OTTAWA — The Prime Minister's Office has set up a small team to handle harassment complaints from political staffers working for cabinet ministers.
Eleanore Catenaro, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, says the two senior aides on the team respond to questions and complaints from ministerial staffers — including those in the PMO — regarding sexual harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviour.
"All staff members have the right to a safe and respectful working environment and we do not take this responsibility lightly," Catenaro said in an email.
The Harassment Resolution and Investigation Office, which was set up last October, can also arrange for an independent investigation into allegations.
"We have been working with various experts and counsellors and lawyers on making sure that we have all the right processes in place," Trudeau said Monday on his way into question period in the House of Commons.
"We followed their advice and all these processes are things that all our staff know all about."
The office is being led by Brett Thalmann, who Catenaro said is responsible for human resources in the PMO, along with Sabina Saini, deputy director of policy.
Catenaro said the PMO is currently working to add the procedure to the official policy for political staff.
News of the office came to light after HuffPost Canada published allegations by Myriam Denis, who alleges she was contacted by Claude-Eric Gagne — then a senior official in the PMO — with a flirtatious message months after he had interviewed her for a job she did not get.
Gagne resigned last week after being the subject of a since-concluded third-party investigation into other allegations, which he denies.
According to HuffPost Canada, Denis said after she had shared details on social media, Thalmann reached out to ask her about the incident and said he could refer her to the third-party investigator.
Catenaro said he was doing so in his capacity as the head of the new office.
HuffPost Canada also disclosed allegations by Denis against Vahid Vidah, a former policy adviser in the office of Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger, when he reached out to her about a job.
In a blog post carried by the site, Denis accused Vidah of making sexually suggestive remarks during their meetings, after which she came to realize he lacked the authority to interview her.
After she was turned down for the position following a formal interview process, Denis wrote that she informed Rachel Bendayan, who was then chief of staff to Chagger, about her experience with Vidah.
Bendayan thanked her for bringing the matter to her attention, confirmed she had not asked Vidah to reach out to her, called the encounter inappropriate and noted he was no longer working there, Denis wrote.
"I find these behaviours entirely unacceptable," Chagger said Monday when asked about the HuffPost Canada report.
"They are not tolerated — not in my office, not in the government," she said. "So when I was made aware of this, it was last week, and our office is definitely looking at finding out why I didn't know sooner."
Neither Bendayan nor Vidah responded right away Monday when contacted by The Canadian Press.
Vidah told HuffPost Canada that while he might have mentioned his romantic life, he did not make any sexual advances, and that he nonetheless "sincerely regrets" anything that made her feel uncomfortable.