Liberal candidate allowed to run for re-election despite past claims of inappropriate behaviour

·10 min read
Liberal candidate in Kitchener Centre, Raj Saini, second from the right, alongside Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, has been accused of behaving inappropriately toward young female staffers. He denies the allegations. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press - image credit)
Liberal candidate in Kitchener Centre, Raj Saini, second from the right, alongside Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, has been accused of behaving inappropriately toward young female staffers. He denies the allegations. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

The Liberal Party has given southwestern Ontario candidate Raj Saini the green light to seek re-election for his third term as an MP despite a series of allegations of inappropriate behaviour toward young female staffers that spanned his six years in office, CBC News has learned.

Seven sources with knowledge of the claims described four different cases where Saini allegedly made unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments. Saini said he has never acted inappropriately toward staff.

A former senior staffer who filed a Canadian Human Rights Commission complaint against Saini last year alleging unwelcome advances and harassing behaviour said it's upsetting the party is allowing Saini to campaign again under the Liberal banner in Kitchener Centre. The staffer said her experience in Saini's office contributed to her mental distress, and she eventually tried to take her own life in his office in March 2020.

"That's pretty devastating to me, knowing what I have gone through and that I've raised concerns over the last more than year and a half," said the former senior staffer. "It's disturbing to me.... It's also concerning to me that it could continue to happen to other people."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has maintained he has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harassment in the workplace, and that he has led a feminist government. But his party also allowed MP Marwan Tabbara to run in the 2019 federal election despite a party investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against him in the previous mandate. Tabbara later left caucus after police charged him with break and enter, assault and criminal harassment in an unrelated case last year. Tabbara's next court appearance is scheduled for tomorrow.

Candidates in the election had until Monday to officially register with Elections Canada. Saini submitted his nomination on Friday and posted a photo on Facebook.

Facebook/Raj Saini
Facebook/Raj Saini

Senior member of government raised concerns during Saini's 1st term

The complaints against Saini date back to the Liberals' holiday party in December 2015, which more than 2,000 people attended including Liberal MPs, staff and supporters at the Shaw Convention Centre in downtown Ottawa.

CBC News agreed not to name the sources with direct knowledge of the allegations because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the matter or were concerned about career reprisals.

Four female staffers reported to a senior Liberal staffer that Saini, along with his friend and mentee, Tabbara, were acting inappropriately with young female staffers at the holiday party, including "touching" or being "handsy," according to multiple sources.

That information was shared with a senior member of the government who brought the concerns to the Prime Minister's Office and Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, sources said. Both Tabbara and Saini remained in caucus.

The Liberal Party told CBC News in a statement "it has no record or knowledge of the matter." Tabbara's office declined to comment.

According to multiple sources, Saini later followed another junior Liberal staffer around at several functions and asked for her phone number.

In a third case, a female employee felt so uneasy with Saini calling her to his Ottawa office late at night, in some cases around 10 p.m., she brought an employee with her from another MP's office so she wasn't alone with him, according to another source. The Liberal Party also said it had no knowledge of this matter.

Twitter/KSH Liberals
Twitter/KSH Liberals

'I remember feeling incredibly stressed out'

A fourth case involved the former senior staffer who wrote to Saini to say she was going to take her own life in his office by overdosing on pills in March 2020, according to a written complaint to the human rights commission. She said Saini alerted mental health services, and paramedics were sent to his office to attend to her. She was admitted to hospital.

"I remember being incredibly stressed out, feeling completely helpless," the former senior staffer said. "I felt like he had shown he could do pretty much anything he wanted to do to me. I felt like there was nowhere for me to turn."

On more than one occasion, she said, Saini put his hand on her thigh while they were in the car together and said the end destination of their drive was up to her.

When the staffer asked for help with an issue at the office, Saini said he would help her if she was good for two weeks and then he winked at her, she said.

She also claims he had outbursts where he'd be yelling and push her up against a wall by the shoulders.

"In January of 2020, the MP screamed at me to burn my campaign T-shirt because I had voted at a riding association meeting to hear a candidate from an opposition party speak on environmental matters," the former senior staffer wrote in her complaint to the human rights commission. "The MP gave me a 20-minute verbally abusive lecture about loyalty, while repeatedly slamming his hands on his desk.

"The MP regularly treats me as his servant, expecting me to receive his verbal abuse and aggressions while keeping quiet. Raj Saini's attitude towards women stems from the 1800s."

The source said the human rights commission said it doesn't have jurisdiction over members of Parliament so could not address her case, she said.

Saini passed case to police

Saini said he has only been made aware of this one allegation at his office and provided the file to police.

The staffer sent a series of text messages and emails to Saini demanding an apology or else she would sue, file an HR complaint or go public with her claims, according to a letter written by a House of Commons lawyer. Saini contacted the House of Commons' legal team and police, who warned the senior staffer, who was on sick leave after the suicide attempt, to stop contacting Saini.

