Mirroring the party’s scramble for a new leader just months ago, local Progressive Conservatives find themselves in search of a new candidate for a provincial election less than two months away.
Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris was ejected from the PC caucus on Monday after allegations were brought forward of an inappropriate exchange between the politician and a “young intern” in 2013.
In a statement released Monday, the party claimed it was presented evidence last Friday of a series of text messages sent by Harris that were of a “sexual nature.”
“They included a discussion of potential part-time employment, as well as a request for her to send him photos, an invitation for her to meet with him late that evening, and reference to something that may have previously taken place in his Legislative office,” PC caucus chair Lisa Thompson said in the statement.
In light of the evidence, which included a written complaint made by the intern in 2013 for being passed over for employment, the party decided to remove Harris from the caucus. A further unanimous decision was made to disqualify Harris from seeking the PC candidacy.
Harris, a two-term MPP who has served since 2011, was the PC candidate until this week and seemed primed to win a third term. Initially, he announced Saturday that he was withdrawing from politics due to medical reasons.
“It has been an incredibly difficult decision to make, but I know for the sake of my health, it is the right call. My keratoconus has worsened – which could lead to serious vision impairment or even blindness,” he said in the statement, which was received with warm words and support from all sides of the political spectrum.
But the statement was sharply contradicted by the PC party’s announcement on Monday that Harris was being barred for sexual misconduct, which seemed to catch many by surprise.
“Sexual harassment has no place in Canadian society including the workplace,” said MP Harold Albrecht, Harris’ counterpart at the federal level. “I learned of this situation through the media. Working with Michael over the past several years I was unaware of any inappropriate behaviour.”
The Kitchener-Conestoga riding association will now have to scramble for a suitable candidate to replace Harris in the upcoming general election. Harris’ wife, Sarah Harris, had previously stated her intention to run as the local PC candidate in his stead, but following Monday’s announcement, it is at this point unclear whether that is still an option.
As of Wednesday morning, the party has yet to give a clear indication of what timelines are for selecting a new candidate, especially with the election now only months away.
“We don’t comment on internal party process,” said Simon Jefferies on behalf of the party. “We look forward to electing a new Progressive Conservative MPP in Kitchener-Conestoga as a part of an Ontario PC majority government.”
The party president, Jag Badwal, did not respond to requests for comment, while the party’s vice-presidents said they were not authorized to speak on the subject.
The burden of selecting a new candidate also falls to the local riding association for the party, which is typically volunteer run.
“According to our local constitution one of the objects of the riding association is ‘to call a convention for the nomination of a PC candidate for each election to the provincial legislature and to elect such candidate to the provincial legislature,’” said Don Kilimnik, president of the Kitchener-Conestoga riding association.
“Our board members have always taken this responsibility seriously and plan to meet in person as soon as possible to discuss our next steps and to develop our plan to fulfill our collective obligation.”
In an interview with the local media, Harris admitted to having “an embarrassing, inappropriate BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) conversation about five or six years ago.”
“I accept responsibility,” he added. Harris would not provide further details about the conversation, and could not be reached for additional comments.
The allegation against Harris comes just a few short months after the former PC Ontario leader Patrick Brown was felled by similar charges. Brown was forced to resign from his position after allegations were made against him by a former employee; however, no evidence was presented.
Brown is now suing CTV, which broke the story, over what he alleges are false accusations of sexual misconduct.
Speaking to the Observer in late January, shortly after the allegations against Brown were made, Harris said situation needed to be dealt with in a “serious manner.”
“I’m still in awe and shock about everything that’s transpired but we have to move forward,” he said. “And I’m challenged with that task to help our party, our membership, our caucus, our community and Ontarians, move forward.”
Harris failed to respond to requests for an interview.