05/25/2018 17:46 EDT | Updated 05/25/2018 21:09 EDT

Ex-Senator Accused Of Misconduct Looms Over Anti-Harassment Bill Debate

Senate human resources knew of complaints since 2013.

File photo of Don Meredith seen during an interview in Toronto with The Canadian Press on March 16, 2017.

OTTAWA — A parliamentary staffer allegedly sexually assaulted on the job by former senator Don Meredith says the upper chamber finally asked the "right questions" this week — five years after complaints were reported.

"Talk to survivors," she said in an interview with HuffPost Canada. "There are a thousand more stories than reports."

Senators expressed their support for the government's anti-harassment Bill C-65, which recently arrived in the Senate. But many are calling the bill, which seeks to strengthen laws to prevent harassment in federal workplaces, too weak.

Independent senators Marilou McPhedran and Renée Dupuis raised concerns that the bill, as currently written, could block a victim's ability to seek redress in the human rights system.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Wanda Thomas Bernard stands during a ceremony in the Senate on Parliament Hill on Nov. 16, 2016 in Ottawa. Bernard says five years is too long for the Senate to probe misconduct complaints.

McPhedran said as much to Patty Hajdu during the labour minister's special appearance in the Senate on Tuesday.

Case law suggests the Human Rights Commission has no jurisdiction to investigate complaints filed by Parliament Hill employees.

Independent Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard also brought up the workplace complaints against Meredith still under investigation.

She suggested unless amendments are made, Bill C-65 risks letting abusers off the hook because it does nothing to shift the onus on alleged victims to file formal complaints and risk their jobs.

"Improving the complaint process to include bystander reporting protects the survivors and creates more accountability among coworkers to be allies," Bernard said in the chamber on Wednesday.

Watch: Rempel calls out colleagues for staying silent on sexist harassment

The Nova Scotia senator also commented on how long it's taken the institution to investigate and release a public report following multiple complaints of workplace misconduct against Meredith.

Bernard said five years is "absolutely too long for anyone to have to go through any complaint, certainly a complaint of this nature."

The former Senate staffer said she was happy to hear the senator criticize the institution's handling of harassment complaints.

"At least we have that on record. And that some of them really care," she said. "Women. But zero men stepped up. Zero. Funny. But not surprising."

She's the woman at the centre of an ongoing Senate Ethics Office inquiry into workplace misconduct allegations against Meredith.

But the pessimism in her voice is unmistakable. She says she thinks whatever Senate amendments are made to Bill C-65 will protect the institution's privilege over the safety of its staff.

'I'm broken'

The woman shared her story with HuffPost last year on the condition of anonymity. She alleged Meredith, a Pentecostal pastor, would grope and force himself on her in his Senate office and on work-related trips.

Listen: Senator 'trapped' me in his office, former staffer alleges

But after asking for help, she said officials have insisted on keeping quiet.

"I've been told, 'You might harm the investigation.' And I'm like, how much harm can I do? I'm broken."

Over the last four years, she has been asked to repeat her story in detail to a third-party firm, in a preliminary Senate Ethics Office review, and to Ottawa police.

She said she was interviewed by former Senate Ethics Officer Lyse Ricard last year. But Ricard's replacement, Pierre Legault, failed to inform her in December that he suspended the inquiry at the request of another investigating authority, she said.

"It was in the paper before I found out," she said. "How do you think that makes me feel?"

Two other former Meredith staff members have also come forward to HuffPost, claiming they were routinely harassed, bullied, and forced to work excessive unpaid overtime.

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Legault resumed the inquiry last month, after the staff member decided to not proceed with criminal charges because police had told her that process would take at least two years.

It would have also suspended the outstanding ethics inquiry and momentum from the previous reports before it, a multi-year process which has reportedly involved over two dozen people offering their testimonies.

But the alleged victim is concerned the report won't be published in time to inform the debate unfurling in the Senate on C-65.

When asked why a report remains outstanding, the Senate Ethics Office told HuffPost an inquiry's timeline is dependent on "a number of factors."

There's the office's obligation to give the accused under review the opportunity to be heard and to respond to the allegations against them, a spokesperson wrote in an email.

"The availability of witnesses and counsels also factors in to the timeline as does the complexity of the issues in the case and any legal issues raised by counsel throughout the process."

Legault's office also pointed out that the Meredith workplace inquiry has been suspended twice.

The inquiry was previously suspended on May 10 after Meredith's resignation. A Senate steering committee granted the Senate Ethics Office the special authority to continue the inquiry, despite Meredith no longer being a senator.

The Senate Ethics Office is an independent officer of the Senate.

Senate launches 'intensive' consultations

Meredith was appointed to the Senate by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010. The Toronto senator sat as a member of the Conservative caucus but was kicked out of the party after news of his sexual relationship with a teenager broke in 2015.

Meredith resigned from the Senate last year amid a whirl of controversy following a damning and detailed report released by the Senate Ethics Office about his affair with the teen.

Senate human resources, Conservative leadership, and former Senate president Noël Kinsella were informed of concerns by Meredith's staff about their personal safety in March 2014, according to emails obtained by HuffPost.

Complaints of workplace harassment were flagged to Senate human resources as early as July 2013.

The Senate's human resources subcommittee announced Thursday that it will launch "intensive" consultations before Parliament adjourns for summer.

The subcommittee was given the authority by the Senate to update the institution's current harassment policy back in December.

Their report is expected to be tabled in the fall.