Two sets of doors were always closed before Sen. Don Meredith felt comfortable starting any meeting in his office across Parliament Hill.
The first leads to a shared hallway, the second to Meredith's desk. Shutting them both seemed to give him a sense of privacy and control.
Staff members found it bizarre, but they did what their boss asked. “Constant paranoia” was a running theme in the office, one former female aide said.
Behind those doors, they claim, the senator began inappropriately touching his female employees.
“Once the doors close — which was not able to be opened from the outside if it was locked — well, I felt like I was trapped and he was able to touch me and be very ... all over me,” alleged another former female staffer.
Listen to an excerpt from one of her interviews with HuffPost Canada. Her voice has been changed to protect her identity:
Meredith, who is also a pastor, would declare that they should pray together, according to the ex-worker.
“The way that his religion prays is to actually put a hand on the person next to you — and he would use that excuse to touch me more than just putting his hand on my shoulder for the prayer,” she said, alleging the senator used the intimacy of prayer to touch her breast and her bottom.
She said “it was sickening” and made her feel violated “every time.”
In an ongoing investigation, HuffPost Canada has uncovered some alarming workplace behaviours alleged by Meredith’s former staff members. Three of them agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, citing professional and personal concerns.
Sen. Meredith’s office declined an interview request by HuffPost Canada, and his lawyer, Bill Trudell, did not reply to inquiries to speak to him about his client.
Meredith is being probed by the Senate Ethics Office for multiple reports of sexual harassment and workplace bullying. Over the last three years, HuffPost Canada has learned details of alleged incidents both inside and outside his office.
These claims are separate from an explosive report in March that found Meredith abused his power and broke Senate ethics rules by pursuing a two-year sexual relationship with a teenager.
A different Senate ethics inquiry — which is still ongoing — was launched in 2015 into the claims of sexual harassment from former members of the Toronto senator’s office. They allege Meredith has a pattern of harassing, sexually abusing, and threatening employees since his 2010 appointment.
When asked to describe working with Meredith, a male ex-employee answered: “Just a horrible professional experience.”
He followed that with a list of adjectives about his former boss: “Narcissistic, dishonest, deceitful, selfish, narrow-minded, self-centred. I know that some are redundant, but just an all-around horrible, horrible person.”
‘Terror’ kept former aide quiet
The former aide who alleges she was repeatedly groped at work said Meredith “told me he would hunt [me] down if I ever would talk.”
These incidents happened in Meredith’s Ottawa office and on a Senate business-related outing, according to the ex-staffer. “Terror” kept her from filing an official complaint in case Meredith found out.
“I never reached out to anybody because he put so much pressure on you … for you to not tell anybody,” she told HuffPost Canada.
To deter staff from reporting the abuse, Meredith suggested employees consider his influence as a senator. He sometimes went as far as to threaten to ruin their careers in and outside of government, the former employees all claim.
Staff — men and women — began to confide in each other. The former male employee said he saw female co-workers crying after altercations with the senator “quite, quite often.”
For some female staff with years of political experience under their belts, there was a harsh reality check. Once they realized they were victims of workplace sexual abuse, there were emotional repercussions to contemplate, and career and financial risks to consider.
“I was just so scared,” said the former employee who claims Meredith groped her. She said she felt powerless against the institution.
“I never reached out to anybody because he put so much pressure on you … for you to not tell anybody.”
— Former aide to Sen. Don Meredith
It seemed like a lose-lose situation.
She knew enough about Senate policy to understand that filing an official complaint with human resources didn’t guarantee job security or protection against Meredith. But she was also aware if she didn’t come forward, the alleged harassment and abuses would most likely continue.
“So either way, making an official complaint or not was bringing me to the same spot,” she said.
Meredith also discouraged staff from claiming overtime, and allegedly blurred the lines between government resources and non-parliamentary work.
Several ex-employees claim they were tasked to help Meredith — a Pentecostal pastor — draft speeches he would deliver from church pulpits.
“If you go and take a look and did a forensic analysis of the hard drive, you’ll see those products were requested and delivered on Government of Canada time,” said the former male aide.
Staff mostly complied because there was little point to challenge the assignment. “His response, as boss, would have been, ‘This is what is done and this is how it’s gonna be done,’” said the ex-worker.
‘You think you can survive it’
So why didn’t they just quit immediately?
“You get caught up in there, and the psychological pieces come to bear whereby you don’t want to quit or you need your job,” he said. “You need to make bills. You have family. You think you can survive it, but then over the long haul, it’s like torture.”
He said, like many federal employees, he wanted to make a difference, and so he stuck it out. In the end, he left the senator’s office after six months.
Listen to an excerpt from one of his interviews with HuffPost Canada. His voice has been changed to protect his identity:
Senate alerted to office concerns in 2014
Meredith’s office has seen a high turnover of staff in recent years — the “revolving door” of employees seemed so unusual that then-Senate speaker Pierre Claude Nolin ordered a workplace assessment in 2015. Ex-staffers allege it’s because of Meredith’s long pattern of bullying and forcing himself onto female employees.
“(I’m) not under any investigation whatsoever,” Meredith told Robert Fife of CTV News in June 2015, in what appears to be the senator’s only public comment on workplace-related probes. ”This is news to me.”
However, sources told CTV at the time that Meredith had been interviewed as part of the workplace assessment.
Emails obtained by HuffPost Canada show Meredith’s own party and Senate human resources were informed about his alleged workplace behaviour as early as spring 2014.
It took until June 2015 for the Conservative party to oust him from the caucus after news of his affair with a teenager made headlines.
Meredith’s former staff members say it’s disappointing to continue to see the senator keep his “honourable” title, three years later. And they’re frustrated by the pace of the Senate’s inquiry into the workplace allegations.
