OTTAWA — In a move described as “totally unreal” by an alleged victim, a powerful Senate committee met on Thursday to discuss possible compensation for staffers who reported — as far back as 2013 — sexual harassment by former senator Don Meredith.
“They’ll be evaluating how much I deserve while they were the ones imposing the trauma on me. What the f**k is that?” she told HuffPost Canada in an interview. “As of today … we never received one phone call from anyone from the institution asking us, ‘Do you need help?’ No one.”
The former employee, whose testimony was deemed credible and reliable in an investigation by the Senate Ethics Officer, was in disbelief that senators who ignored her case six years ago are on the same committee discussing potential redress. She spoke about her experience on the condition of anonymity, citing professional and personal concerns.
In earlier interviews with HuffPost, she alleged that Meredith, who is also a Pentecostal pastor, inappropriately touched her at work.
Listen: Senator ‘trapped’ me in his office, alleges former staffer. Story continues below.
She said that he used the intimacy of prayer to put his hands on her shoulders before touching her breast and bottom. In other incidents, he locked the office doors and sexually forced himself on her, she claimed.
Senate spokesperson Alison Korn said the institution “has not received any request for compensation.”
Report confirmed toxic work environment
A report this summer from Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault found that Meredith bullied and threatened his staff, and repeatedly touched, kissed and propositioned some of them. The report outlined the experiences of six former employees and a parliamentary constable.
Independent Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain told reporters before the meeting of the internal economy, budgets and administration committee (CIBA) that the allegations bring “shame” to the Senate as an employer.
“If there’s a need for compensation, compensate at the high level, at the needed, required level, the fair level. We need to do that. A fair employer needs to do that,” she said.
High staff turnaround in Meredith’s office the Senate speaker at the time to order a workplace assessment to find out what was going on.
Saint-Germain said people noticed a “great number of employees were changing, were becoming sick, were complaining.” Among them, “young women,” she said.
“And what did the administration do? And the whips at the time? They send other beautiful young girls. There was an issue there.”
Discussion about compensation for former Meredith staffers occurred during the in-camera portion of the CIBA meeting. When it was over, committee members had little to say to reporters about what was said behind closed doors.
In early September, the same committee rejected a request from the alleged victims to appear at an in-camera meeting. The women told HuffPost they’re considering filing civil lawsuits against the Senate for failing to protect them.
Committee members now include three Conservative senators who were in leadership positions when the allegations against their caucus colleague Meredith was first flagged. The alleged victims are concerned this is a conflict of interest for senators Claude Carignan, Elizabeth Marshall and Leo Housakos.
The women think taking their case to court, to be examined by a third party, is the fairest process they’re left with.
Other senators on the committee want to see changes to avoid potential future victims being encumbered with a multi-year inquiry process if they file complaints.
“We should have a kind of process which is not only fair for those who make some allegations but also where we are having a response as an institution that is not hindering the process, but helping the process in assisting,” said Independent Sen. Pierre Dalphond.
The former Supreme Court of Canada clerk said he has concerns raised by the Senate ethics officer about senators “unduly” claiming privilege to obstruct inquiries and forcing delays.
Legault wrote in his report that in 2016, CIBA claimed parliamentary privilege to decline speaking to the office for the inquiry that contained detailed testimony from several of Meredith’s employees at the time. Because of this, the office had to ask staffers to re-do their testimony.
Another former employee called Meredith a “predator,” and told HuffPost the Senate probe could have been wrapped up as early as 2014 if senators had agreed to be interviewed for the workplace assessment. Instead, it stretched on, including a period when the Ottawa police investigated the claims.
It took four years for the Senate ethics office to finish its investigation.
‘Playing field really wasn’t level’
Ross Stewart is an Ottawa-based lawyer representing two women who used to work in Meredith’s office. There’s an “inherent power imbalance” when you’re a staffer working in a senator’s office, he said.
“They were working in an environment where the playing field really wasn’t level,” he said, highlighting inadequate mechanisms to protect employees because of the way the Senate is set up.
“Every senator’s office essentially runs as an independent operation and there’s no effective oversight.”
Stewart said Meredith has the right to respond to the allegations, but that it’s up to senators to work together to eliminate the “secrecy in dealing with it internally and not being transparent” so that confidence can be restored in how the Senate handles workplace harassment.
“The process was flawed,” he said.
Meredith resigned from the Senate in May 2017 over a separate controversy involving the abuse of his position to take advantage of a teenage girl.