Skip to main content

Harassment allegations will show whether House of Commons can police its own

If there is one institution that has proven unable to reliably police its own, it's the House of Commons. Now it is being plunged into the 21st century.

The two separate allegations brought against Liberal MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti – denied by both – suddenly made sexual harassment on Parliament Hill a high-profile and pressing issue.

Elected politicians, as a class, are being called upon to provide an example, dealing with difficult cases across party lines in a transparent fashion. That's not exactly the strong suit of the House of Commons.

Story continues below advertisement

Usually, MPs slug out allegations in partisan combat. Sometimes, they get together, across party lines, to help each other in secret, like when the Commons' Board of Internal Economy has quietly agreed to pay legal fees for MPs facing lawsuits. Neither will work now.

Because of the timing, it's impossible to divorce these cases from the country-wide fascination with the allegations of assault, sexual assault, and sexual harassment against former CBC radio host Jian Gomeshi. His firing led to a number of previously reluctant people coming forward to describe their own allegations of abuse, and that has in turn led to a national conversation about reporting and addressing sexual abuse and harassment. Somehow, it seems like the Commons is being called upon to set a national example in dealing with such cases. And it's an institution that's usually not good at setting examples.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who was keen to ensure he's seen taking sexual harassment allegations seriously, suspended the MPs from his Liberal caucus. That's a symbolic step, since it doesn't bar either MP from showing up in the workplace. It certainly makes answering the allegations crucial to the political careers of both Liberal MPs. Mr. Trudeau wanted to make it clear he's got a modern approach to such issues.

"It's 2014. We have a duty to protect and encourage individuals in these situations to come forward," he told reporters.

It wasn't a unique sentiment. At about the same time, in another part of Parliament, Conservative Treasury Board President Tony Clement told reporters almost exactly the same thing: "This is 2014. These things cannot be swept under any rugs," he said.

Maybe so, but the Commons somehow got to 2014 without thinking much about handling sexual harassment allegations.

The Liberals asked the Speaker to investigate, and informed the secretive Board of Internal Economy that oversees internal affairs of the Commons. But this institution now has to address very public and personal allegations against two MPs, while protecting the identities of the two New Democrat MPs who brought the allegations forward. The MPs aren't really employees, they're technically independent elected representatives, each with parliamentary privilege. And the Commons has no policy or process for dealing with allegations against MPs.

Story continues below advertisement

But surprisingly there is one in the Senate. They've had sexual harassment cases before.

The Senate created a new sexual harassment policy in 2009. It followed the 2008 arrest of Robert Meizner, an aide to Senator Art Eggleton, for the violent sexual assaults of three women, though a Senate spokesman would not say whether there were also workplace harassment allegations against Mr. Meizner, who was convicted in 2011.

But more recently, there were sexual-harassment allegations against Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, brought by his former staffer, Pascale Brisson, in 2013. And what happened there is a precedent, and one that Mr. Trudeau will remember well.

Ms. Brisson initially sent an e-mail to Mr. Trudeau's office outlining her allegations against Senator Kenny, but it was lost in a pile of e-mails for over two months. The Liberal leader's chief of staff, Cyrus Reporter, later insisted the party took her allegations seriously. (All this was before Mr. Trudeau cut all Liberal senators out of his caucus in January.) Senator Kenny was eventually cleared, as the investigator didn't find evidence to support the allegation of harassment. But the Senate had a policy and a process. Because the allegations were made against a sitting senator, the case was put under the authority of the senate whips of both parties in the Upper Chamber, the Conservatives and Liberals, who hired an independent investigator. The investigator filed a report, and its conclusion was public.

It's a process MPs in the House of Commons will borrow from. But they can expect to feel a lot more pressure to show a level of transparency, beyond just collecting partisan ammo, of the kind they've rarely been able to muster in policing their own.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Cannabis pro newsletter