Conservatives call for probe into workplace assessment involving Liberal candidate Raj Saini

·5 min read
Liberal candidate in Kitchener Centre Raj Saini, second from the right, alongside Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, is facing allegations of acting inappropriately toward staffers. He denies the allegations.   (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Liberal candidate in Kitchener Centre Raj Saini, second from the right, alongside Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, is facing allegations of acting inappropriately toward staffers. He denies the allegations. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Just ahead of the first official debate of the election campaign, the Conservatives are calling on the clerk of the House of Commons to determine whether a review was properly conducted regarding workplace issues at Liberal candidate Raj Saini's office.

Seven sources with knowledge of the matter told CBC News of four different instances of Saini allegedly making unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments toward Liberal staffers during his six years in office.

Saini denied on Tuesday ever acting inappropriately. He said an "independent third-party review" of his office conducted through the House of Commons last summer cleared him of harassment.

Trudeau also defended Saini on the campaign trail this week and is allowing him to run for re-election in the Ontario riding of Kitchener Centre. Trudeau said his party takes complaints seriously and insisted that "there have been rigorous processes undertaken" in Saini's case.

Following the TVA debate Thursday, Trudeau said it was unsatisfying to say a process was followed, but he has to rely on third party verifiers and experts to make those determinations.

But a female senior staffer who came forward and alleges Saini mistreated her denied that the system was rigorous. She said she wasn't allowed to take part in the workplace assessment, even though her concerns were what initially prompted the review.

Conservative candidate Michelle Rempel Garner sent a two-page letter to Clerk of the House Charles Robert today, asking whether the review of Saini's office followed the House of Commons Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Policy, which requires that the complainant be interviewed.

'This does not sound like an actual investigation'

"This does not sound like an actual investigation, and certainly not one conducted under the policy," she wrote to Robert.

Rempel Garner wrote that the fact the complainant wasn't interviewed in this case "has led me to question whether or not this policy is sufficient and actually works."

"Given that Mr. Saini has been allowed to re-offer as a Liberal candidate, should he be re-elected, given the gravity of the CBC reports of allegations against him, the rest of the parliamentary community must have clear assurances that the policy worked and that they are not working in the midst of someone who allegedly may present concerns regarding their safety and well-being," she wrote.

The senior staffer who said she wasn't allowed to participate in the review filed a Canadian Human Rights Commission complaint last year alleging Saini touched her thigh on more than one occasion, made inappropriate comments and harassed her. Fearing career reprisals, she asked CBC News to keep her identity confidential.

She alleges Saini's treatment contributed to her mental distress. She said she tried to take her own life by overdosing on pills in Saini's office in March 2020.

The staffer showed CBC News an email in which Saini said he engaged a human resources consultant to conduct a workplace assessment of the office to address the issues she had raised, and that she could participate once she returned from sick leave.

Liberal whip Mark Holland's office also sent her an email saying she would have an opportunity to take part in the workplace assessment.

"As soon as you brought this to our attention, we inquired into the matter and was advised that the MP engaged a senior HR consultant to undertake a workplace assessment process to help address any concerns staff may have," wrote Holland's chief of staff, Charles-Eric Lépine. "I understand that you will also have the opportunity to take part once you are ready to return to work."

But in August 2020, while she was on leave, the House of Commons dismissed her, citing "cause as a result" of her "misconduct," according to the former staffer's dismissal letter.

The letter also states the former staffer turned down a mediation process with Saini. She said she didn't trust that the mediation process was impartial.

The dismissal letter said the staffer "repeatedly breached" her "duty of good faith and loyalty" to her employer through "persistent and incessant unwelcome and disparaging comments toward the MP."

The staffer shared with CBC News a string of emails and texts she sent Saini while on sick leave, saying that if Saini did not apologize, she would sue, go to HR or go public with her story.

Saini got police involved and warned her to stop contacting him, she said.

Trudeau says he doesn't have satisfactory answer

After the TVA debate, Trudeau said there is a real, deep outrage among Canadians that harassment continues to occur and there aren't good enough systems in place to properly deal with them. As a result, survivors hesitate to come forward.

Trudeau said when he came to Parliament there were no system in place for MPs, and it was his government that set one up. But he admitted there is more to do to eliminate harassment, intimidation and misogyny in "far too many institutions."

"The answer is always imperfect to say, 'You know there's a process we have to follow,'" he said.

WATCH | Trudeau says system for dealing with harassment still not good enough:

"We have to rely on third-party verifiers and experts to make determinations to make sure we're getting it right. That's not a satisfactory answer when people are saying, 'You know, you need to be stronger and you need to have quicker answers.'

"And you need to make sure you're ending any sorts of cultures of accepting misogyny or harassment in any of our institutions."

House of Commons to reply to letter

The House of Commons said it intends to respond to the letter quickly, but cannot comment specifically about the case because the process is confidential. It also said the policy states employees have multiple avenues of recourse, including under the Canadian Human Rights Act or via the courts in some cases.

The former senior staffer said the Canadian Human Rights Commission told her in June 2020 that it couldn't look into her complaint because MPs are not considered "federal employees."

She also said she can't understand how someone experiencing severe stress is supposed to navigate the process.

"I feel like I did everything I could to address this — and it was never enough."

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