OTTAWA — A powerful Senate committee is accused of failing to perform “elementary, basic” administrative actions in its handling of a case involving alleged victims of workplace and sexual harassment.
A memo dated Tuesday, obtained by HuffPost Canada, was sent to members of the internal economy, budgets and administration committee (CIBA) from a lawyer representing two ex-employees of former senator Don Meredith. The committee, which is responsible for the Senate’s spending and administration, will meet Thursday.
“With great respect, these issues have dragged on for over six (6) years,” reads the memo to senators sent by lawyer Brian Mitchell. “Canadians have zero tolerance for these institutional delays and inaction.”
The employees were invited to appear before the same committee in February, where they shared “difficult” testimonies about their experiences. HuffPost Canada reported on the staffers’ time working in Meredith’s office in 2017, including allegations of verbal abuse and unwanted touching.
Listen: Senator’s ex-employee explains why he stuck with the job. Story continues below video.
The memo claims the committee process has been “substandard” and that the two former employees have been kept in the dark due to a “lack of dialogue” since their in-camera committee appearance.
Mitchell declined to comment on the memo.
Alison Korn, a spokesperson for the CIBA committee, responded to questions about the memo by reiterating that the focus remains on finding a resolution.
“While we strongly disagree with many of the assertions made in the letter, we are focused on solutions,” Korn wrote in an email. “Our priority remains the consideration of potential options for support to former employees affected by the conduct of former Sen. Meredith, as well as a new anti-harassment policy for the Senate.”
Allegations of workplace and sexual harassment related to Meredith’s office were investigated twice: first in a workplace assessment report conducted by an outside firm in early 2015, and again in an inquiry by the Senate Ethics Office that wrapped in 2019.
It will be a year Sunday since the Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault published his scathing report about the allegations against Meredith and the Senate’s handling of workplace concerns raised by multiple employees.
The first workplace assessment report has never been made public after claims of parliamentary privilege prevented the Senate Ethics Office from quoting victims’ original testimonies. As a result, the Senate Ethics Office had to re-interview the same former employees and witnesses.
Asked what actions have been taken by Senate administration to address concerns raised in Legault’s report about “best practices respecting workplace harassment,” Korn declined to provide specific examples.
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The CIBA spokesperson said the committee continues to “consider potential options for support” for former employees impacted by Meredith’s conduct.
“CIBA recognizes the urgency of the matter and is treating it on a priority basis,” Korn said in a statement. “Out of deference to the individuals involved, we will not be commenting further at this stage.”
There’s currently a push in the Senate to release the workplace assessment to the current membership of the CIBA committee. It requires a Senate vote.
But with the Upper House expected to rise at the end of the week for summer break, time is running out.
As of Wednesday, a spokesperson for CIBA Chair Sen. Sarabjit Marwah said the committee has yet to receive a copy of the workplace assessment for study.
“The adoption of the motion to release the workplace assessment report to CIBA has not yet been approved by the Senate,” said Hilary Bittle, parliamentary affairs advisor in Marwah’s office.
Independent Senators Group Sen. Lucie Moncion is expected to deliver a speech Thursday in the Senate to resume debate on the motion that may give way to a possible vote.
Employees had low confidence in Senate’s anti-harassment policy
The multi-year ordeal has raised questions about the Senate’s ability to provide a safe work environment for employees. Concerns have also been made about senators’ use of parliamentary privilege that may shield them from accountability.
In the Senate Ethics Officer’s report, one former Meredith employee, who the ethics officer described as credible, recounted experiencing a pattern of inappropriate sexual advances from her former boss that allegedly started in October 2013.
The employee, who HuffPost interviewed in 2017, described the behaviour as ranging from “touching me, kissing me, putting his hands under my skirt” to calling her personal cell phone to ask her what she was wearing.
The pattern of behaviour was serious enough for the Senate’s Security Protective Services to be alerted. Guards were given ”special precautions″ by human resources to keep an extra eye on Meredith’s offices.
Senate Ethics Officer Pierre Legault explained a formal complaint was never filed because the employee was “afraid of reprisals, including being terminated.” She did not have confidence the Senate’s anti-harassment policy was “robust enough to protect her,” he wrote.
A security guard also alleged she was harassed by the former senator. An unnamed constable with the Senate’s Security Protective Services told Legault that Meredith made inappropriate contact and sexually suggestive comments toward her while on the job.
According to the report, concerns from his staff and the constable were raised to the former Senate Speaker and former government whip in the Senate in early 2014.
Multiple former employees also claimed they were forced to continue to work in a “toxic” work environment despite raising concerns to human resources.
Meredith was appointed to the Senate in 2010 by former prime minister Stephen Harper. Meredith resigned in May 2017 under a cloud of controversy over the revelation he had a sexual relationship with a teenager.
Senator says no more excuses
Many senators, including Progressive Senate Group Sen. Pierre Dalphond, are eager to see a resolution to the case related to Meredith. Dalphond is a former Quebec Superior Court justice and used to be a member of CIBA.
He told HuffPost the Senate needs to move expeditiously on the case to show that it takes matters of workplace sexual harassment seriously.
Some senators have expressed interest in seeing the possibility of compensation be explored as one piece of a solution.
Since the case has dragged on for more than six years, Dalphond said it would be “very improper to use legal arguments at this point in the stage to prevent closure.”
A new anti-harassment policy drafted in the wake of the #MeToo movement is currently before the Senate. Meredith’s former employees are not eligible to use the new policy.
Dalphond said he has his fingers crossed the new policy will be in place by the end of the year.
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