Trudeau gets cabinet member's support over handling of groping allegation

Federal Employment Minister Patty Hajdu voiced her support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday over an 18-year-old groping allegation made against him — making her the first member of his cabinet to directly address the controversy publicly.

Alleged incident dates back to event in British Columbia in 2000

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Patty Hajdu says she's proud of the prime minister's handling of an 18-year-old groping allegation. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Federal Employment Minister Patty Hajdu voiced her support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday over an 18-year-old groping allegation made against him — making her the first member of his cabinet to directly address the controversy publicly.

Hajdu said she stands by Trudeau's response to the alleged incident.

On Friday, Trudeau told CBC Radio's Metro Morning he apologized for making the woman in question feel uncomfortable, but maintained he didn't recall any "negative interactions" himself.

"I'm actually proud of a prime minister that understands that you can believe that you didn't have negative interactions with someone — I think we can think about this in all kinds of different situations — and find out later that someone perceived that interaction in a completely different way, and reflect on how our behaviour and the way that we make our way in the world impacts other people," Hajdu told CBC Radio's The House on Friday.

The allegation dates back to 2000, when a 28-year-old Trudeau, then a teacher, was visiting a music festival in Creston, B.C.

The incident is alleged to have taken place at the Kokanee Summit, where money was being raised for the Avalanche Foundation, a charity Trudeau became involved with after his brother, Michel, died in an avalanche in 1998.

An unsigned editorial appeared in the Creston Valley Advance after the event accusing Trudeau of "groping" and "inappropriately handling" a young female reporter while she was on assignment. It suggests the woman felt "blatantly disrespected" but provides no other details about what occurred.

The former publisher of the newspaper told CBC News her recollection of what the reporter told her was that it was "a very brief touch" on her rear end.

Neither the woman nor the Prime Minister's Office responded to a request to confirm that specific detail.

A plea for privacy

Earlier this year, CBC News spoke by phone and emailed with the woman who was the subject of the editorial. She said she was not interested in being associated with any further coverage of the story.

She initially asked that her name not be used and that she not be contacted about the story again — but she issued a written statement to CBC News on Friday night confirming the story and identifying herself publicly as Rose Knight.

"The incident referred to in the editorial did occur, as reported," she wrote. "Mr. Trudeau did apologize the next day. I did not pursue the incident at the time and will not be pursuing the incident further. I have had no subsequent contact with Mr. Trudeau, before or after he became Prime Minister."

'If I apologized it was because I saw that she had been made uncomfortable,' says PM on Toronto's Metro Morning 1:25

Trudeau first commented personally on the allegation on Sunday and has been asked questions about it throughout the week.

"I am not going to speak for the woman in question. I would never presume to speak for her. But I know that there is an awful lot of reflection to be had as we move forward as a society on how people perceive different interactions," he said from Queen's Park on Thursday.

Trudeau's recent comments represent "exactly the kind of leadership I admire," Hajdu said.

The allegation sparked a Twitter war earlier in the week between Conservative MP Michelle Rempel and Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef, with Rempel accusing Monsef of refusing to stand up to Trudeau about the allegation and telling her to "grow a pair" — and Monsef retorting that Rempel was repeating "irresponsible, reckless" stereotypes.

'What do we expect from him 18 years later?'

However, an expert brought in by Trudeau to provide anti-harassment training for the Liberals at their recent party convention said his handling of the allegation raises questions about what should be expected of men in positions of power.

Julie Lalonde said there's one big question hanging in the air: "What do we want from men who harm women?"

The prime minister has said his recollection isn't the whole focus anymore.

"It is not just my experience that matters in this," he said. "Even though I don't think I did anything wrong, that's not the whole story anymore."

Lalonde said she thinks the prime minister's response was a "perfectly reasonable answer" if he truly doesn't remember the alleged incident, but also called the 18-year-old apology "lacklustre."

The editorial states Trudeau apologized at the time, but some critics are saying an apology is not enough.

For months, Lalonde said, she has been asking people in federal politics — including NDP and Liberal caucus members — what they'd consider a sufficient effort at making amends, and no one had an answer.

"We want men to apologize and when they apologize we tear their apologies apart. We want them to pay restitution but then when they do we call it hush money," she told CBC Radio's The House on Friday.

"What do we expect from him 18 years later?"

Lalonde cited several options on the table for the prime minister, including resigning and walking back his zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct.

The subjectivity of the situation is one thing, but Lalonde said that care should be taken to make sure the legal limits of sexual harassment don't become the baseline for what is inappropriate.

"Men come back all the time to, 'I didn't intend to hurt you, I didn't intend to do that, that wasn't my intent,'" she said.

"[It] doesn't matter. At the end of the day, someone was harmed by your actions. That should be your baseline."

Lalonde argued that while people should learn from this incident and continue to ask tough questions, it shouldn't be pursued further without the consent of the woman involved.

Attempting to flog more information out of those involved in this incident could perpetuate a culture of silencing victims of sexual assault, she added.

"I think this discussion is definitely driving more survivors into silence," she said.

"I think it's driving them to be quiet because they've seen the circus that is this story ... I think other people see that and say, 'I don't want that target on my back.'"

Trudeau's public comments on this incident stand in contrast to his comments about his conduct in the past.

In January, CBC Radio host Chris Hall asked Trudeau about the topic of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Specifically, Hall asked if there was a chance that, at some point, one or more of Trudeau's own actions might have been misconstrued.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Chris Hall the host of CBC Radio's The House 1:14

"I don't think so," Trudeau responded. "I've been very, very careful all my life to be thoughtful, to be respectful of people's space and people's headspace as well."

That interview came as Trudeau was dealing with allegations of sexual harassment against then-minister Kent Hehr. In that case, Trudeau ordered an investigation; Hehr subsequently resigned from cabinet. Years earlier, Trudeau also swiftly dealt with allegations of misconduct against Liberal MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti, kicking them out of caucus.

"There is no context in which someone doesn't have responsibility for things they've done in the past," Trudeau told Hall.