Staffer’s Notebook: We’re not gonna take it. Or we will.



This post started out as an email to my boss, Glen Gower. Then it got a little too long. 

Last month news broke with allegations of improper behavior by Councillor Chiarelli. This week, Councillor Chiarelli requested a leave of absence for stress-related illness as victims shared more first-hand testimonies of sexual harassment. For women working on Councillor’s Row, questionable workplace behaviour from elected officials was old news . The real news was that someone was talking about it. 

My work relationship with my employer gives me the space and confidence to share my concerns about the general working conditions for political staffers. In the weeks since the news broke, Glen and I have had several conversations about woking conditions for Councillors’ staff and he encouraged me to share my thoughts in my Staffer’s Notebook.  

The power dynamics leading men to exert dominance over women’s minds and bodies is well expressed by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” We expect elected officials to be leaders in their community and we hold them to the highest standard of behavior, yet it is democracy’s inconvenient truth that they represent the best and the worst of us.

The story of the powerful man and the intern is as old as democracy itself. I scoff at the surprise that it should happen here, in Ottawa. If the MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that years of sensitivity and inclusion training has done nothing to discourage those who use sex to control. We seem to take comfort in the suggestion that this behavior is the purview of jerks. Drawing a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys prevents us from looking at the ways our work environment enables abusive behaviour. Nowhere is this as true as in political offices. At all levels of government, the harassment and questionable hiring practices of elected officials take root in a garden carefully maintained by others.

I have worked as a political aide in federal and municipal politics. Everywhere, our employment conditions are precarious. Yet we work amidst organizations with mature and elaborate HR practices, alongside a well-represented unionized workforce. Be it in the federal or municipal government, elected officials are free to belittle, sexually objectify and threaten their staff while everyone looks the other way. And so the seeds of abuse sprout and grow unchecked, untamed and unmanaged. Our only recourse is to take it or leave it.

The image of one elected official representing one constituency has not kept pace with the complexity of representative democracy. Elected officials still hold office as a one-man show, but their operating budgets have grown to include a full-time staff providing the level of service that residents expect. Yet, everything in the staffing of political offices seeks to minimize the visibility of staffers and discount their existence. We are an extension of our employer, a line item in an operating budget, hired and fired at will. Our jobs have no requirements, our salaries are drawn from the same budget as office furniture and left to the discretion of each councillor. There is no salary scale, no promotion track, no equal pay, no performance reports, but most importantly, no complaint mechanism protecting us from the consequences of speaking out. Like office stationery we are expendable, and our value lies in augmenting a Councillor’s capacity without being noticed.

The low pay and precarious conditions of employment invite a workforce that is young, inexperienced and transient, unwilling to compromise its ability to find better paying work elsewhere in the organization. It also works to create a revolving door of young and inexperienced staff that carries with it a reputation for incompetence and ineffectiveness. Some departments will not let municipal staff interact directly with political aides in the absence of a manager. It works at cross-purpose with the City’s stated goal to be an employer of choice and with councillors’ need to receive sensible and knowledgeable advice in the conduct of their duties. Most importantly, it prevents the coalescence of stories, concerns and experiences into corporate memory and practices.

The precarity and sensitive nature of elected officials’ positions has explained their need for flexibility in staffing. For the most part, this flexibility has worked to the advantage of people like me: people with incomplete or patchy resumes, people with interrupted work experience, people whose personal lives have stunted their professional development, in other words, people who have difficulty finding work elsewhere. A CBC news item referred to our positions as “desirable” and I agree that my position as a Councillor’s Assistant has given me a unique perch into the complex levers of public administration. But being “lucky to have this job” combined with the unchecked staffing practices afforded to elected officials compromises our ability to challenge abuse,  especially in the absence of clearly defined protections against retaliation.

We assume that the desirability of our position makes up for its precarity. This might be true for the stock staffer imagined from political tv series but for those who eschew the glamour of fiction, the desirability is subservient to the precarity. We have bills to pay, families to support. We make decisions to manage the precarity of our positions rather than its desirability: we keep our heads low, we don’t make waves. We can justify the low pay and long hours by the desirability of the position. But we cannot in good conscience justify vulnerability to abuse and harassment as the price to pay for a desirable position. Yet this is the message that the City sends staffers by letting elected officials make their own rules in matters of staffing.  

Last week, Mayor Watson and Councillor Kavanagh issued a public statement stating that “All City employees, including employees of elected officials, have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment.” This is as true as it is meaningless. We may have access to counselling services and a shoulder to cry on, but we are institutionally kept at arm’s length from the City’s Human Resources. Once we avail ourselves of our 6 counselling sessions, our options to deal with harassment remain as binary as they ever were: take it or leave it. There is no HR pipeline to find us safe employment elsewhere in the City, no procedure to provide adult supervision to our employers, no protection against the gossip and rumours that may spread as a result.

The Clerk’s Office sent out an email reiterating the City’s commitment to be a workplace free of harassment and announcing a review of the recruitment and hiring process for Councillor’s Assistants. I hope that this review will be done in consultation with Councillors’ Assistants. However, I am concerned that the need for sweeping systemic changes, once identified, will meet fierce opposition from Councillors and inertia from City Staff. 

