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Can we ever really escape our past?

Groping allegations levelled at Justin Trudeau raise questions about the relevance of prior indiscretions
Sexual harassment
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a joint news conference with Latvia's Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis (not pictured) in Riga, Latvia, on July 10. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

By Brian Kreissl

I have been following the recent accusations levelled by a female journalist that Justin Trudeau allegedly groped her at a charity event in Creston, B.C., back in 2000. Like just about anything surrounding our prime minister lately, the allegations have generated a fair bit of controversy.

They were originally published anonymously in an editorial in the Creston Valley Advance and just recently resurfaced. According to the journalist, Trudeau allegedly said: “If I had known you were reporting for a national paper, I never would have been so forward.”

When confronted with the allegations again on July 1 of this year, he simply stated he didn’t recall any “negative interactions” at the event, although he claimed to have remembered the day in question quite well. Trudeau later commented that he had reflected on his memories of the event and felt confident he had not acted inappropriately. Obviously, the two parties have a difference of opinion on what happened, or someone is being untruthful.

According to some commentators, at least some of the controversy relates to the fact Trudeau refers to himself as a feminist and has taken significant steps towards fostering gender equality and inclusiveness. The fact these allegations are now coming to light make some people believe Trudeau may be a hypocrite — particularly with respect to the issue of sexual harassment.

According to an article by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, Trudeau had suspended two Liberal MPs from caucus for unproven misconduct allegations and had removed Kent Hehr from cabinet for “inappropriate comments of some kind.” Wente argues that she doesn’t really care whether Trudeau was guilty or not. While she believes Trudeau would ordinarily be expected to admit to the incident and suffer the consequences, he can’t do that because he had previously argued the only response to “any form of sexual misconduct — no matter how slight or how ancient — is zero tolerance and punishment.”

Delving into people’s past

I personally think Trudeau’s original answer sounds a little cagey, although I have no way of knowing what actually happened on that day 18 years ago in the B.C. interior. But aside from his feminist credentials or what a deeply polarizing figure Trudeau has become, I believe this brings up a very interesting debate about the appropriateness of delving into people’s past and whether senior leaders in particular are required to have led lives that were entirely virtuous and squeaky clean prior to their appointment.

In other words, is someone’s character subject to endless scrutiny on a retroactive basis? If so, how far back is it reasonable to go, and what types of previous indiscretions are problematic?

While I’m not trying to make light of sexual harassment and would never condone groping someone without their consent, it may be a little unfair to judge people based on certain actions committed many years ago. We all change, adapt and mature, and society’s norms and values shift as time goes by. While groping someone was obviously considered somewhat taboo even back in 2000 (otherwise the editorial never would have been published), we must recognize it isn’t entirely fair to judge Trudeau’s alleged conduct as harshly as if it happened in 2018 as prime minister.

Surely, we’ve all said and done things we weren’t proud of, either in the heat of the moment, in anger or after consuming one or two too many drinks? What about youthful indiscretions, private conversations that turned out not to be private or previously held opinions we’ve since moved on from?

Are we allowed to change our minds? Do we not believe in rehabilitation or contrition?

In many ways we aren’t the same people we were 15, 20 or 30 years ago. While senior leaders are required to conform to a higher standard than others, requiring them to have squeaky clean pasts long before they were ever appointed to their current positions seems a bit much.

While I’m not suggesting murderers, rapists, former neo-Nazis or Ku Klux Klan members should be appointed to positions of authority, we all make mistakes and we all have skeletons in our closets. In these days with the proliferation of camera phones and video-sharing sites like YouTube, old footage we aren’t proud of could easily resurface years later or we could be captured on camera when we least expect it.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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