personality — one of the few NDP safe seats in Atlantic Canada. Until, of course, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal tide swept through Atlantic Canada in 2015 and, surprisingly, swept the seemingly safe Stoffer out with it.
Stoffer was as popular in partisan Ottawa as he was in his home constituency, thanks in part to his all-party parties and his casual “den-like” office, where MPs and staffers from all parties could relax, hang out, drink beer, play pool, toss darts. Maclean’s called him “parliament’s nice guy” and noted approvingly that he “jokes around with parliamentary pages.” For seven years, fellow MPs voted him the “most collegial” of their lot, and once even named him Parliamentarian of the Year. His name popped up often as “the most fun MP to work with” in Hill Times surveys.
And Stoffer was more than just a “hail fellow well met.” During his years on the Hill, he carved out an admirable niche for himself as an influential, hard-working advocate for Canada’s veterans. In 2010, he won the Veterans’ Ombudsman’s Award for his efforts. “Thanks to his tireless advocacy,” the commendation read, “he has helped bring veterans’ issues to the forefront and centre of Canadian discourse, championing their cause while holding Ottawa accountable for its responsibility to veterans.”
Following his defeat in 2015, Stoffer joined Trauma Healing Centers, an organization that “helps veterans, first responders and civilians dealing with emotional and physical trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder.” He has served on a board that helps determine which legal cases the Veterans Legal Assistance Foundation funds, and is a volunteer strategic advisor in Michel Drapeau’s Ottawa law office, where he advocates for families battling the military justice system.
That Peter Stoffer?
Yes, that Peter Stoffer.
The Peter Stoffer who emerges from the Post investigation seems, at first blush, cut from a different cloth — though perhaps not.
Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a young NDP staffer recounts two episodes involving Stoffer, the first at a reception in parliament’s West Block in 2006 when Stoffer suddenly “grabbed her and pulled her close, groped her waist and — unprompted and unwanted — kissed her.”
Dobson-Hughes complained to her boss, then-NDP MP Dawn Black, who personally raised the issue with then-leader Jack Layton. “I don’t think anyone was so shocked” by the allegations, Black told the Post, meaning Stoffer already had a reputation. Layton eventually shuffled the matter off to Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the NDP caucus chair, to deal with.
“I did take Peter aside,” Wasylycia-Leis told the Post, “and told him, ‘You’re a friendly guy and you may think you’re being friendly, but you need to reassess the way you interact with people because it may not leave the right impression.’”
Stoffer claims not to remember that admonition.
In any event, there was no sanction so, when Stoffer did something similar to Dobson-Hughes again in 2009, this time in the lobby of the Centre Block in front of 10 other MPs and senior staff members — “he pulled me really close and groped my waist and then kissed me so hard right on my cheek near my mouth that it left saliva drooling down my cheek” — Dobson-Hughes knew better than to complain. “I didn’t tell anyone because it was witnessed,” she said. “I think [MPs and staffers] just thought it was normal… All political parties on the inside act in a cult-like way in the way they enforce loyalty.”
The Post also reported on another more recent incident, which happened about a year after the 2015 election when Stoffer was in Ottawa for a party event that spilled over into a bar. Stoffer bought drinks “all night long” for two young women, including one volunteering for a sitting MP. “He was just very flirtatious,” the woman said, but the more Stoffer drank, the more “lewd” he became. When she told a party MP about Stoffer’s behaviour later, she says, the MP told her: “That’s just Peter. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it. He gets like that when he’s drinking.”
On Friday, the Chronicle Herald reported on yet another incident from the early 2000s involving another young party staffer who claimed Stoffer suggested they “go have sex in the Speaker’s chair.” According to the Herald, the woman says she “brushed it off as a joke and didn’t mention it to anyone” at the time, but that the dynamics — she was in her early 20s, Stoffer a much older, powerful MP — made her “uncomfortable… I look back at it, I was a really drunk 19-year-old with all these old men giving me free alcohol. At the time I was like, ‘This is so great, I’m hanging out with MPs.’ But I think about it now and I’m like, ‘not so cool.’”
For his part, Stoffer’s response to the Post’s questions began with awkward, no-chance-at-all/didn’t-happen/can’t-recall answers, followed by a semi-contrite, morning-after, six-minute public statement in which he side-stepped specifics but apologized five times. “Everybody knows I’m a hugger and I’m a touchy person,” he said. “If anyone feels those actions were untoward, I regrettably apologize… I did not in any way in my intention intend to insult or demean or belittle any person in this regard.”
What intrigues me about all of this has less to do with the specifics of the incidents themselves and more with the reactions to them.
Given the head-spinning warp speed of unfolding events — it’s been barely four months since The New York Times published its original Harvey Weinstein exposé, triggering the still erupting firestorm social media #metoo experiences and the beginning of our long overdue course correction when it comes to gender-power relations — it’s worth reminding ourselves how much has changed in our public discourse in how little time.
Not that long ago, politicians and political parties didn’t consider political workplace sexual harassment seriously enough to even have policies in place to deal with it. The young and vulnerable political staffers who were subject to unwanted advances didn’t feel empowered to speak up — or knew that, if they did, nothing would be done. And MPs, party staffers and the royal-we rest of us who may have suspected what might have been going on chose to look the other way rather than confront the uncomfortable.
Today, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh — like other federal and provincial political leaders of all stripes — is busy apologizing (“it’s clear our anti-harassment policies and protections for workers were insufficient and failed to appropriately deal with this behaviour”) and promising to do better.
Clearly, gentle, “you-may-think-you’re-being-friendly” asides aside, there was little to make clear to Stoffer — whose self and public images as a party-loving happy hugger aligned neatly — his behaviour was unacceptable.
One hopes that too is finally changing.
We are at the very beginning of a seismic culture shift, and men like Peter Stoffer — who may have assumed they were playing by rules that now suddenly no longer apply — must inevitably pay a price while the ground shifts and the rules change. That is necessary, and not necessarily unfair.
That said, we should also keep in mind Stoffer himself is more than the sum total of his own bad behaviour. There is still much to be admired in both his dedication to the cause of veterans and also in his efforts to bridge our parliamentary partisan divides. And there’s still much to be gained from having a re-educated, more self-reflective Stoffer back in our public life. One hopes — again — that he will learn the right lessons from his public embarrassment.
As for the rest of us, we need to find a way to accommodate human complexities without either accepting bad behaviour or allowing it to be our only measuring stick of an individual’s value.
Easier said than done right now.