Sexual harassment and violence is rife in Quebec legal workplaces, the overwhelming majority of which goes unreported for fear of repercussions, claims a report that calls on the province’s legal actors to work together to take concrete steps to raise awareness and address the pervasive culture of silence and impunity that permits harassment.
Sexual harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion takes place in all workplace contexts, formal or informal, is often perpetrated by a colleague or a partner with a higher hierarchical status, and has far-reaching personal and professional consequences, with up to nearly 20 per cent of women changing career paths following the sexual misconduct, according to the study conducted by researchers at the Université Laval who were given the mandate by the Quebec Bar.
“The study denounces the culture of silence and impunity that endures in the legal profession,” remarked Julie Lassonde, a member of the Law Society of Ontario and the Barreau du Québec who has developed a consultancy business focused on the areas of gender, sexuality and social justice. “That is what will shock the most.”
The series of revelations over the past year that sparked a seismic shift in public awareness of sexual misconduct by powerful men has also cast a harsh spotlight on workplace sexual harassment. Emboldened by the groundbreaking #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, growing numbers of women are speaking out — and that’s making organizations skittish, more so because they are under growing pressure to take a zero-tolerance approach to unacceptable comportment in the workplace.
Yet workplace sexual harassment is hardly a new issue. It has been on the legal radar since at least 1989 when the Supreme Court of Canada held in the landmark case of Janzen v. Platy Enterprises that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and violates human rights legislation. Fifteen years later, Quebec became the first jurisdiction in North America to ban non-discriminatory workplace harassment, a move followed by Ontario in 2009, and in the ensuing years other provinces followed suit.
A class action launched by 20 women who allege they were sexually assaulted or harassed by the founder of Just for Laughs was certified by Quebec Superior Court.
In a 36-page ruling, Quebec Superior Justice Donald Bisson highlighted that class actions have “shown their value” in sexual assault cases because they have allowed “hundreds of victims” access to justice.
“If the plaintiff was not authorized to file the current class action, it is highly likely that many victims would be deprived of their ability to exercise their rights,” said Justice Bisson in Les Courageuses c. Rochon 2018 QCCS 2089. A class action “like this one allows all victims to understand that they are not alone, that the assaults are not their fault and that if they have the courage to come forward to denounce the sexual abuse committed against them, they will make the versions of the other victims more likely.”
Gilbert Rozon, also the subject of a criminal investigation, has denied the allegations. He unsuccessfully argued that “the fact of being charming while using his power was not in itself a fault,” that it was necessary to question “the consent of the alleged victims which happens in their heads and for which Rozon is not responsible,” and that the class representative — Patricia Tuslane, the only one to publicly come forward – did not offer material evidence to buttress her allegations.
The class action is seeking up to $400,000 in moral damages for each individual complainant, and a total of $10 million for the group in punitive damages.