by Conrad Black
The poor, benighted Canadian Senate is struggling to restore its credibility, but it is approaching it by self-consciously persecuting its own members. First, it should cease to be so self-conscious about last year's expenses controversy. The amounts were trivial and the demands for abolition of the Senate were piled up on the assumption, for which our largely incompetent and frequently malicious media are responsible, that Sen. Mike Duffy was a felon. He was judged not guilty in a law court and the Senate was acquitted with him. It was the Jian Ghomeshi affair on red benches: a prosecutorial and media lynching, followed by due process, and vindication for the accused who had been pre-convicted in the kangaroo court of public opinion. I know something about this sort of sequence.
Nor should the Senate be so self-conscious about not being elected. No one should imagine, and the public does not believe, that the elected members of the House of Commons, with a few exceptions, are anything to write home about, as parliamentarians, statesmen, political thinkers, or exemplars of the virtuous life. They are, on balance, rather ordinary people who do represent more or less well the interests of their constituents and rarely demonstrate any particular forensic skill or policy imagination. The Senate could easily attract more capable people, if they knew that they would be in stimulating company. The key to the renascence and flourishing of the Senate of Canada is to fill it with capable people, and the way to do that is not to invite people to apply for the position of senator, and have ring-arounds to generate support as is now the case, almost like aldermanic candidates in small municipalities. It is for the prime minister to impose upon a range of talented people across the country to serve as a matter of duty, and attend with reasonable frequency for a time, even if they choose to retire after a few years, as John Aird, John Nicholls, and Hugh Segal (all able men) did.
The dilemma of the Senate is illustrated by the calls for the resignation of Don Meredith and Lynn Beyak. The case against Sen. Meredith is his relations with a teenage girl. The report of the Senate ethics officer, Lyse Ricard, is a thorough analysis of this relationship, in which she judges Ms. M, as the complainant is called, credible, and Sen. Meredith not-credible, apart from one issue where Ms. Ricard gives equal credence to their differing views. What is indisputably established is that the senator had a somewhat intimate relationship with a young woman, starting when she was 16, and including a tactile encounter when Ms. M was 16, a further tactile and kissing encounter when she was two months short of 18, and what Ms. Ricard considers to be consensual sexual intercourse a few days before Ms. M's 18th birthday, which Ms. M recalls as involving penetration but not ejaculation, and which the senator denies, and two encounters when Ms. M was 18, the first of which, to judge from Ms. M's emails, was a deflowering, and a sequel several months later. The senator is fuzzy on both. Ms. M introduced the senator to her family when she was 16, and was grateful to him in her emails after the alleged deflowering. The claimed "teaser" penetration just before Ms. M's 18th birthday is reinterpreted for Ms. M by Ms. Ricard as intercourse, even though Ms. M does not regard it as such and Sen. Meredith disputes that it occurred.
The controversy began with an article in the Toronto Star of June 17, 2015, apparently after an extensive interview with Ms. M, and a request for an inquiry the following day from the then speaker of the Senate, Leonidas Housakos. Ms. Ricard laboriously recites a great deal of peripheral exchanges about aspects of the relationship between the two parties that are unnecessary and are not the subject of any public right to know. She concludes that Sen. Meredith breached sections 7:1, and 7: 2, of the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code for Senators. On July 27, 2015, the Senate standing committee on such matters determined that sections 7:1 and 7:2 "are applicable to all conduct of a senator, whether directly related to parliamentary duties and functions or not, which would be contrary to the highest standards of dignity inherent to the position of senator and/or would reflect adversely on the position of senator or the institution of the senate." Ms. Ricard's investigation was suspended for several months pending an investigation by the Ottawa police department, whose chief advised Ms. Ricard in January 2016 that the investigation was over and that no charges would be laid. The Code (article 48), invites the Senate Ethics Officer to recommend remedial action, but Ms. Ricard found that "remedial measures are not available."
The demand for Sen. Meredith's resignation has ensued, and I saw one zealot on a CBC panel on March 14 declaim that he cannot be allowed to resign; he must be expelled. That is the first rung in the ladder that leads to Stalin's demand that his police prevent his victims from committing suicide, because he wanted to be able to extract false confessions and denunciations from them by torture and then to use them in show trials and execute them.
