Senate proposes new harassment policy — and a hotline — after years of scandal

After years of discussion and debate, the Senate has drafted a new harassment policy to address abuse by senators and staff in the upper house.
Interior of the new Senate chamber. The Senate has drafted a new harassment policy. (Benoit Roussel/CBC)

After years of discussion and debate, the Senate has drafted a new harassment policy to address abuse by senators and staff in the upper house.

The Senate has been rocked by high-profile harassment scandals over the past decade: former Sen. Don Meredith's sexual harassment of staff, a police constable and a teenage girl; allegations of questionable conduct by former Conservative Sen. Dan Lang and his former parliamentary affairs director; and alleged misconduct by Liberal Sen. Colin Kenny, among others.

The new policy is designed to root out abuse by tapping third-party investigators to depoliticize probes, and by enacting clear punishments to deter would-be harassers, said Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain, chair of the subcommittee that drafted the new rules.

It's the first major rewrite of the Senate's harassment code in more than a decade.

"Harassment, violence and abuse of authority are not tolerated from anyone, at any time, in the Senate of Canada workplace," the new policy states.

"Individuals at all levels and in all roles in the Senate are accountable for their actions and share a responsibility to ensure that conduct not conducive to a culture of respect is addressed promptly, fairly and effectively."

The Senate's subcommittee on human resources tabled a 23-page policy Thursday that gives complainants the option of going to an outside third-party independent investigator to lodge a complaint.

The Red Chamber also is launching an "anonymous harassment-prevention hotline," to be run by an outside firm, so that people working in the Senate can report mistreatment without having to go through the existing Senate human resources bureaucracy.

In years past, many staffers facing harassment by a senator felt ill-served by what they described as an incompetent Senate HR operation. Some complainants said the branch is more interested in shielding senators from scandal than properly probing allegations of abuse.

In fact, employees who helped senators draft the new policy were unanimous, Saint-Germain said Thursday — they all had concerns about the impartiality of the current harassment reporting process.

To address that, the new policy would give staffers and senators alleging abuse against another Senate employee access to a system separate from the upper house and its existing HR apparatus. Saint-Germain said retaining an outside investigator of this sort would cost taxpayers an estimated $174,000 a year.

The policy document says the third-party investigator would look into allegations, determine the veracity of claims and then forward reports to a designated "decision-making authority" — the Senate ethics committee, Senate administration managers or the Senate's internal economy committee, depending on who is the alleged harasser.

The policy says allegations would then be up to these "decision-making authorities" to decide on some form of "remedial, corrective or disciplinary measure," which could be anything from an apology to termination or outright expulsion from the upper house.

"Political institutions and the Senate of Canada do not get a pass in any way, in any shape or form on harassment, discrimination and bullying, through any medium, and that includes social media," Independent Ontario Sen. Tony Dean said.

"It's way beyond its due date," Dean said of the new harassment policy. "People have been hurt in this institution. They have been bullied. They have been harassed. We know that. They have not had the protections that have been afforded to employees in other institutions. They have not had access to due process."

The Senate ethics officer's investigation of Meredith's workplace dragged on for years as his victims awaited an official account of his wrongdoing. The new policy limits the timelines for investigations.

"Formal complaints made under this policy should be resolved within six months unless there are extenuating circumstances," the policy document says.

The policy also broadens the definition of harassment. If it's adopted, the Senate would define harassment as "any objectionable conduct, comment or display — either on a one-time or recurring basis — that demeans, belittles or causes personal humiliation or embarrassment to a person."

Total secrecy

The policy demands total secrecy on the part of the complainant, the witnesses and the alleged harasser. Complainants would be forbidden from going to the media to report incidents of harassment.

"It would be prohibited unless there's an agreement between all parties," Saint-Germain said Thursday. "It would be a breach of this policy."

Many victims of harassment by high-profile abusers have gone to the press in recent years after complaints to other bodies failed to deliver justice — notably, the alleged victims of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and casino magnate Steven Wynn, among dozens of others.

The gag order demanded by this policy is a major red flag, said a Senate staffer who previously lodged a complaint against a senator.

The staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of a fear of reprisals, said the policy as currently designed will do little to prevent another Don Meredith-like situation.

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

The staffer said the Senate publicly acknowledged Meredith was facing an investigation at that time — but the new process will shield senators from that sort of public scrutiny while a private investigator takes the lead on a probe conducted in secret.

Under this policy, a complainant would have to be willing to file a formal complaint to begin the outside investigation process. In the Meredith case, victims simply didn't feel comfortable coming forward.

The probe of Meredith began only after then-Senate Speaker Claude Nolin himself called in an outside firm to investigate.

Moreover, some of Meredith's victims would have no recourse to use this process because they have since left the upper house.

Under the proposed policy, a complainant can only make a harassment claim if the alleged incident occurred within twelve months of their last day of employment with the Senate, and if the complaint is made no later than three months after the date of that former employee's departure.

Meredith resigned from the upper house in 2017 but the Senate Ethics Officer's report on his conduct wasn't completed until 2019.

When asked about the restrictions on when a complaint can be lodged, Saint-Germain said that "the experts that we consulted, they deemed that these time frames are appropriate."

Moreover, if the alleged abuser is a staffer in a senator's office, it would be up to the steering committee of the internal economy committee — the three-member executive of the committee — to decide how to punish an abuser or someone accused of harassment.

To date, senators and/or party whips have taken the lead on remedial measures for staffers.

"I'm very concerned about the possible weaponization of this policy," the staffer said. "In giving steering even more power — the power to reach inside a senator's office and fire a staff member — they are leaving the door wide open to allow this to be used as a way to even political scores. It's very dangerous."

The new policy must be adopted by the Senate chamber as a whole before it can be enacted.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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