Saini denies the former staffer's allegations, and said he takes the health and safety of his staff "extremely seriously."

"After concerns were raised by the House of Commons regarding my personal safety and the safety of my staff ... the police, in this instance, took action to mediate the situation and ensure the safety of everyone involved," Saini wrote in a statement to CBC News.

"Protecting my staff and ensuring they are respected is not something I take lightly."

He said he couldn't talk about specifics of the case due to privacy concerns.

Saini's campaign later released another statement on behalf of unnamed "female and male staff" offering support for Saini.

Retired politician says woman was 'stellar employee'

CBC News spoke to the former staffer's past employer, a retired provincial politician, who said she was the ideal hire. "The time she worked for me, she was a stellar employee," said the former Liberal politician. "She was responsible, always professional and someone I could count on."

The former senior staffer said she raised concerns about Saini with human resources, several Liberal MPs and Liberal Party staff, but says they they didn't make her case a priority.

She said she didn't trust that the process was impartial and wasn't comfortable with the options presented to her, which included mediation with Saini, she said.

Saini said that upon learning the staffer did not move forward with the formal complaint process, he "insisted an independent third party" review his office. CBC News has not been provided a copy of the review that was conducted by the House of Commons. The complainant said she was told she could not participate because she was on sick leave then was later dismissed.

"The outcome of that review, which was completed in June 2020, found that nothing arose regarding concerns of harassment in the office," Saini said.

In response to the CBC's questions Monday, the Liberal Party referred to its "respectful workplace policy," which states a complaint must be substantiated. If it is, the outcomes range from non-disciplinary measures such as additional training or an apology or mediation, or corrective or disciplinary measures such as a warning, reprimand, suspension or termination.

Internal Liberal survey flagged concerns

Sources said the Liberals conducted an internal survey in 2018 that flagged concerns about the number of people who experienced some form of harassment or pay inequality between male and female workers. The survey also found issues with how the Liberals handled sexual harassment.

Multiple junior staffers wrote in the survey last year that the Prime Minister's Office should "fire" Brett Thalmann, who is listed as the PMO's executive director of planning, administration and people.

His role includes signing off on hirings across the PMO and the ministers' offices and working closely with Telford, according to the sources.

Chiefs of staff for Liberal MPs were asked to meet with their employees in May, where they heard that some junior employees did not trust the party's reporting system, said sources. Some staff said they were concerned the process wasn't confidential or impartial, multiple sources said. Some staff also raised concerns people were not being disciplined for their actions and that the system wasn't set up to help victims.

Thalmann, Telford and those tasked with human resources then spoke to staff about how the PMO deals with HR complaints on a case by case basis, and explained that there is a process outside of the office that looks into complaints, and a hotline available to staff. Many had not ever heard of the hotline, according to sources.

Liberals say party responded to 'honest feedback'

As he announced his party's mental health policy in Ottawa on Tuesday, Trudeau was asked why he's allowing Saini to run again and whether he believes his male candidate rather than female staffers.

"Mr. Saini has shared the processes," said Trudeau. "There have been rigorous processes undertaken that he has shared the details of. We know that it is extremely important to take any allegation seriously, which we certainly have, and we always will because everyone deserves a safe workplace."

WATCH | Liberal MP permitted to run again despite claims of inappropriate behaviour:

In a statement, the Liberals said the survey was sent to about 1,000 staff and they were "pleased to receive honest feedback about workplace culture on Parliament Hill."

"This feedback has shown a marked improvement in the percentage of staff who are aware of the policies, resources at their disposal, and how to report incidents," the statement says. "To protect people's privacy, the surveys were kept anonymous."

In response to feedback, the party said it put in place a series of training sessions and seminars about mental health and wellness, and increased awareness of resources available through meetings, posters and emails. More staff were hired and a new human resources position was created.

The party also said it moved forward in 2017 to legislate protection for harassment and violence in federally regulated workplaces and included political offices. The party also has a training program to help ensure election campaigns are safe.

"We continue to work to ensure the Hill is a respectful and positive work environment for everyone," the party's statement says.

Conservatives, NDP weigh in

Conservative candidate Michelle Rempel Garner was critical of the Liberals' saying that women suffer when powerful men are allowed to cover up misconduct.

"Justin Trudeau's past actions show that he will not act on allegations of sexual misconduct in both the Liberal Party of Canada and the federal government. He has a pattern of covering up or looking the other way on these kinds of allegations," she said. "To the women in this story, rest assured we will continue to fight for better."

NDP candidate Lindsay Mathyssen said her heart goes out to women that have the courage to come forward and share their stories.

"Sadly, there is a clear pattern with Justin Trudeau. All of his talk about feminism isn't reflected in his actions," she said.

"From his mistreatment of women in his cabinet, to his mishandling of sexual assault cases in the military, and his lack of action around sexual misconduct allegations against his candidates, he has consistently failed to stand up for women."

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available. For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).

You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.

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