Politics

Senator offers to pay legal bills for staffers harassed by members of the Red Chamber

Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran says she wants to help Senate staffers who have been harassed get justice, offering to connect them with free legal counsel to take on their harassers.

'Do I think there's a high likelihood of serious harassment cases? Yes I do,' Independent Sen. McPhedran says

Sen. Marilou McPhedran, a former University of Winnipeg professor and expert in sexual abuse, is vowing to help Senate staffers who come forward with allegations of harassment from their time in the 'Senate environment.' (CBC)

Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran says she wants to help Senate staffers who have been sexually harassed get justice, offering to connect them with free legal counsel to take on their harassers.

The senator from Manitoba has set up a confidential email address that staffers can use to connect with her directly — only the senator will have access to the account, confidential@mariloumcphedran.com — and solicit advice on how best to take on their abusers, some of whom might actually sit alongside McPhedran in the Senate chamber.

The service is open to both current and former Senate staffers, with the only stipulation being the misconduct occurred between 2006 and the present. The support isn't limited to those who claim they were harassed by a senator, but rather to anyone who faced this sort of mistreatment in the "Senate environment."

"Do I think there's a high likelihood of serious harassment cases? Yes I do," McPhedran said in an interview with CBC News. When asked if she thought there is a culture of harassment in the Senate, McPhedran replied, "Of course I do."

I get the feeling that a lot of senators don't really understand how little confidence members of the public have in us.- Independent Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran

She will use part of her office budget — money typically used by senators to pay for research or temporary staff to help on a major project — to pay for the legal costs incurred by those who seek her help.

McPhedran worked as a human rights lawyer before her appointment to the Senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016.

She said she represented survivors of harassment, abuse and assault perpetrated by people in authority, having previously chaired an inquiry into the sexual abuse of patients by physicians in Ontario. However, her licence to practice law has expired so she will refer cases to Ottawa-based lawyer Anne Levesque.

'They found me'

McPhedran said she's also willing to lend an ear to those who just need someone to talk to in confidence about their experiences.

"I've already had some conversations of this nature in the year that I've been here — they found me. Quite a few people have come to talk to me, actually, because they know about my experience in the field. They just want to talk to me and that's fine," she said. "We don't need names, this is about understanding what goes on here."

She was motivated to go it alone to help survivors, she said, because she was recently removed, without explanation, from a small working group of senators studying the issue of harassment. Her removal followed a leadership change on the Senate's internal economy committee, the body that adjudicates disputes and polices the expenses of senators, among many other supervisory responsibilities.

Independent Sen. Nancy Hartling of New Brunswick, who spent much of her career helping single mothers and women fleeing abuse before being called to the Senate in 2016, was also removed from the working group.

"Of the current senators, Sen. Hartling and myself are the two senators with by far the most practical experience in this field, so, I think that's interesting," McPhedran said.

A spokesperson for the Senate's internal economy committee said she could not yet comment on McPhedran's planned use of Senate funds to pay the legal fees of staffers with harassment complaints.

"Senators will review the matter of Senator McPhedran's initiative early this week," she said.

"The Senate takes the issue of workplace harassment very seriously. That is why we have not only had a workplace harassment policy in place since 1993, with an updated policy implemented in 2009, but are currently reviewing the current policy by means of a subcommittee on human resources."

One of the big shocks in the short time I've been here is the lack of good governance models.-  Independent Manitoba Sen.  Marilou   McPhedran

The spokesperson said it was McPhedran's own caucus, the Independent Senators Group, that decided to leave her off the membership roll of the internal economy committee. And, because she is not a member of the larger committee, she is not eligible to sit on the subcommittee studying harassment.

When asked if she thought establishing her support system would ruffle the feathers of her fellow senators, McPhedran said she already feels she isn't very popular with her colleagues.

"I doubt they would say anything to my face."

'Lack of good governance'

McPhedran said many of the problems in the Senate stem from the fact senators are often tasked with disciplining their fellow senators when problems arise.

As an example, she noted the reluctance of some senators to bring in an outside auditor to review problematic expenses, with many preferring to keep those powers with the internal economy committee, citing parliamentary privilege and a belief that senators are the masters of their own house.

Don Meredith resigned from the Senate in May, before his colleagues could expel him after the Senate ethics officer found his sexual relationship with a teenager violated the code of ethics. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

"One of the big shocks in the short time I've been here is the lack of good governance models and the way in which the self-regulating Senate quite consistently keeps its circuit closed," she said.

"I get the feeling that a lot of senators don't really understand how little confidence members of the public have in us."

There have been allegations of harassment in the upper house in the past. Former Conservative-turned-Independent senator Don Meredith resigned from the Senate just before his colleagues were poised to expel him after the Senate ethics officer found his sexual relationship with a teenager was a violation of the ethics code.

Former Liberal senator Colin Kenny, who resigned last Friday, was accused of sexual harassment by a former staffer but was ultimately cleared after an investigation by an independent harassment investigator.

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.