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Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on March 2, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

About a week and a half before she was named national campaign co-chair for Conservative Party leadership hopeful Patrick Brown, Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel Garner penned a column for iPolitics.ca that implied Mr. Brown’s name had finally been cleared. The sexual misconduct allegations that CTV News reported back in 2018 were bogus, according to Ms. Rempel Garner – “fake news,” she called it – and she lamented that this episode of erroneous #MeToo castigation would make it harder for genuine victims to come forward.

The backstory is this: in 2018, just a few months before the Ontario election, CTV reported that Mr. Brown, then the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, was being accused of sexual misconduct by two women – one of whom had worked for him in his constituency office in 2013. Mr. Brown, who denied the allegations, was essentially forced out after his campaign staff quit and caucus demanded he resign. Mr. Brown filed a defamation suit against CTV, seeking $8-million in damages.

Mr. Brown and CTV reached a settlement just this month – days before Mr. Brown announced his run for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party – which included an admission from the network that “key details provided to CTV for the story were factually incorrect and required correction.”

Those key details were limited to two things: the age of one of the accusers (she was 19 at the time of the alleged incident, not 18 as initially reported) and her schooling status (CTV originally reported that she was in high school, though she was not). Yet when comparing an archived version of CTV’s original report with the story that’s currently live on CTV’s website, virtually no other details have been changed. The same lurid allegations around genitalia, intoxication, pressure and power imbalance remain online for anyone to read. Mr. Brown continues to deny the accusations, which have not been tested in court.

Whether or not the allegations are true, it’s a leap to take CTV’s admission that it reported a few incorrect details and conclude, as Ms. Rempel Garner did, that “it appears the news outlet has cleared Patrick Brown’s name.” Indeed, the settlement saw no money exchange hands and evidently did not require CTV to take down its report (independent reporting by other news outlets remains online as well). In a court of law, errors in an accuser’s story could damage her credibility to the extent that it might be difficult to convict a defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. But we are not in a court of law, and a few errors in reporting do not de facto render a story “fake news.”

Ms. Rempel Garner’s decision to co-chair Mr. Brown’s leadership campaign is particularly curious because she is likely the best known and most outspoken advocate for women’s rights in the Conservative caucus. Ms. Rempel Garner has written scathing op-eds about the “everyday sexism” experienced by female staffers on the Hill. She accused her own colleagues of sexism for leaving her out of an important policy discussion, and routinely takes the Prime Minister to task for speaking the language of feminism, yet acting differently.

Feminism does not, of course, mean automatically believing every accusation against any man, no matter the circumstances. These things are incredibly difficult to adjudicate, particularly without a formal investigation, and years after the alleged events. But it doesn’t exactly invoke the spirit of Betty Friedan to imply that these women are lying because one appeared to misremember her age.

Others have noticed the rather incongruous marriage between Mr. Brown and Ms. Rempel Garner. Jenni Byrne, who is on the team of leadership rival Pierre Poilievre, tweeted to Ms. Rempel Garner that her support of Mr. Brown is “completely opposite of what you claim to advocate for.” Ariella Kimmel, a former senior staffer in the Alberta government who is suing the premier’s office for allegedly failing to take action on sexual harassment against her, said: “I’m honestly floored by this – how can someone who has spoken in support of women who have been victims of sexual misconduct back a candidate who had numerous allegations made against him?”

Perhaps this is a marriage of convenience. Mr. Brown is virtually unknown in Western Canada and so he needs Ms. Rempel Garner’s connections if he’s going to have anything close to a viable shot at leadership. Ms. Rempel Garner lost her shadow cabinet role after backing the continued leadership of Erin O’Toole, and she appears to be increasingly uncomfortable with the direction her party is heading under voices such as Mr. Poilievre’s. But to borrow a line from another Conservative leadership candidate, there is a stinking albatross hanging around Mr. Brown’s neck, and Ms. Rempel may be taking a risk standing so close.

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