OTTAWA — Two women who worked for former senator Don Meredith say the independent process established by the Senate to determine compensation for Meredith’s harassment victims is “totally unacceptable” and is re-victimizing them.
The two women spoke to The Canadian Press with their lawyer, Brian Mitchell. They have not been named publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve their privacy as victims of harassment and abuse.
They say they feel they’re being bullied into taking part in a compensation process they believe is unfair and opaque.
“It’s disgraceful to the Senate. They keep on calling themselves honourable members and, to me, this whole process is nothing but dishonourable,” one of the women said.
“I will not engage in a process where I can harm myself more than I have been harmed by this institution.”
The second former Meredith staffer agreed, saying she took a job with the Senate because she believed in the importance of the work there.
“I think that’s why it hurts so much that this institution that I did hold in very high regard seems more focused on protecting itself than doing the right thing.”
Former Quebec appeals court judge Louise Otis has been hired as an independent evaluator and has been tasked to speak with six former employees in Meredith’s office and review all materials from a four-year investigation completed last year by the Senate ethics officer.
That probe found Meredith repeatedly bullied, threatened and intimidated his staff and repeatedly touched, kissed and propositioned some of them.
Meredith, who was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010, resigned in 2017 after a separate investigation led to an internal recommendation that he be expelled over a sexual relationship he had with a teenage girl.
He has not faced any criminal charges.
The Senate’s powerful internal economy committee launched the current evaluation process last month to determine ”potential compensation” for Meredith’s former employees.
Those participating in Otis’s evaluation are not allowed to use lawyers, their legal costs won’t be covered and Otis’s final decisions on compensation will not be binding on the Senate, according to letters sent to the former staffers by the Senate’s legal counsel and by Otis.
The correspondence was provided to The Canadian Press.
“If we have a videoconference meeting, you may be accompanied by a support person of your choice, provided the person is not a lawyer as this is neither a trial nor a judicial hearing,” Otis’s letter to the employees states.
However, if they have any questions or concerns, the employees are encouraged to contact the Senate’s legal counsel — a “David and Goliath” scenario their lawyer says is wholly unfair.
“How can they defend themselves, how can they testify and how can they represent themselves when they don’t have the same level playing field of the Senate as an institution?” Mitchell said.
Sen. Sabi Marwah, the chair of the Senate’s committee on internal economy, declined to be interviewed for this story.
In a statement, Senate spokeswoman Alison Korn said the committee unanimously decided on the current ”impartial, independent and credible process,” which will take all facts contained in the ethics officer’s report as true and proven.
“(The committee) established its process after hearing directly from former impacted employees,” Korn said in the statement.
“As the process is designed to be accessible, no participant is required to have a lawyer to participate. Out of respect for all participants and in order to not interfere in the ongoing process, we will not be commenting further.”
Otis’s determination on damages will be based on other three recent harassment settlements in the RCMP, Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence.
Mitchell, who said he will soon be representing two more of the six victims, says his clients are concerned that Otis is not being asked to consider the Senate’s duty to protect them as employees.
“Without looking at the liability and accepting liability of the Senate for the acts that happened to these victims from the date of their employment with Sen. Meredith to the date hereof is, we suggest, an area that we hope the terms of reference will be amended so that it will be a full review of all damages that have been suffered,” Mitchell said on behalf of his clients.
Last week, Mitchell sent a letter to members of the internal economy committee outlining his clients’ concerns and asking for the process to be changed.
Senate lawyer Charles Feldman wrote back saying the process was established to provide redress to the employees affected by Meredith’s conduct, and that the internal economy committee wasn’t required to do anything to respond to the ethics officer’s findings, but has done so “of its own volition.”
The two women say this makes them feel as though they should be happy the Senate is taking any action.
“You cannot put us through six years of waiting, keep us on tenterhooks for six years, and then suddenly say the time is now and also take it or leave it,” one of the women said.
In a statement of regret made last month in the Upper Chamber, Marwah said that Meredith’s actions warrant “an unequivocal condemnation from the Senate and from all senators.”
The two former employees do not accept this as an apology, but rather as senators telling them they are merely sorry they feel badly about their experiences, the women said.
Tuesday was the deadline for the employees to inform Otis if they planned to participate in the evaluation process, but Mitchell says his clients will not take part unless Otis’s terms of reference are changed.
“I don’t want them to pat themselves on the back and say, ‘Look at what a great job we’ve done.’ And I don’t want this process to suddenly become a precedent for future victims of other offices,” one of the women said.
“There is no way that this process can be accepted in 2020 and it is also a slap in the face to any future victims,” the other said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press