OTTAWA — Two Parliament Hill staffers who experienced alleged workplace harassment and sexual abuse from former senator Don Meredith appeared before a Senate committee Thursday, nearly seven years after concerns were flagged to human resources.
They were “not at all grilled” by senators, said Brian Mitchell, the lawyer representing the two former female staffers. He described the exchanges inside the closed-door meeting as a “helpful dialogue.”
After the meeting, one victim told HuffPost Canada after feeling for years that her case had been ignored by the Senate, she felt a weight lift off her shoulders for the first time since she told human resources what was going on behind Meredith’s closed doors.
HuffPost reported on the staffers’ experiences working in Meredith’s office in 2017, including allegations of verbal abuse and unwanted touching among other explicit acts.
Listen: In 2017 interview, former staffer alleges senator ‘trapped’ her in his office. Story continues below video.
Senators packed the inside of the committee room to listen to their testimonies before the upper chamber’s internal economy, budgets and administration committee.
The same committee studied and adopted a new proposed anti-harassment policy earlier this month. The new proposed policy is currently before the Senate for consideration.
“It was important that the victims have the opportunity to speak and to communicate their trauma that they suffered,” Mitchell told reporters after his clients’ testimonies. “When you hear difficult testimony like that it’s important, by listening, that they take the appropriate actions, which they I’m sure will for the future.”
HuffPost reported last year that an apology and financial compensation was an option at least one senator suggested would be an appropriate recourse for the victims’ multi-year ordeal. Mitchell did not confirm Thursday if that was the route the former Senate staffers have decided on.
“Let’s be clear here. What happened here was wrong. It has to be addressed,” he said, adding that there are “many options on the table.”
Meredith resigned from the Senate in May 2017, shortly before a historic expulsion vote related to the revelation that he had an affair with a teenager while in office. He still retains his “Honourable” title.
HR learned of issues as early as 2013
The case has shone a light on the institution’s slow handling of issues related to workplace harassment and sexual harassment. There has also been new scrutiny over the use of parliamentary privilege by senators to shield themselves from participating in investigations of alleged wrongdoing.
In the case of one of Meredith’s staffers who allegedly experienced sexual harassment and abuse, her ordeal became more complicated after she went to human resources for help as early as July 2013. Emails obtained by HuffPost show Conservative leadership at the time were made aware that members of Meredith’s staff were concerned about their safety.
The employee became doubtful the Senate’s harassment prevention policy would help provide job security and protection against Meredith, a sitting senator at the time. She did not file a formal complaint. Meredith continued on as a senator.
Steps toward a formal inquiry were taken in early 2015 when former Speaker Claude Nolin noticed a high degree of turnover in Meredith’s office and hired an outside firm, Ottawa-based Quintet Consulting, to investigate. Nolin died before the workplace assessment was finished.
While Quintet investigated Meredith’s workplace conduct, the Toronto Star published a story about a young woman who alleged she had a two-year affair with the senator that started when she was 16. Meredith, a Conservative senator at the time, was kicked out of caucus.
The finished workplace assessment landed on the desk of Sen. Leo Housakos, Nolin’s successor as Speaker in July 2015. A copy of the report was never made available to the former staffers who participated in it.
The workplace assessment was reviewed by the Senate’s internal economy steering committee before it was shared with the Senate ethics officer. Housakos believed a full inquiry was merited on the grounds that Meredith’s conduct may have breached his obligations as a senator. The full report was shared with the Senate ethics officer.
The inquiry experienced significant delays in part because senators used parliamentary privilege to decline participation or access to documents for use in the Senate ethics officer’s inquiry, according to the final report published in June. It took four years to finish. Victims were forced to repeat their testimonies multiple times to different investigators.
The Senate is a self-governing institution, meaning it has the right to manage its own affairs. Concerns were raised by the Senate ethics officer that the use of parliamentary privilege without impunity led to the “inability to obtain and/or use evidence related to certain issues.”
Earlier this month, the Senate’s internal economy committee reviewed a proposed new anti-harassment policy that’s been in the works since 2018. It has firmer timelines and expanded the definition for harassment to include bullying, cyber harassment, mobbing, sexual harassment, and violence in the workplace.
A number of senators raised concerns over some of its provisions during the course of the meeting, including a confidentiality provision that would bar complainants and the accused from making public statements during the on-going process. “Everything will leak,” warned one senator.
New policy won’t apply to Meredith’s former staffers
Senate internal economy committee spokesperson Alison Korn said the human resources committee heard from 19 witnesses in the drafting of the new anti-harassment policy. The proposed policy states that a complaint cannot be filed under the new process if an individual has already filed a complaint through their union or under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
“Unionized employees have the option to choose recourse either by submitting a complaint under the policy or addressing it through the grievance process under their collective agreement,” Korn said. “Individuals do not have the option of having the matter addressed through both mechanisms at the same time.”
Korn said there are approximately 700 employees in the Senate. As of January, 126 of those employees are represented between two unions.
University of Ottawa law professor Katherine Lippel said it’s laudable the Senate is working to update its anti-harassment policy. The timelines are reasonable, she said, adding the strength of the policy lies in its efforts to cover more than alleged harassment and violence in the workplace.
“The fact that ‘abuse of authority’ is there, that broadens the scope of the policy,” Lippel told HuffPost.
And like many first drafts of any proposed policy, there are areas for further discussion and possible revision. Lippel, who specializes in occupational health and safety law, flagged the revised policy’s definition of sexual harassment to be too narrow. It does little to address the predicament of those who may find themselves in a poisoned work environment, she said.
“If for instance, if there’s three pages working for a senator and one of the pages is being harassed, well the other two are in a poisoned work environment, would they be able to speak up about themselves as well?”
Lippel said the proposed policy doesn’t have clear punishments outlined for uncooperative participants, and warned that without that piece it won’t have any teeth.
Meredith’s former staffers won’t be able to use the new policy.
Under the new policy, former Senate employees are allowed to file formal complaints if the last alleged incident occurred within the last year of the last day of their employment. The complaint must also be made no later than three months after the former employee’s last day.
Lippel said the provisions are fair, but that she would like to see some flexibility shown to alleged victims who may be seeking treatment. There are good reasons to extend the deadline under workers’ compensation law, she said.
“This is not far-fetched. In the case law in Quebec there’s tons of cases like this, unfortunately.”
The University of Ottawa law professor stressed the importance of anti-harassment policies to work expeditiously. “There’s the rights of the victim and the rights of the alleged perpetrator… There is a certain wisdom to not make this a really long, drawn out thing.”
To be honest, she said, “Victims aren’t ever going to feel comfortable coming forward.”
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated former employees have three days since their last day to file a complaint. They have three months. This version has been corrected.