Conservatives revamp candidate vetting with question on sexual misconduct

OTTAWA — Conservative MPs, their party under fire for its handling of sexual misconduct allegations, urged patience and rallied around both their current and former leaders Monday as word emerged that would-be candidates will be asked if they have ever been accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour.

The questionnaire that the Tories put to anyone seeking to join a nomination contest was updated Jan. 31 to include that specific question, said Conservative spokesman Cory Hann.

That was the same day Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer promised an independent, third-party investigation into how party brass handled allegations of sexual assault against former Conservative MP Rick Dykstra.

Last week, a report in Maclean’s magazine said allegations involving Dykstra and a Parliament Hill staffer were brought to the attention of the 2015 Conservative campaign team, but did not result in the removal of the long-time Ontario MP as a candidate.

Two of the most powerful figures in the party at the time — former prime minister Stephen Harper and his then chief of staff, Ray Novak — have now acknowledged publicly they were aware of the allegations. Both said last Friday they allowed Dykstra to remain on the ballot because no criminal charges were laid.

“I’m absolutely confident that Mr Harper made a decision that was according to the rule of law and that was in the best interest of Canadians,” Conservative MP Ed Fast said Monday.

“Anything else, you’ll have to ask him.”

Dykstra, who has denied the allegations, ultimately lost his 2015 re-election bid and went on to become president of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, a position he resigned shortly before Maclean’s published its report.

The controversy dominated talk Monday on Parliament Hill, where Conservative MP Erin O’Toole expressed support for the investigation launched last week by Scheer — and for putting in place a plan to ensure the mistakes of the past don’t get repeated.

“We’re looking forward, not backwards,” said O’Toole.

“All parties are trying to send the message that we’re going to have safe, effective, professional workspaces where respect is the touchstone. I think that’s what Canadians expect. I know it’s what I expect. And we can’t tolerate any environments like some of the stories we’ve been hearing.”

Patrick Brown, another former Conservative MP, is also facing allegations of sexual misconduct. He denied them before resigning as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives last month.

Mike Coates, who is challenging the nomination of long-time Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant in her eastern Ontario riding, said the vetting process he went through last year did not involve a question about sexual misconduct, but he would welcome one.

“Why the hell not?” Coates said.

“You want to make sure that all of your candidates are above reproach in whatever concern you might have, whether it’s sexual relations with your employees or of financial conduct with your company,” he said. “I think all of those questions are now fair ball.”

Coates said even if the question did not come up during the application process, he is now getting it as he campaigns to take on Gallant.

“Do you have anything in your background that we need to know about?” is one of the questions Coates said a voter asked Sunday.

“It was that direct,” he said. “I’ve got that question now from others and I think it’s a good thing that people are asking that question, because you shouldn’t be running if you’re hiding those types of skeletons — they’re going to come out.”

Gordon Francis, who is seeking the Conservative nomination in the Edmonton riding currently held by MP Mike Lake, said the application and interviews he had to go through to enter the contest were already exhaustive, even without the new question.

Francis said he was anticipating the interview to be similar to a job interview, with some tough questions but mostly of a friendly nature.

“That is not what unfolded,” he said of the 90-minute grilling. “It felt more like I was being interviewed by a panel of senators on TV.”

Hann said the previous version of the questionnaire, which is part of the vetting process, asked would-be candidates whether they had ever been under investigation by a professional body for alleged misconduct, even if they were subsequently cleared.

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