OTTAWA — Two women who experienced workplace and sexual harassment while working in former senator Don Meredith’s office will not participate in the Senate’s compensation process, citing the lack of a “level playing field.”
Brian Mitchell, the lawyer representing the two women, described the new independent evaluation process Tuesday as one that is “straightjacketed to ensure it protects the institution, and not with a generous and open heart towards the victims.”
“We’re not walking away,” he said, adding that the process needs to become one that’s fair and impartial to victims. “We’re walking out the door and hoping to be invited back.”
The women asked to be anonymous because of fear their statements will hurt their current employment on Parliament Hill.
Watch: Senate makes historic apology in sexual harassment case. Story continues below video.
The Senate’s powerful internal economy, budgets and administration (CIBA) committee, charged with managing the institution’s financial and internal affairs, announced a process in June to bring in an independent evaluator to determine compensation for Meredith’s former workplace victims.
Louise Otis, a former justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal, was tapped by the Senate in July to serve as the independent evaluator.
To be eligible for compensation, Senate public affairs officer Alexandra Scott-Larouche confirmed former employees have to co-operate in the new process.
“Ms. Otis will only provide a recommendation for potential financial compensation in respect of an employee who participates in the independent evaluation process,” Scott-Larouche wrote in an email.
Mitchell said his clients in recent weeks have been put in a position where they’re facing and negotiating directly with Senate lawyers. Those who choose to participate in the evaluation process are not allowed to have legal representation.
He said his clients feel the conditions of the new evaluation process increases a sense of re-victimization with the Senate’s failure to acknowledge how delays have added to damages and anxiety suffered in the past six years.
When his clients raised concerns with the Senate human resources department, Mitchell said there wasn’t any change from the human resources committee.
New women were sent “to replace the women who were sexually harassed,” he said. “How in any way does that make sense?”
CIBA Chair Sen. Sabi Marwah stood in the chamber shortly before the Senate rose for summer break to apologize to Meredith’s former employees who allegedly experienced workplace and sexual harassment.
Marwah spoke to the “pain and trauma” of the former employees’ multi-year ordeal.
“Workplace harassment of any kind is unacceptable,” Marwah said at the time. “It has no place in the Senate of Canada. We have heard the experience of employees in the office of former senator Don Meredith and, most importantly, we believe them.”
Mitchell suggested Otis’s mandate needs to be expanded to consider the impact the Senate has had on his clients’ lives in the whole six-year process, and not just when the women, and others, were employed in Meredith’s office.
“These victims did nothing wrong, except follow the rules,” he said, saying the current process shows them “disrespect.”
“Why would you participate in that process? No Canadian with common sense would.”
Workplace issues flagged to HR in 2013
The Jamaican-born Pentecostal minister was appointed to the Senate by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010.
Meredith resigned from the Senate in May 2017 following controversy over the revelation he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a teenage girl while in office.
Prior to his resignation, he was the subject of at least two taxpayer-funded investigations examining his conduct with Senate employees. Senate human resources was aware of workplace issues in Meredith’s office as early as July 2013.
High staff turnover in his office prompted the Senate to hire a third-party firm to investigate what was happening behind closed doors.
The firm completed and submitted its workplace assessment report to the Senate in July 2015. By then, Meredith had already been already booted out of the Conservative caucus after revelations of his affair with a teenager.
Findings in that workplace assessment report were escalated to the Senate Ethics Office (SEO), which launched an inquiry into allegations of abuse of authority, and workplace and sexual harassment the following month.
Contents of the workplace assessment have never been made public. Meredith received a copy, but the employees who participated in the process were not given one or the option of receiving a redacted version. The situation has been shrouded in secrecy.
The SEO wrote in his report that he even had a hard time obtaining a copy of the report after running up against roadblocks from senators claiming concerns of parliamentary privilege.
It took nearly four years for the office to finish and publish its report June 28, 2019 after a number of delays, including a change in SEO leadership.
Some CIBA members have been pushing to obtain a copy for at least the past year. Before the Senate rose for the summer, senators passed a motion in June to authorize the release of the workplace assessment report to CIBA.
The committee chair declined to confirm if a copy of the workplace assessment has been released to members for review in relation to the process currently underway to determine financial compensation to former employees of Meredith.
Sen. Marwah is “not at liberty to disclose anything that was discussed in-camera,” Hilary Bittle, his office’s parliamentary affairs advisor, told HuffPost Canada Tuesday.
‘Abundance of evidence’ of workplace and sexual harassment
Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault concluded in a report published last summer that Meredith “engaged in a pattern of behaviour that demeaned, belittled and humiliated his former employees in the workplace.”
His inquiry found an “abundance of evidence” from “credible” sources to support ex-employees’ allegations Meredith’s conduct “created a poisoned work environment for his staff.”
One former employee told the Senate ethics officer he became physically ill because of his job. Another, identified as “Employee 5” in the report, said she didn’t feel safe at work after claiming she experienced acts of sexual harassment “every working day.”
“Employee 5” is one of the two women represented by Mitchell.
“It isn’t just about compensation,” Mitchell said. Staffers, mostly women, he said, “were forced into a situation of sexual harassment, and sexual abuse, and a hostile work environment.”
The Toronto lawyer said the terms of the independent evaluation process need to be immediately changed “to ensure that the very good intentions of some of the senators are indeed fulfilled and that the victims get closure.”
Otis’s work is expected to be completed this fall. After that, CIBA will review her non-binding report and decide on details of any financial compensation packages.