McPhedran forging ahead with support for Senate staffers harassed on the job
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OTTAWA — A Manitoba senator is forging ahead with a plan to offer support to anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct while working in the upper chamber, even if she is not allowed to use her office budget to pay the lawyer she hired to help shoulder the burden.
"We're not stopping," Independent Sen. Marilou McPhedran said Tuesday.
Last month, McPhedran set up a confidential email address (email@example.com) and invited anyone who has been an employee, intern or volunteer at the Senate since 2006 to speak directly to her, or be referred to a lawyer.
The idea is to offer a safe and confidential way to figure out their next steps, if any, and decide whether they want to pass along information that could help others avoid similar misconduct — in some cases without even having to name the perpetrator.
McPhedran said she has already heard from four people who want to share their stories, including a long-distance telephone conversation late at night.
"I won't play a numbers game on this," McPhedran said. "If one person had contacted me, that's significant."
The clerk of the Senate standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration has asked McPhedran to clarify the proposed $7,000 contract for the lawyer, because Senate policies do not cover expenses for the type of work she has described to the media.
The original contract, according to a letter from the clerk that McPhedran provided to The Canadian Press, described the activities as providing procedural advice and drafting a memo regarding harassment of Senate employees, students and volunteers.
"Senate policies provide that senators may retain the services of contractors to support them in their parliamentary functions," Alison Korn, a spokeswoman for the committee, wrote in an email Tuesday. "This would not include paying legal fees for third parties."
After the Senate shared that detail with the media — a move McPhedran is challenging on a question of privilege — the senator said she reached out to survivors of sexual assault and harassment to reassure them the offer still stands.
McPhedran said the Ottawa-based lawyer, Anne Levesque, has agreed to provide the services on a pro bono basis.
And if necessary, McPhedran said she will find a way to cover the services herself.
"The safe and confidential space I promised you ... is guaranteed," she posted on Facebook. "My promises will be kept."
McPhedran, a human rights lawyer who has chaired inquiries into sexual abuse against patients, said survivors of sexual assault or harassment typically want to get a sense of closure, but they also want to prevent others from being targeted.
"They want the institution to stop the ways the institution has been enabling the abuse of power," she said in an interview last month.
"If we are going to make genuine, lasting change, then we need to understand better what has happened before."
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