POLITICS
10/14/2020 15:42 EDT | Updated 10/14/2020 16:04 EDT

Senate To Pay $498K To Harassment Victims After Years-Long ‘Crisis’

An independent evaluator said former senator Don Meredith’s years in office generated a "crisis" in the Senate.

CP/Sean Kilpatrick
The Senate of Canada chamber is pictured in Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2019.

OTTAWA — The Senate announced Wednesday it will pay $498,000 to nine ex-employees for harassment and sexual harassment they experienced while working in the office of former senator Don Meredith.

Compensation is the culmination of a multi-year process that has been plagued by delays and secrecy

Toronto lawyer Brian Mitchell represented two of the nine former employees. Both participated in an independent evaluation process led by former Quebec Appeal Court judge Louise Otis this summer to determine compensation. They previously asked not to be identified out of fear over negative repercussions at work.

“It has been a long journey, but we are pleased that with the participation and cooperation of all parties, this matter has drawn to a satisfactory conclusion,” Mitchell told HuffPost Canada. 

Mitchell confirmed his clients were required to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of the settlement process.

An additional $30,000 will be paid to settle legal fees accrued by some participants during the process, confirmed Alison Korn, spokesperson for the Senate’s standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration (CIBA). 

The nine employees will not receive the same amount in compensation. 

Otis “recommended compensation specific to each individual’s experiences in accordance with the public sector settlements,” Korn wrote in an email to HuffPost.

Watch: ‘We Believe Them’: Senate makes historic apology in workplace harassment case. Story continues below video.

 

Both the compensation announcement and Otis’ report were made public Wednesday after review by CIBA members. 

Otis submitted her report to the Senate in late August. 

The report reflects participants’ descriptions of a toxic work environment that “generated anxiety, fear, tension for most claimants.” These work conditions resulted in adverse health consequences for most employees, Otis wrote, including loss of sleep, and a need for medication and therapy.

Her personal life is still seriously affected by this trauma.Independent evaluator Louise Otis in a report recommending compensation for former staff

Over seven weeks, Otis conducted videoconference interviews and reviewed written submissions by participants in the claims process. Her report includes some details from testimonies she heard and read first-hand.

“One claimant who experienced sexual harassment on a continuous basis while in Mr. Meredith’s employ, suffered major health consequences due to this despicable behavior: anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disorders, headaches, post traumatic asthma, loss of self-esteem, and shame,” Otis wrote, adding the employee eventually resigned. 

“Her personal life is still seriously affected by this trauma.”

CP/Sean Kilpatrick
Senator Don Meredith leaves a Senate committee in Ottawa on April 4, 2017.

Otis was previously involved in helping to determine how to divide a $100-million settlement following a landmark class-action lawsuit against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police over complaints of gender or sexual harassment or discrimination. 

Her 10-page report focused on Senate harassment and acknowledged the aggravated trauma experienced by participants in their attempts to get “support and remedies” from the Senate in processes that stretched years. 

Otis described the situation as “exceptional circumstances of the Meredith matter and the numerous investigations launched by the Senate ... resulted ultimately in years of delay which accentuated the vulnerability and the isolation of the claimants.” 

She wrote the delays and “length of time to provide justice to the complainants is an aggravating factor” went into her considerations for financial compensation recommendations.

“Almost all complainants described their work experience as ‘the worst thing that ever happened to me in a workplace.’”

CP/Sean Kilpatrick
Final preparations are made to the Senate in advance of the throne speech in Ottawa on Sept. 23, 2020.

She recommended to senators that her report be made public “to put an end to the crisis” generated by Meredith’s years in the Senate “shut off” criticisms on the “opacity of the process.”

Only former employees who participated in Otis’ independent evaluation process were eligible for compensation. 

Otis’ final report stated 11 claimants agreed to participate in the claims process. The Senate is compensating nine.

Meredith sat as a Conservative senator until he was kicked out of caucus after news initially broke in 2015 about his two-year affair with a teenager. He was facing allegations of workplace harassment at the time. 

Meredith resigned as a senator in 2017 following controversy over the revelation that his sexual affair with the teenager breached ethics rules. 

The Toronto senator quit moments before his colleagues were set to meet for a historic expulsion vote over his fate in the chamber. His resignation avoided expulsion — and allowed him to preserve his pension eligibility and his “honourable” title.

CP/Justin Tang
Senators sit physically distanced as they listen throne speech in the Senate of Canada building in Ottawa on Sept. 23, 2020.

Meredith, a Pentecostal pastor, was appointed to the Senate by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010.

A former employee previously told HuffPost in 2017 that Meredith would allegedly use the intimacy of prayer to inappropriately slip his hands from her shoulder to touch her breast and bottom on multiple occasions. 

Other employees alleged they were forced to work excessive unpaid overtime and were repeatedly threatened by Meredith that he would ruin their careers if they reported him for misconduct.

No formal complaints were filed. But some safety concerns were raised to Senate leadership, including senior members of the Conservative caucus.

Senate bogged by challenges in expediency, transparency

Otis was hired in July to conduct an independent evaluation to determine “appropriate financial awards” to compensate former Meredith employees. 

For some of the former staff members who participated in the Otis process, it was their third independent third-party evaluation in more than five years. 

The first was conducted by Ottawa-based firm Quintet Consulting Corp. in February 2015. Quintet’s resulting workplace assessment report compelled the Senate Ethics Office (SEO) to launch an official inquiry later that year.

The inquiry report was published in June 2019 — nearly four years after its start. Delays were rooted in a change in leadership at the SEO and from the Senate watchdog being hamstrung by claims of parliamentary privilege that prohibited him from disclosing details in the workplace assessment report in the inquiry.

It concluded Meredith exhibited a pattern of behaviour that “constitutes both harassment and sexual harassment” toward his former employees — years after his resignation.

A historic apology was read in the upper chamber in June to the victims, reaffirming that workplace harassment 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,” read CIBA Chair Sen. Sabi Marwah at the time.

Otis was instructed by the Senate to regard findings in the SEO’s report as “true and proven” in her evaluation.

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