Lawyer named to investigate misconduct works in "informal" processes

Trudeau hires an expert on keeping matters ‘confidential’

Cynthia Petersen has been asked to ‘conduct an independent, fair and confidential investigation’

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(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The lawyer hired by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to probe the misconduct allegations that led him to suspend two MPs from his caucus is experienced with “informal” and “confidential” ways of dealing with such complaints.

Cynthia Petersen was named today by Trudeau’s office to take on the sensitive task of looking into allegations levelled by two female NDP MPs, who have remained anonymous, against the two male Liberal MPs, who have been named and say they’ve done nothing wrong.

Petersen is a partner at the Toronto firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, but the key experience qualifying her for the Liberal job is likely that she has served as the Law Society of Upper Canada’s “discrimination and harassment counsel” since 2002.

Last spring, in a lecture at the University of Ottawa’s law school, Petersen explained the approach of the law society’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment Counsel. According to an account on the law school’s website, she described the office as “an alternative avenue, which is an informal, confidential way of dealing with complaints.”

And confidentiality seems to be the watchword in the investigation the Liberals have asked her to oversee. Kate Purchase, a spokeswoman for Trudeau, said in an email that Petersen will “conduct an independent, fair and confidential investigation that will result in the production of a confidential report.”

That report, the statement distributed by Purchase added, will be delivered to Trudeau to help him decide whether to allow the two suspended MPs, Scott Andrews of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Massimo Pacetti of Montreal, back into his caucus, and let them run as Liberals in next year’s election.

Petersen’s report to Trudeau is meant to “set out findings of fact related to the disputed allegations of misconduct and any related allegations that may come to light during the course of the investigation.” The lawyer will be available as early as the Christmas break to interview “any of the four MPs who wish to participate”—wording that suggests there is no advance guarantee that all the MPs will be talking to her.

Petersen’s lecture at the University of Ottawa last spring, called “Preventing and responding to discrimination and harassment in the legal profession: progress and challenges,” was specifically about lawyers grappling with problems in their own workplaces. In the legal profession, at least, she reportedly said, those lodging complaints increasingly “have more insight into their rights, and a greater willingness to do something about the experiences that they’ve had.”

Along with her behind-closed-doors law-society work, Petersen has been a prominent courtroom lawyer, arguing in the Supreme Court of Canada on major Charter of Rights and Freedoms cases, including several landmark cases involving gay and lesbian rights. Her official biography, on her law firm’s website, says her role with the law society involves providing “confidential information and advice to individuals who have complaints of discrimination or harassment against lawyers or paralegals in Ontario.”