Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 15, 2018

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The guards on Parliament Hill have a nickname for her. It’s “the Perfect Storm” and when Sen. Marilou McPhedran found out that’s what they were calling her, she was delighted.

The Manitoba senator, named as an Independent to the Red Chamber in October of 2016, says she’s aware that she sometimes makes people uncomfortable but it’s not deliberate. She’s just focused on accomplishing her goals of ensuring that there is an open and transparent oversight model in place that guides the powerful Senate committee on internal economy, budgets and administration.

But that seems to take a lot of stamina. And in the tradition of “well behaved women seldom make history”, McPhedran has ruffled more than a few feathers.

For McPhedran, the committee remains far too closed and intransigent. And she’s certainly finding the pressure points on two trigger points right now. Talk about that perfect storm.

The first is sexual harassment in the midst of the #MeToo movement, and the second is expense claims in the fallout of the Senate scandal.

First, McPhedran is hoping to help Senate staffers who have faced sexual harassment while working on the Hill. To do that, she’s set up a confidential email address and offering legal counsel. She doesn’t expect that she’ll have this supported by the committee.

But she is going to go ahead with it anyway, because she knows that “typically complainants aren’t treated well in the process, while the alleged perpetrators have lawyers who will protect them.”

As a lawyer who has advocated for women her entire life, this is nothing new to her.

So that’s the first trigger point, and the second one may explain the reluctance to gain support from her colleagues for the first.

Most Canadians became well aware of the power of the committee when the Senate scandal began to make headlines under the Harper government beginning in 2012. In 2016, P.E.I. Sen. Mike Duffy was cleared of all charges against him in relation to that scandal and, last year, he began a lawsuit against the committee and the Senate.

According to media reports, the statement of claim filed on Duffy’s behalf by his lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, claims the Senate is liable for “malicious prosecution” because of actions taken by the committee and because of Duffy’s suspension from the Senate in 2013.

Senators Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin were also suspended. In Wallin’s case, no charges were laid and RCMP dropped the charges against Brazeau. An internal review of the Senate by retired Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie determined that in the majority of cases in which there were questionable spending being claimed, it was largely due to a lack of understanding of the rules.

This seems to be the case still, despite a revamping to rules regarding travel in 2014, and McPhedran is on a mission to have that changed.

“We need things done in an open and consistent way.”

McPhedran went toe-to-toe last December with the committee culminating in a shouting match after the Senate rejected her $1,939.14 claim for flights, taxi and hotels, because rules modified after the 2012 Senate expense scandal prohibit reimbursing costs for speaking engagements and fundraisers that aren’t organized by the Red Chamber.

McPhedran appealed the claim four times and in December she told the Free Press her goal wasn’t the money, but rather moving “arbitrary” decisions held in secret into the public realm.

For the senator, the issue remains decisions made by this committee are secretive and outside the natural laws of justice.

“I know about this stuff,” she said. “I truly believe that institutions run better when there are transparent, consistent and accountable laws in place.”

Yes, perhaps she is the perfect storm — she’s certainly a Manitoba storm — and like any storm, capable of clearing up the dust and dirt and making way for new growth and new ideas in what has been for an awfully long time a moribund Red Chamber.


Shannon Sampert is the director of EvidenceNetwork.ca and an associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg.

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