The Office of the Senate Ethics Officer told HuffPost Canada on Friday that an inquiry’s duration depends on “the issues that are involved, its complexity, the number of individuals that are required to be interviewed, scheduling issues, the number of process issues that are raised by the various parties and the time that is required in order to properly canvas and dispose of relevant issues.”
Still awaiting an outcome, Meredith’s former employees strongly feel that if you’re a federal worker in the Senate who has been harassed or sexually abused by a senator, justice is not guaranteed to arrive swiftly — despite what the rules say.
The Senate’s official policy on preventing and resolving workplace harassment is to handle complaints with “sensitivity, promptness and discretion.”
Its definition of harassment is:
Any improper conduct by an individual, that is directed at and offensive to another person or persons in the workplace, and that the individual knew or ought to have known would cause offence or harm. It comprises any objectionable act, comment or display that demeans, belittles, or causes personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat. The conduct may be done on a one time basis or in a continuing series of incidents.
The wording is clear about repercussions faced by Senate employees (“up to and including termination of employment”) if harassment is confirmed. But the institution lacks equivalent rules to discipline senators who behave inappropriately toward employees.
Meredith’s fate in the upper chamber has been up in the air since the the Senate ethics officer found he abused the power of his office in a relationship with a 16-year-old.
That probe headed by Lyse Ricard also concluded that Meredith breached two sections of the Senate’s revamped ethics code, which was updated after the expense scandals of senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, and Pamela Wallin.
Graphic details of the interactions and messages between Meredith and the teen over two years prompted calls by his peers and MPs for him to resign.
The senator has refused to step down — calling his relationship with the teen a “moral failing” and explaining that he’s since been “under the guidance of spiritual advisors” and has read the Senate’s new code of ethics.
The Senate standing committee on ethics and conflict of interest has been reviewing Ricard’s report on the teen relationship and deciding on a course of action to recommend to the Senate.
“We want to be fair. We want to weigh all of the interests: the institution, the senators, the public and Senator Meredith. And so, while we have to prompt, we also have to be correct in following the process and being fair to everyone and the process,” committee chair Sen. Anita Raynell Andreychuk told reporters on Thursday.
She indicated the committee intends to file its recommendations later this week. Some senators say the panel is taking its time — it’s been nearly two months — because it wants to get things right.
“They are determined not to take any shortcuts,” one senator who requested anonymity told HuffPost Canada.
That stems in part from the upper chamber's experience with kicking out Senators Brazeau, Duffy, and Wallin over their controversial expense claims without any criminal findings of guilt. Duffy was cleared by an Ontario judge, while the charges against Brazeau were dropped, and Wallin was never charged by the RCMP.
"The amateurs have f**ked this up," the senator said.
David Tkachuk, a Conservative senator since 1993, said he didn't want to share his opinion on what should happen to Meredith before the ethics committee has released its recommendations.
Tkachuk said he doesn't think any senator would argue with suspending Meredith, but “removing a senator without a criminal charge is a big, big issue” that could set a precedent.
Inaction would be the worst case scenario, he said. “I think there would be a revolt.”
After being appointed by a sitting prime minister, senators have the privilege of serving the institution until they reach the age of 75. After their term expires, they qualify for a comfortable taxpayer-funded pension to buoy their finances for the rest of their lives. Meredith is 52.
“They wouldn’t know accountability if it jumped up and bit them in the ass.”
— NDP MP Nathan Cullen
NDP MP Nathan Cullen isn’t convinced the Senate will protect federal employees over one of its own. At its core, he believes the patronage-protecting institution operates from “another century” under outdated transparency rules.
“They wouldn’t know accountability if it jumped up and bit them in the ass,” Cullen said in an interview at his Ottawa office. “The Senate wants to remain untouchable.”
Cullen is disappointed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who has taken his message that he’s a proud feminist to global audiences — is hesitant to directly condemn Meredith, even after the senator’s own admissions of the sex scandal.
Trudeau has stuck to his message that it’s up to the Senate, as an independent institution, to determine Meredith’s fate. But the PM has suggested that the senator seriously consider the weight of his actions.
Speaking to reporters in Houston the day after Ricard’s report, the prime minister said politicians must prove themselves worthy of serving the public.
“And I certainly would expect there are reflections going forward on how people are serving and fulfilling that public trust,” Trudeau said at the time.
Still, Cullen isn’t pleased with Trudeau’s chosen tact.
The MP from northwestern B.C. said when he speaks to victims of sexual violence, and the conversations shifts to why they did or didn’t come forward, it’s a “very common story about how the systems fail.”
He’s concerned women will view the politicking around the Meredith cases as “another example of how crappy it is to have [an alleged] sexual predator come at you from a position of power.”
For the woman who claims she was repeatedly sexually harassed by her former employer, Ricard’s first report was bittersweet. She said she recognized patterns of abuse outlined in the write-up that aligned with her own alleged experiences with Meredith.
“I feel like it was like proof that it did happen and that I was not the only one and he’s doing the same thing, saying the same things,” she said. But those initial feelings of relief and peace were fleeting.
She said if the Senate doesn’t recommend Meredith’s expulsion over his sexual indiscretions involving a teenager, then maybe the anticipated workplace assessment report — with damning testimony reportedly from more than two dozen federal employees — will force the institution to “take its responsibility.”
The tone of her voice shifts into frustration.
“We’re in 2017 now and employees should not be treated like animals,” she said. “Everything that happened to me could have been avoided. Easily avoided.”
With files from Althia Raj
This is an ongoing investigation by HuffPost Canada. If you’re a government worker who has been bullied or sexually harassed by an elected official, contact reporter Zi-Ann Lum in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org