OTTAWA — The chair of a powerful Senate committee apologized Thursday to the employees of former senator Don Meredith for taking more than six years to address concerns about workplace and sexual harassment.
Sen. Sabi Marwah, chair of the Senate’s committee on internal economy, budgets and administration (CIBA) addressed former employees in a speech, acknowledging the “pain and trauma” they’ve experienced in their multi-year ordeal.
Watch his statement:
“Workplace harassment of any kind is unacceptable. It has no place in the Senate of Canada. We have heard the experience of employees in the office of former senator Don Meredith and, most importantly, we believe them.”
Marwah and one of the two vice-chairs of CIBA signed a statement to confirm that an expert independent evaluator will be hired to help determine “a financial award for employees impacted by the misconduct of Mr. Meredith.”
Meredith is no longer a senator — he resigned in May 2017 under a swirl of controversy following the revelation that he had had a sexual relationship with a teenager while in office.
Allegations of workplace and sexual harassment were reported by HuffPost Canada before his resignation.
“We did this because there’s a massive injustice that was suffered by people.”
Claudine Santos was watching Marwah’s speech. She said it was “cathartic” to hear the CIBA chair say the words, “We believe them” inside the Senate chamber.
She worked for Meredith for three months from the end of November 2013 to February 2014. She said she did not experience sexual harassment while in his office, but instead dealt with bullying and intimidation.
She said she left because she could not handle how the former senator treated people, including her co-workers.
Despite the experience, Santos continues to work on Parliament Hill as director of parliamentary affairs for Nunavut Sen. Dennis Patterson.
“I am relieved to see some forward motion on this case after six very long, heartbreaking years,” Santos said in an interview near the Senate building after the historic apology. She has previously not made her name public.
Santos said she feels responsibility to help Senate staff, who serve at the pleasure of senators, by drawing attention to the power imbalance between senators and their employees.
“I’m not in this to take a cheque and to sign a non-disclosure agreement,” she said. “We did this because there’s a massive injustice that was suffered by people.”
Santos was not consulted before the announcement of the new financial compensation process. She said she remains concerned.
“I still feel that it’s a closed-door clandestine approach to solving a very serious issue,” she said.
Santos is one of two women who testified in a closed-door meeting of the committee earlier this year. Her colleague, whose testimony has been called “true and proven” by the Senate, experienced sexual harassment.
‘Do I trust this new process? I don’t know’
The other woman agreed to speak to HuffPost on the condition of anonymity citing concerns about professional reprisal.
Her experience in Meredith’s office, including testimony of unwanted kissing and touching, was detailed in the Senate Ethics Officer’s inquiry report published last year.
She said she’s grateful to senators who have helped them get to this point.
“Have I arrived to a final destination? Not yet,” she said. “Do I trust this new process? I don’t know.”
The employee has had to repeat her experience to multiple investigators and senators in the past six years. She said she’s upset over the prospect of having to revisit and repeat traumatic experiences yet again.
“I know what it causes me when that happens. It’s not like an overnight thing,” she told HuffPost.” You know when you’re suffering from PTSD, my memory is ... ,” she stopped to collect herself.
“I’m scared that I’m going to forget. I know that I will have to relive this again.”
The Senate Ethics Officer wrote in his report that he found her testimony credible.
The new process, according to the Senate, will involve an expert independent evaluator who will interview former employees. It will be up to this outside expert to decide on an amount of financial compensation “based on recent settlements related to harassment in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence.”
The former Meredith staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said no amount of compensation will fix the trauma that she’s been put through since she first went to human resources for help in 2013.
She was discouraged from filing a formal complaint then because she was not confident the Senate’s anti-harassment policy at the time was strong enough to protect her.
The case has renewed criticism of the Senate’s ability to self-regulate, and brought new scrutiny over senators’ use of parliamentary privilege that may shield them from accountability.
Senate passes motion to release confidential report
Human resource and previous leadership in the Senate were aware in March 2014 that staff had concerns about their personal safety.
Allegations of workplace and sexual harassment were first investigated in a 2015 workplace assessment. It was never released to the public or to former Meredith staff who participated in interviews.
Parliamentary privilege was invoked over the report, forcing the Senate Ethics Office to re-interview the same employees for a new report that took four years to complete.
On Thursday evening, in a rare agreement to prioritize non-government business, senators voted to pass a motion to release the confidential workplace assessment to CIBA five years after its completion.
The report was previously inaccessible to current members of the committee.
With the newly announced evaluation process underway, Senate public relations officer Alexandra Scott-Larouche reaffirmed the two women won’t be required to testify again unless they want to present additional information.
Details in the Senate Ethics Officer’s report will be taken as proven to facilitate the speedy resolution of the claim.
It’s unclear if the independent evaluator will factor in the additional year that has been added to the process between the watchdog report and Thursday’s apology.
Even after six years, there is still no firm end date in sight for the process.
“Every effort will be made to move this process along quickly,” Scott-Larouche said. “Timelines will depend on how many former employees wish to participate as well as how many choose to present additional information.”