The Senate, Teens and Don Meredith: Did Lyse Ricard get it right?

Senator Don Meredith

A Canadian senator, a member of Canada’s “second chamber of sober thought,” has come under fire for having an inappropriate relationship with a young woman.

As with most sex scandals, the facts are in dispute. Senator Don Meredith, a Jamaican immigrant turned Canadian businessman, is alleged to have engaged in a sexual relationship with “Ms. M.” Meredith is also a Pentecostal minister whose raison d’ete has long been youth empowerment. The two met at a Black History Month event at an Ottawa-area church in February 2013. He was in his late 40s and married with children. She was 16.

Their relationship, where consensual sex was alleged to have taken place three times over two and half years, was intermittent, with most of their contact taking place via text, Skype and Viber. A report written about it, by Senate Ethics Officer Lyse Ricard, reads like most reports produced by administrators with sensitivity training: the woman’s victimization is a given, while mitigating evidence, the kind that might raise doubts about her narrative or her intentions, is minimized, left out, or deemed extraneous.

 * * * 

I’m an academic and back in the 1990s, when the first wave of political correctness was cresting, several male colleagues I knew personally were accused of sexual misconduct. Of the three cases I’m most familiar with, two were dismissed when unassailable witnesses came forward. The third and most complex ended in a colleague’s forced resignation (or in other words, a firing). His experience is worth looking at.

First, as in Meredith’s case, this colleague was considerably older than his young accuser.

Alice Munro writes about adolescent sexuality in the title story of this collection. Why are so many of us denying that it exists?

Second, as in Meredith’s case, the accuser’s family became aware of the sexual nature of the relationship and did nothing about it. (The extent of Ms. M’s family’s knowledge is notably missing from Ricard’s report, but given the relationship’s duration, and Meredith’s many dealings with Ms. M’s family, it’s hard to believe they were unaware of any attachment.)

Third, as in Meredith’s case, my colleague failed to deliver on some promises. One was for a letter of reference, which, given his impeccable credentials, would have carried some weight and helped his accuser gain admission to a prestigious university to which she had applied.

Fourth, as in Meredith’s case, my colleague lost interest in his accuser, a pattern that was consistent with his cynicism about love generally. After a painful divorce several years earlier, he’d had a long series of relationships–with women of all ages–none of which lasted longer than a few months.

Fifth, as in Meredith’s case, the young woman alerted authorities when the relationship ended.

While neither my colleague nor Meredith acted in a princely manner, I’m not sure that one man’s firing or the other’s removal from office is appropriate. The question of Ms. M’s age is the issue in Meredith’s case, although I believe it is something of a red herring. Ms. M’s family sent her to university in Ottawa, away from her home country, at the age of 16. Clearly they felt she was mature enough to go on her own and, by all appearances, her involvement with Meredith, which did not become physically sexual until shortly before her 18th birthday, was consensual.

In my colleague’s case, his accuser was 19. He’d hired a lawyer who argued that since she’d reached the age of maturity and had consented to sex, my colleague had not broken the law. It didn’t matter; he still lost his job. However, what was most intriguing was his accuser’s recent history.

Shortly after the firing, another male colleague admitted to me, privately, that he’d had problems with the accuser too. He’d taught her a year earlier, and she had formed what he thought was merely a friendly attachment to him. Then she turned up at his office one day wearing a raincoat, which she obligingly opened to show him she had nothing underneath. After catching his breath, he threatened to call security unless she left. She did, but several weeks later she turned up at his home while he was out; she informed his wife that they were having an affair.

It’s a salacious story, but what happened later is most salient: out of fear, this second colleague remained silent while the first colleague was in the process of losing his job. He simply felt safer on the sidelines. He had not reported the raincoat incident when it happened, assuming his threat to call security was sufficient. He was also afraid the accuser would say she’d had an intimate relationship with him too. She’d been seen stopping by his office, after all. Then came his concern that his by-then ex-wife (whom he trusted and who had been hurt by the allegation of an affair) would be questioned and forced to admit that a confrontation, however untruthful and contrived, had taken place. A focus on age differences—this second colleague was also in his 40s—and an over-magnified perception of the accuser’s vulnerability, had frightened him into silence.

With Meredith, those judging him seem to be doing so solely on his involvement with his accuser, with emphasis on the advantages age and power granted him. Conservative leader Rona Ambrose has said: “I just think his conduct is reprehensible…of course he should resign.” While his behaviour is certainly unbecoming, and Ricard is correct to say so, her report is myopic in all the ways I’ve come to recognize: it’s as if all the thoughts in it (I hesitate to call them all facts) supporting the young woman are in a bold size 20 font while those supporting Meredith are in non-bold size 8. There’s also that pesky percentage balance. About 70% of the report detailing the relationship supports Ms. M. It makes for a predictable and depressing read.

