Liberal MPs get closed-door briefing on harassment

Eager to avoid a repeat of past scandals, the Liberal caucus used a closed-door meeting to give MPs clear guidelines on appropriate workplace behaviour and to encourage them to report harassment between MPs and staff to the proper authorities, caucus sources tell CBC News.

MPs given guidelines on how to interact with their colleagues and staff

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the start of the national caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 24. MPs were later briefed on workplace harassment guidelines. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Eager to avoid a repeat of past scandals, the Liberal caucus used a closed-door meeting last month to give MPs clear guidelines on appropriate workplace behaviour and to encourage them to report harassment between MPs and staff to the proper authorities, caucus sources tell CBC News.

The move comes two years after two Liberals MPs were kicked out of caucus for their roles in a harassment scandal involving female New Democrat MPs, and eight months after former cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo quit the caucus after admitting to an "inappropriate workplace relationship."

Tootoo still sits in the House of Commons as an independent MP. 

Multiple Liberal MPs tell CBC News they were told that if they witness harassment against a political staffer they should encourage that person to report the incident. If the staffer won't come forward, the message was, the MPs should personally report it.

"We don't tolerate it. This is what we want you to do," is how one Liberal MP described the message.

The Liberals hired lawyer Cynthia Petersen to deliver that message during a rare weekend caucus meeting in Ottawa in late March. Petersen's presentation followed up on an online training course about workplace harassment that all Liberal MPs were asked to complete.

The Liberal MPs spoke on condition of anonymity because caucus meetings are confidential, but when asked by CBC, the Prime Minister's Office confirmed the session.

"Our government — and our caucus — take the issue of harassment very seriously," Cameron Ahmad, the prime minister's press secretary said in a statement. "Every member of Parliament, and their staff, have the right to a safe and respectful working environment and we do not take this responsibility lightly. That's why this discussion took place at our winter caucus meeting."

MPs' private life and work

The Prime Minister's Office later gave Petersen permission to speak with CBC News about her presentation.

"We talked about what constitutes harassment and what makes the workplace comfortable," Petersen told CBC in an interview. "(Parliament) Hill and members of Parliament — it's a very different kind of workplace."

Petersen would not discuss the specifics of her presentation. But she says it focused on the rights and options of MPs if they are harassed and discriminated against. She said it also touched on their obligations as employers of political staff as well as their duties to their caucus, party and constituents.

Lawyer Cynthia Petersen was hired by the Liberal party to brief MPs on appropriate workplace behaviour. (Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP)

"In politics, the liability is both legal and political. For members of Parliament it's unclear when they are not at work," Petersen said.

"I think it is unclear when they are really in their private life and when to draw than line."

During the caucus presentation, MPs were given guidelines on how to interact with their colleagues and staff.

The advice covered a range of issues, such as how to respectfully compliment someone's physical appearance to how to properly report any harassment incident they may witness.

The MPs who spoke to CBC News said they were told the first step in reporting any incident would be to speak with the party whip.

The March briefing wasn't Petersen's first involvement with the Liberal caucus on workplace harassment. She investigated harassment allegations against former Liberal MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti in 2015, who were ultimately expelled from the Liberal caucus.

Andrews has continually denied any wrongdoing, and details have never been disclosed. He lost his bid for re-election as an independent MP in 2015 and subsequently retired from politics. Pacetti has maintained his innocence and chose not to run in the 2015 election. 

The Petersen presentation came as Trudeau was being pressured to sanction Liberal MP Nicola Di Iorio for comments he made to Conservative MP Dianne Watts while the pair was attending a Commons committee.

Di Iorio apologized in the House of Commons for his conduct when Parliament resumed sitting a week after the caucus meeting.