Stephen Harper has defended his 2008 decision to appoint Patrick Brazeau to the Senate but says he feels disappointed and appalled now that the senator is facing criminal charges.
Speaking at an event in Burnaby, B.C., focused on victims of crime, the Prime Minister responded to several questions about Mr. Brazeau, who earlier on Friday was charged with assault and sexual assault before being released on bail.
"When Mr. Brazeau was appointed to the Senate, he was the national chief of one of the country's most important national organizations," Mr. Harper said. "The situation with Senator Brazeau is terrible. It is extremely appalling and disappointing. We all feel let down, but that should not obscure the fact that most people in the Senate work very hard and take their responsibilities seriously."
Mr. Brazeau was the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples when he was among 18 Senate appointments Mr. Harper made in December, 2008.
Mr. Brazeau was a controversial choice. The most obvious concern was that, appointed at 34, he could sit as a senator for 41 years. Weeks after his appointment, Health Canada revealed that it was asking the Congress to return as much as $260,000 in ineligible expenses related to consulting fees, travel, meeting costs and per diems. Mr. Harper's office responded at the time that it was not aware of the dispute between Health Canada and the Congress and stood by the appointment.
Mr. Brazeau joined the Congress in 2001 and worked his way up to national chief in 2006. The small organization advocates for off-reserve aboriginals but has no clear membership numbers. Its two-storey grey brick headquarters sits off St. Laurent Bloulevard in Ottawa's east end behind a Mister Muffler garage.
At the time of Mr. Brazeau's appointment, the Congress was in the midst of bitter internal feuds, both at the national board level and among staff at headquarters. Shortly after his appointment, one Congress board member claimed he had recently been suspended by the organization because he planned to go public with allegations of sexual harassment against Mr. Brazeau.
The harassment allegation – which related to a staff Christmas party in late 2007 – was later filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Federal Court of Canada. The former staffer abandoned the case in December, 2012.
Mr. Brazeau has said an internal investigation of the incident cleared him of wrongdoing. He also said he was working hard to clean up the organization's past financial troubles and that complaints over money were politically motivated.
"They didn't do enough background research on him," said Kim Beaudin, who served as a Congress board member during Mr. Brazeau's leadership.
Chuck Strahl, who was minister of Indian Affairs at the time of Mr. Brazeau's appointment, said senators are chosen entirely by the Prime Minister's Office and cabinet is not informed of the announcements in advance.
"It was provocative," Mr. Strahl said of the appointment in reference to Mr. Brazeau's reputation for criticizing native chiefs. But he said the fact that Mr. Brazeau was bilingual, from Quebec and an aboriginal leader who supported the government's policy direction made him an attractive choice.
Mr. Strahl acknowledged the government had heard about problems at the Congress.
"There were rumours of internal issues, but it's hard to find an organization where there isn't," he said. "The rumour mill is rife in that department, so you can't run on rumours, you have to run on substance."
Mr. Brazeau's next court appearance is scheduled for March 22, at which time he will be able to register a plea. He declined to speak to reporters as he left the courthouse.
The Conservative majority in the Senate is planning to put forward a motion Tuesday that will place Mr. Brazeau on a leave of absence with pay. Mr. Brazeau would no longer have access to Senate resources.
Mr. Brazeau spent the night in detention after his arrest on Thursday, police spokesman Pierre Lanthier said in a statement.
Wearing a long dark overcoat, Mr. Brazeau made a short court appearance at 9:05 a.m. on Friday, and was in front of Quebec Court judge Lynne Landry 40 minutes later. He was released around 10:30 on the condition that he not communicate with the alleged victim and that he stays away from her residence and workplace.
During the court proceeding, Mr. Brazeau registered his principal address as a house in Maniwaki, Que. He will be able to go back to the house in Gatineau where he was arrested, but Crown prosecutor Sylvain Petitclerc made it clear that Mr. Brazeau will be expected to reside in Maniwaki.
"He must respect the condition of living at that address during the proceedings," Mr. Petitclerc said. "It's serious charges, because it is an assault against a person and a sexual assault also."
Mr. Petitclerc said the charges involved summary conviction offences, meaning the maximum sentence would be 18 months.
Gatineau police interviewed both Mr. Brazeau and the alleged victim in this case on Thursday, and searched the house in Gatineau where the 38-year-old senator was arrested after receiving a 911 complaint for domestic violence.