But back to my colleague. He eventually took a university job in a country with an “emerging economy”; being fired in Canada at the age of 48, and for inappropriate sexual behaviour, meant he became unemployable as an academic in North America. He also had children to support, children who now only saw him twice a year, and a career that was still good for another decade or two, albeit on the other side of the world. I often wonder what would have happened had the story about the accuser and her raincoat emerged. Would the peers determining my colleague’s fate have reached a different conclusion? I suspect they would have and that’s what’s so tragic.

So how a story gets told is important. Ricard’s report, with its emphasis on Meredith’s unwillingness to disclose details—alternately framed as lying or evasion—ignores a simple fact. Meredith has children old enough to read about him and so his desire to limit the damage makes sense. He also has a wife who is quite capable of being hurt by the public airing of his misbehaviour and, since his contrition seems genuine, I find it credible (not to mention sensible) that he’s not volunteering much. That doesn’t mean an airing shouldn’t happen, but it does explain his reticence, a fact that’s being used to malign him and I think unfairly. His accuser may have been young, but his children were too.

And while Ms. M’s youth may be a factor, let me throw an idea out. I lost my virginity at 17 to a boyfriend who was 20. That was back in the 70s, but I still know where he lives thanks to Facebook. I’m not sure about Canada’s statute of limitations when it comes to statutory rape, but I suppose if I were feeling particularly destructive, I could look this man up and have him charged with it. It’s an absurd proposition, but I mention it because I doubt very much that I’m the only woman in Canada to have had sex before turning 18. Moreover, if all of us in the same boat had our deflowerers charged, the court system would be overwhelmed. That’s a little piece of reality to place next to Ms. M’s search for justice, a search based on the ridiculous premise that 17 year-olds aren’t having sex.

As deplorable as Meredith’s behaviour may seem, he also seems more ambivalent than evil and inescapable details in the size 8 font support that: despite his folly, he is on record discouraging Ms. M from contacting him; he also introduced her to his wife and son early on, an act that for most women, young or old, would discourage them from proceeding with a relationship. Then there are those large gaps in communication, indicating that Ms. M and Meredith lost contact for months at a time.

Like it or not, Meredith’s explanation—that he had doubts about what he was doing—seems true. The fits and starts in his communication with Ms. M, his choice to rely heavily on electronic communications rather than IRL meetings, and his protestations about her age, prove it. Her motives for going public are less discernible but seem to correspond with her disappointment with Meredith, likely for ending the relationship and failing to follow through on the help he said he would give her and her family.

I’d like to suggest another paradigm for analyzing scandals like this: instead of worrying about who politicians are sleeping with, why don’t we ask, “How much might their misbehaviour cost the taxpayer?” Near the end of Ricard’s report, she makes the following observations about Meredith’s conflicts of interest, emphasis mine:

  1. Meredith promised to get Ms. M on a committee he struck to recognize the first black soldier to receive the Victoria Cross…he acted in his capacity as Senator, at least in part, to strike this committee.
  2. Meredith made representations to Ms. M’s sister that there might be some sense of collaboration between his not-for-profit organization, the GTA Faith Alliance, and her non-profit organization.
  3. Meredith was in contact with Ms. M’s parents, engaging in discussions about the potential for them to do business together.
  4. Senator Meredith provided a reference for Ms. M in support of her application to participate in an internship on Parliament Hill.
I have to ask: if Meredith had said he’d spoken to Mohammed instead of Christ, would Ricard’s report have been so skeptical of Meredith’s claim of religious solace? I am agnostic and so have no religious affiliations, but the skepticism with which Ricard approaches Meredith’s religion is clear. I think that is worth evaluating critically.

The problem with each of these assertions is that the first three only refer to potential events, none of which materialized. The fourth—a letter of reference—was written too late to be useful. There was also the issue of helping Ms. M’s mother with residency status, another promise that apparently fell through and may have been the biggest irritant to Ms. M and her family. That that is not on Ricard’s  list, which is located near the conclusion of her report, speaks to the myopia I mentioned earlier. It’s missing because asking Meredith for help with their immigration issues makes Ms. M’s family look bad. It raises the question, “Were they using their daughter to get special treatment?”

What Meredith was doing was obvious: he was hedging, trying to keep Ms. M in his orbit without actually abusing his administrative powers. That makes his actions obnoxious, but it doesn’t make him a criminal, nor should he be expelled from the Senate on that basis alone.

Apart from a dalliance with a young woman to whom he made illogical promises, Meredith was all talk and no action. However, his lack of action cost taxpayers nothing. It may sound insensitive to Ms. M and her supporters, but I suspect a lot of Canadians are okay with that.

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