Politics

Senate to implement mandatory harassment training for all senators, staff

As part of a continuing effort to move beyond the scandals of its recent past, the Senate is recommending all senators and staff participate in mandatory workplace harassment training to stave off any incidents of abuse in and around the Red Chamber.

Senators say the Don Meredith scandal gave Parliament a 'wake up call'

A worker cleans the Senate chamber. The Senate is recommending all senators and staff participate in mandatory workplace harassment training to stave off any new instances of abuse in and around the Red Chamber. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

As part of an effort to move beyond recent scandals — and to stave off future ones — the Senate is recommending that all senators and staff participate in mandatory workplace harassment training.

The recommendation comes after the Senate subcommittee on human resources conducted two months of hearings with expert witnesses and Senate staff, many of whom urged the upper house to take a "proactive approach" to ensure a harassment-free working environment.

There have been multiple allegations of harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour in the Senate in recent years.

One former member, Ontario senator Don Meredith, resigned from the chamber after the Senate ethics committee recommended his expulsion for having a sexual relationship with a teenager. Others have faced external investigations over complaints about questionable conduct.

Liberal senator Colin Kenny was the subject of a probe after a staffer came forward alleging sexual harassment. A Radio-Canada/CBC News investigation in 2016 also revealed Kenny used staff to perform personal tasks around his home and businesses, including booking fitness sessions and ordering lotions and tanning beds for his tanning business.

Kenny retired before the ethics officer could complete her investigation into the matter.

"I think the Don Meredith case, in all frankness, was what prompted us to take a step back and say, 'We need to modernize, let's look at our harassment policy and make sure everybody knows about it,'" Conservative Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas, the deputy chair of the subcommittee, said in an interview with CBC News.

"The Don Meredith situation was well before #MeToo [but] a lot of controversy has occurred over the last couple of years ... Parliament has had its own wake-up call that it better get caught up and stay caught up."

Embattled Sen. Don Meredith is seen in his Toronto lawyer's office in downtown Toronto on Thursday, March 16, 2017. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

"This was an exceptional [case], but no more Don Merediths will be tolerated," said Independent Quebec Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain, the committee's chair.

"Things have changed. I would say, 20 years ago, it was acceptable for a senator to say to his assistant, 'Honey that work you did was wonderful, congratulations.' Today, it would not be acceptable, it would be deemed a type of harassment."

"We need to be aware of the cultural changes," she added, referring to the use of gendered terms that might be seen as pejorative.

When asked if the Senate has a culture of harassment — as Independent Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran has claimed — the two senators said that sort of language is too strong.

"A statement like that would not square with my own experiences," Tannas said.

Regardless, Tannas said the Senate is committed to reforming the harassment reporting process so that those who feel they have been targeted can report their concerns safely and with an expectation of secrecy.

The subcommittee has suggested mandatory training for senators and Senate administration management take place in relatively short order — by December 31, 2018. Senators' staffers and other Senate administration employees are to complete the training by March 31, 2019.

Both senators said there has been no pushback from anyone in the upper house to this mandatory training plan, adding there's "enormous goodwill" about addressing this matter head-on.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, and Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain, ISG deputy facilitator, listen to questions from reporters during a press conference in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The Senate already has a fairly robust harassment prevention policy. There's a process in place to help victims seek justice through informal resolutions, for example — through coaching, counselling, facilitation and mediation — and an outside investigator or review panel can be deployed for more serious cases.

If a complaint is considered to be sound, the policy allows for "remedial, corrective, disciplinary or other measures."

But Tannas said the policy, drafted in 2009, is still not well enough known by those in the Senate environment.

"This is not a cosmetic look at our policy. We do need to work on the mechanics of it, no question about that," he said. "The area we've got work to do on is on the whole front door — the entry — 'How to do I talk to somebody in a case where I think I might have been harassed?'"

The Senate-based training is in addition to Bill C-65, a piece of Liberal government legislation (still being debated in the upper house) that is aimed at giving federally regulated workers and employers a clear course of action when dealing with allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct.

The bill would extend protections for workers in Crown corporations and agencies and in industries such as banking, broadcasting and aviation, along with Parliament Hill staff — including House of Commons and Senate employees — and political staffers in the offices of individual parliamentarians.

Currently, Hill staff are barred from making complaints under the Canada Labour Code.

There have been several harassment allegations in recent months:

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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