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Politics Former NDP staffer files lawsuit against MP over treatment at work

The Peace Tower is seen on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A former Parliament Hill staffer is suing her one-time boss, accusing the NDP MP of acting in a "tyrannical" way in refusing to deal with harassment allegations under his watch and saying the party offered her a new job in exchange for dropping her grievance.

In what is the third high-profile harassment case in federal politics in the past week, a statement of claim was filed in Ontario Superior Court Friday by Fabiola Ferro, a 34-year-old former parliamentary assistant, against Sylvain Chicoine, 44, a Quebec NDP MP first elected in 2011. The lawsuit claims damages of $194,000.

However, Mr. Chicoine and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair each said the allegations have already been found by an internal review to be baseless, a decision Ms. Ferro did not appeal.

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Her lawsuit nonetheless comes two days after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suspended two of his MPs from caucus, saying they'd been accused of "personal misconduct" – others have since called it "harassment" – against two NDP MPs. How those cases will proceed, however, remained unclear Friday.

Ms. Ferro's lawsuit says she began working for Mr. Chicoine in September, 2011. She alleges that within a few months, she began to face harassment from another employee of Mr. Chicoine's, identified in her lawsuit as David Cimon.

Ms. Ferro said she faced menacing and insulting comments from the employee and was told on two occasions that she could do certain jobs because she did not have children. Ms. Ferro alleges she raised these issues several times with Mr. Chicoine and claims the MP displayed a "sexist and misogynist attitude" by siding with Mr. Cimon. Ms. Ferro alleged Mr. Chicoine's conduct led to a "poisoned, unhealthy, toxic and humiliating" work environment

The allegations have not been proved in court. No statement of defence has been filed.

Ms. Ferro had previously filed an internal complaint, and Mr. Cimon later filed his own counter-claim, according to her lawsuit. Both claims were dismissed on May 9, 2014, by an anti-harassment committee that includes an official from the union representing NDP staff.

In a written statement Friday, Mr. Chicoine said he treated the initial harassment claim seriously but that it was found to be "baseless" after an investigation. "I am confident that the courts will reach the same conclusion," he said.

Mr. Mulcair said the matter was one of "cross-accusations of two employees against each other," and pointed out his party was the only one with a union representing staff. "I'll let the courts determine whether or not anything further is going to actually happen, but frankly as a lawyer I can tell you I have my doubts," he said.

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Ms. Ferro's lawsuit also takes aim at the party's efforts to settle the matter. She said she met on Oct. 6 with the NDP's director of operations and was offered a data-entry position in the Official Opposition Leader's Office. "The offer stipulated that Fabiola must withdraw her harassment complaint and sign a release renouncing her right to pursue Chicoine and the NDP," states Ms. Ferro's claim, which is in French.

Asked about that allegation, NDP spokeswoman Greta Levy said only: "The union and management looked for a solution to this labour issue. Unfortunately, the employee declined the offer."

Anthony Salloum, president of the union representing NDP staffers, said it takes such claims seriously and has an anti-harassment policy, a committee and an appeals process. "We're very regretful it has come to this. We had hoped we could work with her to find a good way forward," he said.

While Ms. Ferro's case is before the courts, the suspended Liberal MPs – Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti – await word on whether, and how, the allegations against them will be investigated.

In an e-mailed statement Friday, Mr. Pacetti said he has received no new information since he was kicked out of caucus, and that he "hopes" he will have a chance to clear his name.

NDP MPs deferred questions Friday on how the cases should proceed to NDP MP and whip Nycole Turmel, who declined comment. The Liberals hope a neutral official will be brought in. "We are looking for the Speaker to recommend an independent third party to deal with the immediate allegations," spokeswoman Kate Purchase said.

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