Senate to implement mandatory harassment training for all senators, staff
Senators say the Don Meredith scandal gave Parliament a 'wake up call'
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."
"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.
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:
- Liberal MP Kent Hehr resigned from cabinet after an Edmonton woman published a series of tweets alleging the former minister had, while serving in Alberta's legislature, made women feel "unsafe" with unwanted, sexually suggestive comments.
- Earlier this year, a former NDP staffer alleged former NDP MP Peter Stoffer twice forced kisses on her —allegations he has denied.
- MP Erin Weir was expelled from the NDP caucus after a third-party investigator found one claim of harassment and three claims of sexual harassment against him "were sustained."
- In December 2017, the deputy director of operations in the PMO, Claude-Éric Gagné, went on leave while a third party investigated allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
- In August 2017, Calgary MP Darshan Kang resigned from the Liberal caucus amid allegations of sexual harassment.
- In May 2016, Nunavut MP and former federal cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo resigned from cabinet and the Liberal caucus over allegations he had a "consensual but inappropriate" relationship with a female staffer.
- And before the Liberals took office, Trudeau kicked two of his MPs — Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews — out of the caucus over allegations of harassment made by two New Democratic MPs.