Sexual harassment scandal hits hot spot for Ottawa’s political elite
The chef at a favoured Parliament Hill restaurant recently apologized over a series of sexual harassment complaints, prompting people to ask how far the expectation of condemnation should extend.
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OTTAWA—It’s lunchtime on a Thursday and Riviera is packed. Beneath the din of many voices and a brass-blasting Sinatra song, there doesn’t appear to be a free table in the joint. Patrons are stacked elbow-to-elbow all down the gleaming, steel-top bar that curls near the front door and stretches to the back of the restaurant, where busy cooks lean into plumes of steam that sprout from stovetops in the corner.
Business as usual, in other words, for the fancy cocktail bar and eatery that’s become one of the trendiest hangouts near the Hill.
It would be totally unremarkable if it weren’t for the whiff of scandal.
Riviera’s co-owner, Matt Carmichael, a prominent figure in the capital’s restaurant scene who has been described as a celebrity chef, admitted last week to having “sexually harassed women with inappropriate comments.” Carmichael put out a statement that said he went to rehab this summer for addiction to drugs and alcohol and, in his new-found “clear state of sobriety,” apologized to the women he harassed.
The Ottawa Citizen reported allegations from Riviera staffers, one of whom told the paper Carmichael sent her an inappropriate message on Facebook.
The situation appears to be another example of a powerful man falling from grace at a moment when the cultural domain roils with allegations of sexual harassment and assault, as well the denunciations that attend them. It’s happening in Hollywood with Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. We’ve seen in it in Montreal with the creator of the city’s Just for Laughs festival. And just Wednesday, the U.K.’s defence minister resigned and apologized for gripping a radio host’s knee in 2002.
Carmichael’s case has an added dimension. Riviera is known around town as a favoured haunt for the politically connected. The restaurant with the ’80s-style neon pink sign is situated in an old, art deco bank just steps from the Prime Minister’s Office, and hosted a government soiree when the 2017 budget came out last March.
This brings up an interesting thought: when something like this happens in proximity to those with public duties, how far does the requirement to condemn it extend? Can Liberal insiders still drink their “Femme Fatale” cocktails and nosh “Le Big Matt” burgers (“think like a Big Mac, but better,” a reporter was told) without fear of troublesome optics?
Those questions may ring louder for a government that has made gender equality an unprecedented priority in the echelons of power, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stating that he has a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual harassment in his own Liberal ranks.
Speaking in Brampton on Thursday, when the government released a report on workplace harassment, Trudeau said “far too many Canadian women” have such experiences.
“One of the things we are seeing now is, there is an awakening,” he continued.
“It’s never all right, and regardless of the power or influence or money or fame of the person doing the harassment, it’s never excusable and it should never be kept hidden.”
Erin Gee co-hosts a feminist pop culture and politics podcast in Ottawa called “Bad and Bitchy.” She points out that Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan’s husband, Steve Doussis, was Riviera’s general manager until news of the scandal broke. He resigned Oct. 25, the same day Carmichael apologized publicly, saying in a statement that he “could not in good conscience continue in this workplace environment.”
So far, however, Gee says she hasn’t seen any condemnations from inside the political bubble. “If people think that was awful then they should stand up for what they believe in and their morals, and boycott his establishment for a certain period of time,” she says, while acknowledging that to avoid the restaurant is “tricky,” given that innocent people who work there could suffer.
It’s also unclear when such a stand could be deemed sufficient, she says, and people could return to enjoy their venison tartare (with sour cherry and toasted pepitas) without shame. All the same, she said she won’t be returning anytime soon to Riviera or to the other two restaurants in town that Carmichael co-owns.
Tim Powers, vice-chair of Summa Strategies, says the situation at Riviera is certainly a “topic of debate” in political circles, especially for a Liberal party he said is undoubtedly preoccupied with its own brand and image.
But he hastens to add that there should be no expectation that people from Parliament Hill avoid the restaurant — especially if the people mistreated by Carmichael still work there.
“Who are you penalizing? In the end you’re probably penalizing the people you don’t want to penalize, the people who’ve been speaking up,” he says.
“Does it impact the Liberal brand because Liberal staffers go there? No, that’s a friggin’ stretch.”
Outside the restaurant, it’s raining on Sparks St. Sarah Hurman passes by under her umbrella. She says she loves Riviera, and would go back despite the scandal, especially now that Carmichael has apologized and stepped away from the business.
The fact that we’re having this conversation at all is a sign of progress, she says. “Younger people expect a fairer workplace, and they have a much better idea of that than their counterparts 20 to 30 years ago,” says the 58-year-old consultant. “It’s just a slow process of levelling the playing field.”
Moments later, a woman who is texting as she walks glances up at Riviera’s façade. She shrugs. “I heard it’s great, and I want to try it soon.”