POLITICS
09/11/2020 14:08 EDT | Updated 09/14/2020 17:57 EDT

Details Thin After Senate Agrees To Compensate Workplace Harassment Victims

Former senator Don Meredith resigned in 2017 after his sexual relationship with a teenager became public.

CP/Lars Hagberg
The temporary visitors entrance to the Senate of Canada in Ottawa on March 27, 2019.

OTTAWA — The Senate’s powerful internal economy committee agreed Thursday to offer “financial awards” to employees of former senator Don Meredith, more than seven years after concerns about workplace harassment in his office were flagged to human resources. 

Twenty-one senators, including committee chair Sabi Marwah, met behind closed doors for a virtual meeting. They reviewed an independent report by Quebec Appeal Court judge Louise Otis that reccommended compensating former staff who experienced workplace and sexual harassment while working in Meredith’s office.  

“In recommending compensation amounts, Ms. Otis averaged compensation levels established in three significant and recent class-action lawsuit settlements relating to instances of harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination in the public sector,” read a Thursday news release. 

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

 

Otis submitted her Meredith report before her Sept. 4 deadline. 

Six former employees participated in Otis’ independent evaluation process. Senate public relations officer Alexandra Scott-Larouche told HuffPost Canada in August that only former staff who decide to participate in the independent evaluator process will be considered in Otis’ recommendation for potential financial compensation.

At least two former employees in Meredith’s office decided to not participate in Otis’ process.

“Employees who participated in the independent evaluation process will be contacted by the office of the Senate law clerk and Parliamentary counsel,” the release read. 

Meredith has not faced criminal charges. He resigned in 2017 after a Senate committee recommended his expulsion following the revelation he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a teenage girl while he was a sitting senator.

The Senate did not provide additional details about the expected cost of the financial package for Meredith’s former employees, citing a need for additional discussion.

“Until the committee has the chance to meet again, no further comment will be provided,” Alison Korn, spokesperson for the Senate’s standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration (CIBA), wrote in an email.

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

Brian Mitchell, a lawyer representing two women who worked in Meredith’s office and participated in Otis’ evaluation process, called the decision to move forward “a positive step in the right direction.” 

But secrecy continues to be a concern, he said. 

Otis was hired by the Senate this summer to determine what is appropriate compensation for Meredith’s former employees. She was previously involved in the $100-million settlement of a landmark class-action lawsuit against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. That case concerned women who experienced gender or sexual harassment or discrimination as former RCMP employees or volunteers between 1974 and 2019. 

The retired Quebec justice was one of three assessors who reviewed documents and interviews in the RCMP case to determine how much compensation claimants were eligible for from $10,000 for small injuries to $220,000 for severe injuries.

One former employee who experienced sexual harassment in Meredith’s office described the seven-year journey as “very difficult and a nightmare.” She said dealing with Otis was different.

She spoke to HuffPost on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns speaking publicly about her experience would lead to personal and professional ramifications.

The process with Otis was respectful, “humane, fast, and very efficient,” she said. “That was very nice for a change.”

Shortly with Mme. Otis, I know what shortly means. But shortly with the Senate, to me, it’s months, years.Former staffer who worked in ex-senator Don Meredith's office

But now that the ball is back in the Senate’s court to take next steps, she said she feels like she’s back in the dark, unclear with how much longer she will have to wait before she can finally move on.

“Shortly with Mme. Otis, I know what shortly means. But shortly with the Senate, to me, it’s months, years.”

She said the Senate’s Thursday press release announcing the decision to offer compensation to former Meredith employees had more information in it than the email sent to her by a law clerk the same day.  

Long, multi-year process shrouded in secrecy

In 2013, staffers approached a human resources manager with concerns about workplace issues in Meredith’s office. Victims told HuffPost they were reluctant to file formal complaints, citing concerns about potential professional consequences

Two years later, in February 2015, the Senate hired third-party firm Quintet Consulting Corp. to conduct a workplace assessment after the Speaker at the time noticed a high degree of staff turnover in Meredith’s office. 

The same firm has been hired to investigate the current workplace harassment allegations at Rideau Hall in the office of Gov. Gen. Julie Payette. 

LUDOVIC MARIN via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron is welcomed by Governor General of Canada Julie Payette at Rideau Hall on June 6, 2018 in Ottawa. 

Several former Meredith staffers participated in Quintet’s workplace assessment. The report’s findings triggered a formal inquiry by the Senate ethics officer. 

Staff who participated in the investigation process have never received a redacted copy of Quintet’s report. Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault wrote extensively about his own challenges using the report and collecting documents for his inquiry, referencing delays due to senators’ concerns about parliamentary privilege.

The Senate ethics officer’s inquiry report was published last year. It concluded Meredith engaged in behaviour toward his staff that “constitutes both harassment and sexual harassment.”

In June, a historic apology was made in the Senate to the employees of former senator Meredith. 

“Workplace harassment of any kind is unacceptable. It has no place in the Senate of Canada,” said CIBA Chair Sen. Marwah. “We have heard the experience of employees in the office of former senator Don Meredith and, most importantly, we believe them.”

‘This was done in complete secrecy’

Mitchell said, though Otis was brought in because of her experience helping to determine financial compensation in settlements reached in three federal court cases, much of the discussions in the Meredith case have been held behind closed doors.

“How in any way can this be considered by any Canadian as due process? It simply can’t be,” he told HuffPost. 

“The process here is simple: it’s to protect the institution, and to not make sure that the pain and suffering of the victims are dealt with in an open and inclusive way.”

How in any way can this be considered by any Canadian as due process?Lawyer Brian Mitchell

He said, though the press release Thursday was a signal to the public that the Senate is being open and transparent, “the exact opposite is the experience of the victims.”

Otis’ report has not been made public and the Senate has given no indication if it intends to release it or its recommendations. “CIBA will meet again to further discuss Ms. Otis’s report,” read the Thursday news release.

Unlike a court ruling, there are no legal ramifications if the Senate does not follow through on Otis’ conclusions. 

This, Mitchell said, is a point of concern.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault had challenges obtaining Quintet Consulting’s workplace assessment report. He did not have challenges obtaining the report but rather challenges using the report, as he could not disclose its content. This story has been updated.