Court documents allege staff of former premier 'personally harassed' Chris Collins

·6 min read
Court documents allege staff of former premier 'personally harassed' Chris Collins
Court documents allege staff of former premier 'personally harassed' Chris Collins

Former Speaker Chris Collins now says he was targeted by former premier Brian Gallant for refusing to go along with a Liberal smear campaign against now Premier Blaine Higgs over his career with Irving Oil.

The unproven allegation, part of Collins's most recent public court filing, is a new element in his lawsuit against Gallant and the New Brunswick Legislature over their handling of a harassment complaint against Collins in 2018.

In the new document, filed Oct. 15, Collins says he was "personally harassed" by people working for Gallant for rejecting two Liberal motions "which constituted [a] personal attack on then Leader of the Official Opposition Blaine Higgs."

The former Liberal Speaker alleged in an earlier court filing that Gallant pursued the harassment case against him as an act of revenge for a ruling he made to block a Liberal motion in the legislature.

But this is the first time Collins has said publicly there were two motions and they were about Higgs.

His lawsuit accuses Gallant and his staff of orchestrating the revival of the complaint, which he says dated to 2015, as a way of punishing him for rejecting the two Higgs motions. None of his allegations have been proven in court.

A 2018 independent investigation commissioned by the legislature found the complaint against Collins by an unnamed female former employee of the legislature was "founded in part."

The Speaker later offered what he called a "complete and unreserved apology" in front of reporters.

In the document, Collins says the two motions about Higgs were introduced in November 2017 and February 2018.

He doesn't describe their contents, but according to Hansard, the official record of legislative debate, then-Liberal MLA Victor Boudreau introduced a motion about the Progressive Conservative leader on Nov. 7, 2017.

Former speaker rules against Liberal motion

It tried to blame Higgs for a controversial tax break that the city of Saint John gave to Irving Oil's Canaport LNG terminal in 2005.

The motion called on Higgs, an Irving Oil executive in 2005, to explain "what role he had in urging the people of Saint John to accept the Canaport LNG tax deal."

Collins ruled on Nov. 17 that the motion violated the rules of the legislature and could not go forward.

"I do not find such motions to be in keeping with the parliamentary practice of our system of parliamentary government," Collins said, explaining that motions were allowed to question members of cabinet but not other individual MLAs.

In an earlier filing, Collins alleged that Gallant staffers told him the then-premier "was very mad about not being able to have this debated."

CBC
CBC

The Liberal motion was part of a multi-pronged strategy against Higgs in the year leading up to the September 2018 election.

In October 2017 the Liberals had unveiled a negative advertising campaign about the PC leader portraying him as too friendly to "big business."

It includes an image of a 2005 Irving Oil newspaper ad defending the Canaport LNG tax break, signed by Higgs and three other company officials.

Higgs explained that while he worked on the partnership agreement between Irving and the Spanish company Repsol to create Canaport LNG, he had "no involvement" in negotiations with Saint John city hall about the tax assessment.

Even so, Gallant continued to push the argument. During Question Period on Nov. 7, 2017, he pointed to Higgs's name on the newspaper ad. "We have proof that he indeed supported and promoted the LNG tax break," he said.

Boudreau introduced his motion later the same day. PC house leader Madeleine Dubé objected, calling it unparliamentary, and asked Collins to rule it out of order, which he did.

CBC
CBC

It's not clear from Hansard what other motion Collins is referring to. He says it came in February 2018, was "slightly modified" from the first one and was rejected as well.

According to Hansard, Boudreau immediately introduced a new motion a few days after Collins rejected the first one. It was reworded to not target Higgs and instead called on the PC opposition to explain its stance on the 2005 tax break.

PC MLA Trevor Holder objected that it was basically the same motion Collins had rejected, but Collins ruled because the new version didn't target an individual MLA it could go forward.

"The other one was brought to my attention on a point of order because it was a personal attack," he said. "I do not see that in here."

The Liberals never called the motion for a vote, though, and it remained on the order paper until it expired at the end of the session on March 16, 2018--the last sitting day before the fall election.

Twenty days later, Gallant went public with the announcement that Collins had been ejected from the Liberal caucus because of a 2016 allegation of harassment.

Former premier denies allegations

Collins is suing both Gallant and the legislature for breach of employment contract, breach of privacy and abuse of authority.

Gallant has denied the allegations in his court filings, saying he acted "lawfully, appropriately, in the public's best interest" and in consultation with government officials.

The legislature argues in its defence that parliamentary privilege gives its "exclusive jurisdiction" over disciplining its MLAs, so it can't be sued over its investigation of Collins.

That argument is based on a centuries-old parliamentary principle that is supposed to protect elected members from interference by the Crown or the courts.

CBC
CBC

Earlier this year the Ontario Court of Appeal cited the concept when it threw out a lawsuit by Senator Mike Duffy against the Senate over its investigation of his expense claims.

But Collins disputes in his new filing that the legislature has "exclusive jurisdiction" over disciplining its own members.

He also says Gallant's decision to pursue the harassment complaint "constituted an external attack on the Office of the Speaker itself" and that legislature staff, including clerk Don Forestell and deputy clerk Shayne Davies, "acquiesced" to it.

Collins alleges that Forestell knew in 2015 that there was a harassment complaint by a staffer about Collins but said at the time it couldn't go ahead because of parliamentary privilege and because there was no harassment policy at the legislature.

The new filing says after Collins rejected the two Liberal motions about Higgs, Gallant's office pushed for the adoption of a harassment policy at the legislature.

While Forestell argued the policy couldn't apply retroactively, Collins says, he eventually allowed that to happen after a meeting with Gallant's office.

"This constituted acquiescence by [the legislature] and failure to protect the position of Speaker and uphold its privilege," Collins says.

Forestell and Davies refused to comment on the filing Tuesday.

Gallant said in an email that it would be inappropriate to comment but added that he's looking forward to "dispel false claims being made and to discuss all the different factors that went into decisions I was obliged to make in response to the actions of others."

Collins says in his lawsuit that he made comments to the female employee that he considered "humorous and inoffensive" but that were "perceived as inappropriate."

He also said 77 of the 80 allegations against him were unfounded.