Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sara WrightBy Sara Wright

During my December interview for the internship, then-Acting Director, Vida Nelson, told me about the $2.6 million of federal funding the Commission received to improve education and awareness on workplace sexual harassment.[1] It was an exciting announcement for the Commission and one that would have a meaningful impact for creating safer workplace environments for Yukoners. Thus, it was a no-brainer for me when I was asked if I wanted to focus on more general employment-related human rights matters or workplace sexual harassment. I chose the latter. My choice was not only because of what Vida told me about the federal funding; it was influenced by the experiences I, and so many of my friends, have had, and by the novelty of addressing the field from a legal perspective. Sexual harassment is an issue that has only recently been gaining widespread attention. When I started my undergraduate schooling, it was barely addressed in orientation. Now, it is a common part of the onboarding of students to their universities. Workplaces are finding themselves to be in great need of creating or updating their policies. This was an opportunity to be involved in assisting the facilitation of these improvements.

While, unfortunately, I was unable to actually go to the Yukon to assist in educational presentations and the development of materials in their offices, I was still able to assist by doing legal research on related matters. It gave me some insight into how new the matter is to human rights commissions. Most of the high-paying awards were given in the last 5 years, and there were almost no high awards given over a decade ago. Decisions made in provinces such as British Columbia refer back to decisions made in Ontario because there simply is so little Canadian precedent.

Reviewing policies was also part of my legal research. This was something I was particularly interested in because of my own personal experiences. I remember when I was casually speaking to someone at the Sexual Violence Response office of my undergraduate institution a month before graduating and only then learned that sexual harassment was defined by the recipient of the harassment. It matters how the recipient of the harassment feels, not the intentions of the harasser. As someone who sat through multiple trainings a year regarding sexual harassment, I was stunned that I did not know this. I was also surprised by how that aspect of the definition is sometimes left out of policies.

Though my internship has concluded, I am looking forward to seeing how the Commission moves forward with their five-year project to address workplace sexual harassment awareness in the Yukon.[2] It is sure to be a challenging time, considering how little data there has been for the Yukon specifically in this matter. However, the development of tools and training by the Commission is certain to improve employers’ understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and hopefully keep perpetuating this positive trend of expanding the understanding behind what constitutes sexual harassment and how to better prevent it from occurring.

[1] Department of Justice Canada, News Release, “Government of Canada supports a territory-wide initiative to address workplace sexual harassment in the Yukon” (10 December 2010), online: Department of Justice Canada <www.canada.ca/en/department-justice/news/2019/12/government-of-canada-supports-a-territory-wide-initiative-to-address-workplace-sexual-harassment-in-the-yukon.html>.

[2] Yukon Human Rights Commission, News Release, “Towards a Yukon Without Workplace Sexual Harassment (12 August 2020), online: Yukon Human Rights Commission <yukonhumanrights.ca/news.shtml>.

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