Power is a tricky thing to pass on. It’s slippery and it doesn’t have handles. 

If my blogging is any indication…


I would say that life gets busier as the twins hit toddlerhood. I used to have time to blog but now, I take 30 minutes to check Facebook before I go to bed and that’s the extent of my online presence. I’m not sure where time went. It seems to run through my fingers like water, one day after the next.

Here’s what a day looks like when I work. I work 3 days a week.

5:15 Wake-up. That’s an hour earlier than the children. I need the hour to wake-up before the children descend on the kitchen. Believe me, this makes me a better person. During this hour, I drink my coffee and maybe do a bit of non-demanding work like formatting my writing portfolio. Most of the time, I read the paper and check what happened on Facebook overnight.

Blogging: early in the morning or late at night
Blogging: early in the morning or late at night

6:00 My three teenagers wake-up. No, scratch that. My two oldest teenagers wake-up. Their sister sleeps through the alarm, the pots and pans, and a nuclear apocalypse.

During the weekend, I make cookie dough that I roll into logs and refrigerate, kind of like a homemade Pillsbury cookie thing. As the kids get-up, I bake cookies for their lunches. It makes them better people.

6:15 The teenagers descend on the kitchen and start making breakfast and putting their lunches together. If they are in a good mood, this can be a pleasant time. When the grocery is running low, it is very unpleasant.

6:30 I realize that the youngest of the three teenagers is missing-in-action. I send someone, usually me, to wake her up.  She looks at me with eyes wide open, she may even answer me. It doesn’t mean that she is awake.

6:45 The younger four start waking-up in no set order. This is when the fun begins. Except that it’s not always fun. I may or may not have a series of temper tantrums over this or that. I may wonder why they didn’t stay in bed, as I would if I was still tired. Mystery.

Between 6:30 and 7:20, I start harassing my teenagers to do their morning chores. They need to empty the dishwasher (so I can fill it), feed the dog (so it can go out to poop) and take the dog out to poop (so she can go in her crate for the day). This is the part where they start complaining about the unfairness of life: what, you mean that our meals are cooked, our bills are paid, and we have to empty the clean dishwasher?? What’s next? Put away the laundry that is washed for us??

If the twins are still sleeping, I have time to have a shower. If not, it will have to wait until everybody is off to school.

7:00 My spider-sense alerts me to the fact that I have not yet seen my youngest teenager. If we’re lucky, she’s up and getting dressed. If not watch-out because the bus comes in 20 minutes. She will touch down in the kitchen like a tornado and in a whirlwind of orders, barked and otherwise, will get ready to go to school. She may accusingly declare that since I made her in such a way that she doesn’t wake-up at the sound of the alarm, it is my responsibility to ensure that she is up and dressed at a reasonable time. Yeah, my kids say funny stuff like that all the time. The problem is that they believe it.

Unhappy camper, up 8 minutes before the bus.
Unhappy camper, up 8 minutes before the bus.

The twins are getting up. I nurse them and give them breakfast. Oatmeal with fruits or cold cereals with fruits and yogourt.

7:30 The first batch of children is off to school. I realize that my elementary school kids are still snoozing. Crap. I keep promising myself to get them up at 7:00.

My 4 year-old demands a “giant hug”. This means that I must sit on the couch with her for as long as her Hugness desires. It’s a pit stop for physical affection: when the tank is full, she drives away.

Giant hugs. Sometimes I sub-contract them. "You! Sit on the couch with your sister and give her a hug!"
Giant hugs. Sometimes I sub-contract them. “You! Sit on the couch with your sister and give her a hug!”

I rotate between helping the younger children with their breakfast and making 3 lunches. Our lunches consist of a main meal (sandwich, pizza made on naan bread, pasta with cheese…), a fruit, cookies, juice or water in a bottle and a snack like yogourt, apple sauce or popcorn (we have a corn popper. My neighbour wasn’t able to sell it at her garage sale 15 years ago so she gave it to me. Best money I never spent: we use it daily).

By now, the twins are done with breakfast and covered in yogourt or oatmeal. _MG_9284

Once a week, I make a giant batch of crepe batter. The older kids make their own crepes in the morning. It makes them better people.
Once a week, I make a giant batch of crepe batter. The older kids make their own crepes in the morning. It makes them better people.

_MG_9313

8:00 I start giving my kids the final bus countdown. “20 minutes until you walk away!” I busy myself with a game of kids-whack-a-mole: lunch! socks! uniforms! Baby in the dishwasher! Lunch! _MG_9281

8:20 I shoo my elementary school kids off to school. This usually involve a mad rush for matching shoes  and a desperate cry for “Did you sign my tests?” followed by a flurry of papers being pulled out of the bag as I am trying to push stuff into the bag. Chaos ensues.

