OTTAWA – Liberal cabinet minister Bardish Chagger has made it clear to her top aides that if they ever hear of sexual misconduct allegations involving anyone in her office, they need to tell her about it.
“I have spoken to my chiefs of staff to ensure that I am notified of these matters moving forward, because not only do I want to know, I need to know,” the small business and tourism minister said Tuesday.
The direction came after Chagger learned Rachel Bendayan, who was then her chief of staff, did not follow up on allegations a former colleague had made sexually suggestive remarks towards a young woman applying for a job, because he had already quit.
“I did what I thought was best,” Bendayan said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“There was no further action we could take as an office.”
According to HuffPost Canada, Myriam Denis told Bendayan on Aug. 8, 2016, that a policy adviser in Chagger’s office had contacted her about a job opportunity through an online networking site, then made sexual comments during their meetings to discuss it.
In a first-person piece she wrote for the website, Denis said she came to realize the policy adviser, Vahid Vidah, lacked the authority to interview her and she ended up going through a formal application process that involved a telephone interview with Chagger, Bendayan and others on Parliament Hill.
After she was turned down for the job, Denis said she sent an email to Bendayan describing her interactions with Vidah.
“She thanked me for making her aware of my experiences,” Denis wrote for HuffPost Canada.
“She told me that this entire thing was inappropriate and that she was very disappointed that I had to experience this interaction,” she wrote, adding that Bendayan also confirmed Vidah had not been acting on her behalf and that he was no longer working there.
A spokesman for Chagger said Vidah was in the position from March to August 2016.
Chagger, who is also the government House leader, said she did not learn about the allegations until last week.
“I find these behaviours entirely unacceptable,” she said Monday. “They are not tolerated — not in my office, not in the government.”
Bendayan, who is currently on parental leave, said she has not heard from Chagger since the story came out. But she said she did not take things further at the time because Vidah had already left his position.
“If he was still an employee of ours, we would have taken action to reprimand and dismiss him, but that was not possible,” she said.
“Nothing else was brought to my attention,” she said when asked about the possibility that others had similar experiences.
Last October, the Prime Minister’s Office set up a two-person team to handle questions and complaints about harassment from political staffers working for cabinet ministers.
“Today, there is a formal process in place, so I would avail myself of that process,” Bendayan said.
Vidah has not responded to a request for comment by The Canadian Press, but told HuffPost Canada that while he might have mentioned his romantic life to Denis, he did not make any sexual advances.
In a statement issued late Monday night, Bendayan said she commends “all women who are brave enough to speak about what they have experienced,” and that she told Denis at the time that she considered the alleged behaviour “completely unacceptable.”
Bendayan, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals against NDP MP Tom Mulcair in the 2015 federal election, said there is a need for more women to participate in politics and elsewhere.
“I have had my own experience of inappropriate advances in the corporate world, and regret that this practice continues to haunt us in all sectors of society,” she wrote. “It is through speaking out that we will and are bringing about change.”
— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter