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Senate motion to strip 'Honourable' title could affect at least two former senators

OTTAWA — At least two former senators could be stripped of the title of "Honourable" following a motion the upper chamber passed on Tuesday.
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Embattled Sen. Don Meredith is seen in his Toronto lawyer's office in downtown Toronto on Thursday, March 16, 2017.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

OTTAWA — At least two former senators could be stripped of the title of "Honourable" following a motion the upper chamber passed on Tuesday.

Former senator Don Meredith, who is facing criminal charges for sexual assault and harassment, is specifically named in the motion and was the impetus for its introduction. 

But the motion also calls for other former senators who have been convicted of a crime for which they were indicted to lose the title, which senators normally carry for life.

The Senate's administration says it doesn't keep tabs on who might fit that profile. 

"The Senate does not maintain a list of former senators who have been convicted of a criminal offence proceeded with by way of indictment," Ross Ryan, a spokesman for Senate Speaker George Furey, said in a statement.

It's ultimately up to Gov. Gen. Mary Simon to determine whether anyone does lose the title. "We cannot comment at this time," a Rideau Hall spokeswoman wrote Wednesday.

The motion may apply to Raymond Lavigne, a former Quebec senator who served time for fraudand breach of trust.

Lavigne was convicted of defrauding the Senate with more than $10,000 in bogus travel-expense claims in 2011 and sentenced to six months in jail followed by six months of house arrest. He resigned from the Senate 10 days after the conviction but only began his jail term in 2013 after losing an appeal. 

A judge heard that the former Liberal senator had enlisted one of his Senate employees to cut down 60 trees on his property near Ottawa during paid office hours, and filed mileage-expense claims for rides he did not take.

Lavigne could not immediately be reached for commentWednesday, and his former lawyer said he lacked the former senator's contact information.

Two other convicted former senators seem unlikely to be affected by the motion.

Former Sen. Eric Berntson, a Conservative who represented Saskatchewan, died in 2018, and the "Honourable" title only applies for the duration of a former senator's life. Berntson had resigned from the Senate in 2001 after a fraud conviction involving provincial expense allowances during his time as an member of the provincial legislature.

Meanwhile, former Sen. Michel Cogger, a Conservative who represented Quebec, was granted an absolute discharge in 2001 of his conviction of influence peddling.

Wednesday's motion follows a nearly three-year effort by senators across the partisan spectrum to respond to Meredith's alleged treatment of a teenager and Senate staff.

In 2017, the Senate ethics officer concluded that Meredith had violated the chamber's code of ethics by engaging in a relationship with a girl when she was 16, and recommended the upper house take the unprecedented step of expelling him.

At the time, Meredith acknowledged the sexual relations outlined in the report but said nothing had taken place until she turned 18. 

About two months after the report's release, Meredith resigned from the Senate just as senators were believed ready to go through with the ouster. 

A second Senate investigation, released in 2019, found Meredith had repeatedly bullied, threatened and intimidated his staff, as well as touched, kissed and propositioned some of them.

Meredith, an ordained minister, was appointed to the Senate on the advice of former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010.

Former Liberal-appointed senator Serge Joyal first launched an effort to remove Meredith's "Honourable" designation in December 2019, shortly before his retirement.

He handed the baton to Quebec Sen. Josée Verner, who tabled a motion in February 2020, less than a month before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

The Conservative-appointed senator, who is now a member of one of the Senate's non-partisan groups, said her research suggested Parliament had never stripped someone of the title.

"Former senator Meredith exhibited the most despicable behaviour possible in the history of this institution," she told the chamber in French.

"He did so with impunity, with utter contempt for ethics rules and against the dignity, well-being and rights of his victims."

The motion died when the Liberals prorogued Parliament in August 2020, and Verner reintroduced it this October, with the same phrasing, as the Senate caught up on business that predated COVID-19.

Her motion cites the two ethics reports and a 2020 statement in the Senate that expressed "regrets to the victims of Mr. Meredith's misconduct," all of which predated this fall's news that criminal charges were being formally laid against Meredith.

Shortly before the vote on Tuesday, Manitoba Sen. Mary Jane McCallum said the motion is the bare minimum the Senate can do to make up for "inadequacies within our workspace" that have left people traumatized.

"We have seen how negative perceptions about a senator’s conduct can harm public confidence in individual senators. Every single one of us in this chamber gets shed in the same harsh light," said the senator, who was appointed under the independent process set up early in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's tenure.

Right before the vote, Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas amended the motion to include other former senators convicted on an indictable offence, a move that followed consultation between the Senate groups.

The chamber unanimously passed the motion as amended by Tannas, who was appointed by Harper but now sits in one of the Senate's non-partisan groups.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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