8:21 The second batch of kids are gone. I take a deep breath and feel like a deserve a drink. I have a condescending thought for all the people who think that 8:30 am is early. Normally, I should be getting in the car to go to work. More likely though, I am still un-showered and in my pjs. My husband comes out of his home office and asks: “Aren’t you going to work?” I reply: “Of course I am, why are you asking?”

8:30 Showered, sort of dressed, hair…. bah. Whatever. I look for my daughter’s socks. I pick the first two. They never match. One day, I gave her matching socks and she laughed. She doesn’t even know that socks come in matching pairs, this child of the Hand-Me-Downs. Manage expectations People, this will keep you sane. I look at what my daughter is wearing. It usually involves layers, textures and patterns. Lots of patterns. I tell my husband that the Montessori teachers must appreciate the fact that she dresses entirely on her own. He doubts it. IMG_2783

8:40 The “You’re late” school bus drives by my house. That’s the bus I’m never supposed to see because I’m supposed to be long gone, driving my daughter to preschool. We get in the van and drive away.

8:50 Drop-off at preschool.

9:30 I get to work. I write correspondence for a federal Member of Parliament. What this means is that when people write to their MP, I answer. My boss reads my replies and edits them as needed. I can tell how his week is going by the amount of edits. He can probably do the same. I work 3 days a week. On the days I am not at work, I would be going for a run with the twins and my dog.

2:30 I get off work, pick-up a few food items on my way to preschool, pick-up my daughter and possibly other people too. There is a graph that explains when and where I am to pick up which child on any given day. It was trained into me. “This is not a drill, soldier. This is a live project. You’re a go.” (Except that Matt Damon  is not in the van with me).

4:00 I get home with my daughter. The teens are already home. The twins are crazy cranky and initiate the whole whine-and-cheese fest for mom. I nurse one while the other has a complete meltdown. I nurse the other. If I am lucky, I still have some frozen meals prepared. If not, I have to make supper while my three younger children compete to see who can drive mom nuts the fastest to the most spectacular effect. I play a game of kids-whack-a-mole involving serving 4 different snacks while trying to keep the twins from doing what twins do best: induce chaos. With one hand, I make supper while keeping the kids from raiding the fridge with the other hand, and closing the cupboard doors with the other hand, while retrieving the hand-mixer with the other hand, while getting a twin out of the (stored) deep-fryer with the other hand, while grabbing a juice bottle just before the other twin pours it on his face with the other hand. Twin whack-a-mole is a fun game except that my sense of humour is deficient.

I usually end-up with a cranky kid on my back. IMG_2776

5:15 I fix myself a double cappuccino. For the second half of the day.

5:30 or 6:30 We eat. And by “eat” I mean that I stuff my face with one hand while feeding the twins with the other. My husband and teenagers are trying to have an intelligent conversation about world events while the younger children exercise their right to free expression. My husband tries to tell me something. It usually ends with “….nevermind, I’ll tell you in 25 years.”

6:30 The twins have their baths and get ready for bed. I get the 4 younger children cleaned and ready for bed while my husband cleans the kitchen. On any given day, there is a waltz of activities and teens comings-and-goings. By 7:00 pm, the twins are down and we get bedtime routines started for the next 2. My husband and 7 year-old son are reading The Chronicles of Narnia together. I go lie down with my 4 year-old until she settles enough to fall asleep. This may require a few stories and more songs. I may go a little nuts as I sit there with her, mentally running through my to-do list like an endless reel.

8:30 By now, the four youngest children are asleep for sure. We cycle laundry, finish cleaning the kitchen. My husband and I often go for coffee or ice cream in the evening if the house is somewhat under control. Or we may go on a grocery date. I know, so hot!

10:00 pm Ideally, we would go to bed now. In reality, we can still be found chatting with our teenagers or wasting time watching a movie (him) or checking social media (me). This is when, in theory, I would be blogging but I’m not.

11:00 pm One of the twins wakes-up. Usually Lucas. I nurse him back to sleep for the night and go to bed.

3:00-4:00 am The other twin wakes-up.  I nurse her back to sleep. Return to bed. Find the 4 year-old curled-up in my place. Return her back to her bed (located right at the foot of mine, it’s a short push and a shove).

5:15 am The next day….

Reflection on daycare, work and the absence of both Pt1


I was privileged to be interviewed for a Globe & Mail piece on childcare. You can find the piece here. When Roma Luciw interviewed me, we were pulling into Rivière-du-Loup Qc after 10 hours on the road. I wasn’t sure what the article would be about but I hoped that I sounded sane. The daycare tipping point, or the decision to stay home or go to work from a daycare cost perspective:

When does it make sense to put your career on hold and look after the kids versus going back to work and forking out the money for child care?

It’s a directed look at childcare and I am always in support of more public discussion about women, family, children and society. But the decision to work for a pay cheque is rarely as one-dimensional as the piece’s angle. I propose this series of posts as a reflection on childcare beyond basic math.   It’s not about assigning blame or responsibility where no blame is deserved or responsibility owed. It’s a reflection about how we can do better for our sake and for our children’s sake.

Continue reading “Reflection on daycare, work and the absence of both Pt1”