As he promises to promote gender equity, Trudeau faces questions about his feminist credentials

OTTAWA—Despite campaigning on a Liberal platform packed with promises to support gender equality and secure women’s rights, Leader Justin Trudeau continues to face questions over his party’s commitment to feminism, just as one of the party’s Ontario candidates is contending with multiple allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

In a CBC News report published Tuesday, several anonymous sources allege that candidate Raj Saini, currently seeking re-election in Kitchener Centre, previously engaged in unwanted sexual advances and made inappropriate comments toward female staffers.

Saini has denied the allegations, but opposition parties on the hustings have seized on the fact that some incidents were reportedly shared with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in 2015. The Liberal party says it has “no records or knowledge” of that matter.

Allegations that processes to review complaints are inadequate, and questions over why the party would allow Saini to run again have dogged Trudeau this week, even as he presented his party’s 82-page election platform on Wednesday.

“We have improved and increased the processes available within the party, within Parliament and indeed, across the public service and across the country because no one should be in an unsafe work environment,” the Liberal leader told reporters in Toronto.

“In this case, Mr. Saini has shared details about the multiple processes that have been gone through over the past many months, and the efforts that have been (made) to demonstrate that we are taking seriously every single concern that is raised.”

In contrast, the Conservative party moved quickly this week to oust Nova Scotia candidate Troy Myers, who had not been previously elected, after a sexual assault allegation concerning the candidate was posted on Twitter Sunday. Myers has denied the allegation.

The lack of clarity over how the Liberal party reviewed the concerns casts doubt on the sincerity of the party’s efforts to champion women’s rights, said Penny Collenette, a former law professor who previously served as the Liberals’ national director and a senior director in the PMO under Jean Chrétien.

“We can have the lofty goals, but we have to make sure we’re doing everything to make sure we’re living up to those goals,” Collenette said. “If there’s a gap, the voters will be cynical. They’re not dumb. They’ll make their voices heard.”

The Liberal platform is chock full of pledges that defend women’s rights, promote gender equality and eradicate harassment.

Stamping out sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces comprises a full subsection in the document — an issue that saw multiple members of the military’s top brass leave their posts amid investigations into their past behaviour. The government, notably Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, has weathered criticism over what it knew of those allegations and how they were investigated.

“If you look at the situation of harassment in the military, maybe some women are thinking, ‘Well, that’s the military.’ But to me, it is indicative of this government’s behaviour, where they promised to have a process to deal with harassment in the military, and yet, we’ve seen male leaders who’ve been given a free pass until there was too much public pressure,” said former NDP MP Peggy Nash.

The circumstances involving Saini offer a “contradiction” between what Trudeau says and what he does, Nash added.

It isn’t the first time that the Liberal leader’s feminist credentials have been called into question: Trudeau expelled both Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus in 2019, in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin affair. The move famously led to several young women, then delegates for Daughters of the Vote in the House of Commons, to turn their backs on Trudeau in silent protest.

Collenette said that ultimately, a situation such as Saini’s should have been dealt with before an election campaign.

“Lessons are to be learned all the time when these situations happen,” Collenette said. “But as I say, as a woman, the biggest concern for me is there appears to be a pattern of allegations…and that is very concerning.”

In a statement to the Star, a Liberal spokesperson said that all Liberal caucus members are required to participate in training sessions on harassment and that the party takes all allegations and complaints “very seriously.”

“That’s why, in 2017, the Liberal government took the historic step to legislate protection from harassment and violence in all federally regulated workplaces. Further, we ensured that political offices would also be included in the new regulations,” the statement read.

“Since 2014, at the insistence of the Liberal Party, the House of Commons adopted a Policy on Preventing and Addressing Harassment and a Code of Conduct for all Members of Parliament.”

The spokesperson noted that within the party’s formal respectful workplace policy, complaints that are substantiated may result in “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.”