OTTAWA — Kent Hehr has resigned from the federal cabinet after the sport and disabilities minister was accused of making inappropriate sexual remarks while a provincial politician.
The allegation, which stems from his time as an Alberta MLA a decade ago, was first levelled against Hehr on social media late Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon he was out of cabinet pending an investigation.
"Harassment of any kind is unacceptable and Canadians have a right to live and work in environments free from harassment," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement.
"As a government we take any allegations of misconduct extremely seriously, and we believe that it is important to support women who come forward with allegations and that is exactly what our government will do."
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Lawyer Christine Thomlinson has been engaged to conduct an independent investigation for the government.
Trudeau characterized Hehr's resignation as a "leave of absence" and said, in the meantime, his duties will be performed by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan.
The accusation of misconduct was first disclosed on social media by Kristin Raworth, who spoke out about her interactions with Hehr in an interview Thursday.
The former employee at the Alberta legislature said when she started her job, she was warned against being alone with Hehr but ended up in elevators with him because they worked in the same building.
"My very first experience with him was in an elevator when he called me yummy," she said.
"And at the time I was 25 years old. I was very naive about that and I didn't know how to react, I didn't know how to respond when someone is saying this to you."
Raworth said subsequent encounters included similar remarks or efforts to brush up against her. Upon talking with female colleagues, she realized others had experienced similar things.
In a statement Thursday, Hehr did not directly address the allegations but said he believes harassment is never acceptable and everyone deserves to have their voice heard.
"Throughout my career I have always tried to conduct myself with respect towards others and I understand the most important thing is how each individual feels," he said.
"I have been informed that an investigation into these allegations has begun and I welcome and respect this process."
Raworth came forward after two young women told CTV about sexual misconduct by Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown while he was a Conservative MP.
Brown denied the allegations but nevertheless stepped down as leader of the party.
Raworth said she chose to speak out "because I think that it's incredibly important in the current climate we are in that we have these conversations about abuse of power and sexual harassment in the workplace and what that looks like."
Hehr was elected as a Liberal MP for Calgary in 2015 and said he intends to continue to serve in that position.
"The conversation our society is having is a very important one," he said. "I encourage all women who have felt uncomfortable or who have experienced harassment of any kind to continue to come forward. It is never OK."
He had previously served as veterans affairs minister but was shuffled out of that role last year.
Other MPs have been under scrutiny
He's the third Liberal MP to come under scrutiny following allegations of inappropriate behaviour since the Liberals took power in 2015.
In 2016, Nunavut MP Hunter TooToo resigned as fisheries minister to deal with addiction, but it later emerged he had also been having a "consensual but inappropriate" relationship with a staff member.
Last August, Liberal MP Darshan Kang — also from Calgary and a former Alberta MLA — resigned from the federal party caucus after female staffers in his former provincial and current federal offices came forward with allegations of sexual harassment.
Shortly before taking office, Trudeau expelled two Liberal MPs — Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti — from his party's caucus after they were accused of sexual misconduct by two female New Democrat MPs.
Accused of being disrespectful
The latest accusation against Hehr follows three incidents last fall where people accused him of being disrespectful and condescending towards them.
Among them: a woman who was fighting on behalf of mothers denied benefits on maternity leave, the wife of a military veteran and survivors of the drug thalidomide.
Jennifer McCrea had contacted Hehr's office in October 2016 after she was encouraged to speak to local Liberal MPs about the case of new moms being denied sick benefits.
McCrea said she specifically asked him why Ottawa is continuing to fight sick women, to which he allegedly replied "Well, Ms. McCrea, that is the old question, like asking ... 'When did you stop beating your wife?'"
That same week, thalidomide survivors, accused him of belittling them and their cause as a "sob story."
Hehr, who lives with a disability himself and is in a wheelchair, said he meant no harm during his face-to-face meeting in October with members of the Thalidomide Survivor Task Group, all of them victims of the devastating side effects the long-banned pregnancy drug.
With files from Tim Cook in Edmonton
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's full statement:
Harassment of any kind is unacceptable and Canadians have a right to live and work in environments free from harassment. As a government we take any allegations of misconduct extremely seriously, and we believe that it is important to support women who come forward with allegations and that is exactly what our government will do.
One of the first things we did when we formed government was to put in place rigorous processes to address allegations. This is the same approach that was taken when I became leader of the Liberal Party. Having a process that can address these allegations while at the same time offering support and a safe space for those who come forward is important and something Canadians expect.
Today, I accepted the Honourable Kent Hehr's resignation from cabinet pending the outcome of the investigation. During his leave of absence, his ministerial duties will be performed by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan who will serve as Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, in addition to being Minister of Science.