OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau concedes that he, like all political leaders, is struggling to figure out how best to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct against members of his own caucus.
“I don’t have a rule book that’s been handed down to me from Wilfrid Laurier as leader of the Liberal party on how to handle these situations,” the prime minister said during a news conference Tuesday.
“This is new for organizations to have to deal with in this way, and we are doing the best that we can on a case-by-case basis — starting from a place of respect, of support (for victims), of belief and understanding that we do have to have fair process as we move forward.”
Trudeau offered that answer in response to a question about why Kent Hehr — who resigned from cabinet last week pending an investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct towards women — remains a member of the government caucus while Darshan Kang, another Calgary MP facing misconduct allegations, has been booted from the Liberal fold.
That question has gained urgency as additional complaints against Hehr have surfaced, including an allegation that he groped a young female staffer.
Liberal insiders say Kang, a former member of the Alberta legislature, voluntarily quit caucus last year while he’s being investigated for alleged sexual harassment involving former female staffers in both his provincial and federal constituency offices.
Trudeau didn’t mention that, but did say “every case will be different.”
He acknowledged that the #MeToo movement sweeping the globe — which has brought down movie moguls, actors, high-profile journalists, sports figures and politicians as women go public with long-suppressed complaints about sexual misconduct — has “all of us figuring out the transformations that we need to make in our workplaces, in our communities, in the environments that surround us to go to a place of … work environments and life environments for everyone that are respectful and appropriate.”
Until very recently, Trudeau pointed out that processes and support systems to deal with complaints of sexual harassment or sexual assault involving federal politicians and employees didn’t even exist.
A sexual harassment code of conduct for MPs was developed only after two female New Democrat MPs levelled complaints against Liberal MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews in late 2014. Trudeau suspended the two Liberals from caucus pending a third-party investigation, at the conclusion of which the pair voluntarily resigned from caucus permanently.
The new code was reviewed last fall, but the governing Liberals believe the environment has changed so dramatically since then that it should be reviewed again. Filomena Tassi, the government’s deputy whip, tabled a motion Tuesday at the procedure and House affairs committee, asking for creation of a sub-committee to conduct a “thorough” re-assessment of the code. Her motion is to be considered Thursday.
In the past week alone, sexual misconduct allegations resulted in the resignations of Hehr and Conservative leaders in Nova Scotia and Ontario. The latter, Patrick Brown, was a former federal Conservative MP, as was Rick Dykstra, who resigned as president of the provincial Tories in the face of an allegation of sexual assault.
The swiftness of their downfall on the basis of unproven and usually anonymous allegations — and amid a widespread sentiment that “survivors” must be believed — has prompted some concern about the lack of due process for the accused.
While there’s a need for due process, Trudeau said “the first instinct” needs to be believing and supporting those who make complaints about sexual misconduct.
“I think it’s essential to start from a place of belief and support for anyone coming forward with stories or allegations of harassment or assault. This in itself represents a significant change in society,” he said.
“We obviously need a process that flows from there and that’s something we’re all working very, very hard on ensuring it gets done right. But the first instinct and the first place to be needs to be believing and supporting.”
Trudeau did not directly respond when asked if, like many men, he’s been reflecting on whether he may have said or done anything in the past that might seem inappropriate by today’s standards.
But in a later interview with CBC radio’s “The House,” to be broadcast Saturday, Trudeau said he doesn’t think he’s done anything that could come back to bite him.
“I’ve been very, very careful all my life to be thoughtful, to be respectful of people’s space and people’s headspace as well,” he said.
During the news conference, he seemed to suggest that his experience working as a volunteer for McGill University’s sexual assault centre 25 years ago sensitized him to the issues that other politicians have stumbled over.
“As one of the few male facilitators in the program, I led conversations with fraternities, sororities, residences, school groups, activity groups on issues of consent, of power dynamics, of date rape, of interactions, of communications,” he said, adding that “there is always more reflection and more engagement to be had.”
Trudeau said he’s “deeply pleased” that society has reached the point where these kinds of conversations are occurring in workplaces everywhere and are “leading to reflection and learning and support for people, specifically women, who have too long faced systemic and constant discrimination, sexism, harassment and assault.”
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press