There are several problems with Ms. Ricard's report. She claims jurisdiction because the relationship was "ongoing" at the time, which she states as June 16, 2014, when clauses 7:1 and 7:2 of the Senate conduct code were enacted, although they were only broadened to include all conduct of senators in a directive issued on July 27, 2015, in response to a question from Ms. Ricard, in which, she writes, she "did not reference Sen. Meredith's matter." This was 39 days after Sen. Housakos's request for an inquiry, and I am afraid that Ms. Ricard is, in her parlance, not credible in claiming to have effectively requested the extension of the ambit of these clauses without having Sen. Meredith in mind. She appears to have prejudged the issue and retroactively sought the discretion to deal with it.
Even Ms. M does not allege that anything improper occurred after that date, so Ms. Ricard has no clear jurisdiction, and may not have approached the evaluation of the issues with clean hands. Further, she implies that the police decided that no charges would be laid because Ms. M said she didn't want her name published, but it is more likely, on the facts as recounted by Ms. Ricard herself, that the police judged they had no case to claim a crime had been committed. The senator deserves, evidently, the benefit of the doubt Ms. M has created. And in determining that remedial action will not suffice, she admits that Sen. Meredith has materially reduced the likelihood of repetition by having "placed myself under the guidance of spiritual advisers, ... engaged in continuous prayers of repentance and seeking forgiveness of (my) family (Meredith is a Christian pastor), engaged in professional" and peer counselling, completed a "professional development course," and "carefully studied and reviewed the Code to ensure that my conduct going forward is consistent with its obligations." Sen. Meredith ended the relationship in May 2015, after explaining to Ms. M that he felt God disapproved of it, and she expressed understanding and they parted apparently amicably.
Ms. Ricard scrambled backwards for jurisdiction, found against Sen. Meredith on all substantive issues, does not exercise her duty to report that he has been exonerated of crimes, and professes to find it impossible to find remedial action, though she does not contest the sincerity of his repentance and the unlikelihood of repetition. It is a shabby and, on its face, an unethical use of the Ethics Office of the Senate. President William J. Clinton committed much greater offences in a much greater office, was much less contrite, and was excused with the equivalent of a slapped wrist (and quite rightly — his impeachment was nonsense, apart from the question of perjury, where he came close but didn't quite do it).
Ladies of Ms. M's age at the time of the activities complained of can have abortions, procreate, marry and do what older people do. Ms. M seems to have generated this story out of vengeance and in a way designed to destroy Sen. Meredith's career while concealing her own identity. The senator's conduct was indisputably tawdry and contemptible, and almost insane, and especially unbecoming a clergyman and champion of youth empowerment. But there is no grounds to expel him from the Senate, and that house would do itself honour by tempering justice with mercy and by not being duped and manipulated to over-reactive severity in a case of imprudent but consensual intimacy with a young woman legally of age. Sen. Meredith should be censured, but his repentance should be accepted.
Sen. Beyak's offence was to point out that the demonized residential schools for native people were in part staffed by "kindly and well-intentioned men and women." An NDP MP (Romeo Saganash) has demanded her resignation and the Liberal indigenous caucus has asked for Sen. Beyak's removal from the Conservative Senate caucus. Of course Sen. Beyak is correct. Most of the teachers in those remote schools were dedicated people who believed in what they were doing and were trying to prepare their charges for full participation in Canadian life. Some were negligent and some were racists, and there were terrible incidents and appalling misfortunes, including epidemics that wrought a grim toll among the students. But the residential schools program was not an exercise in deliberate discrimination. Most of the children were plucked from desperate and hopeless squalor and, despite the disdain of the deputy minister of the time the program was established, the authorities generally meant to educate the native people usefully. Sen. Beyak should be commended for not joining in this frenzied self-flagellation induced by native leaders who, in effect, claim that the Europeans had no business coming here, but that the native people are prepared to accept as their due the entire fruit of 400 years of effort in transforming the barbarous and underpopulated territory of Canada into a G7 country.
We must reach a generous solution to the legitimate grievances of the native people, but it may have to be legislated over the courts, which have been largely taken over by advocates of declaring the whole country a sacred aboriginal burial ground where Europeans and their descendants have been trespassing interlopers these four centuries. The Senate can play a useful role in all these important matters, but only if it pulls itself together.
First published in the National Post.