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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited his history of working on “issues around sexual assault” today in his clearest denial to date of groping allegations made against him linked to an event that happened nearly two decades ago.
“Obviously this is a situation that has been very much on my mind over the past few weeks. It’s a issue that I have been deeply engaged with, not just as a leader, but all my life, since my early 20s in university … active on issues around sexual assault and behaviours,” Trudeau told reporters in Toronto.
“I’ve been reflecting very carefully on what I remember from that incident almost 20 years ago and again, I am … I feel I am confident that I did not act inappropriately.”
The incident is alleged to have taken place in 2000, when Trudeau was 28, at the Kokanee Summit in Creston, B.C. The event was raising money for the Avalanche Foundation, a charity Trudeau became involved with after his brother, Michel, died in an avalanche in 1998.
An unsigned editorial appeared in the Creston Valley Advance after the event accusing Trudeau of “groping” and “inappropriately handling” a young female reporter while she was on assignment. It suggests the woman felt “blatantly disrespected” but provides no other details about what occurred.
On Thursday, Trudeau said that while he is confident he did not do anything wrong, he acknowledged that the woman in question may not see it that way.
“Part of this awakening we’re having as a society, a long awaited realization, is that it’s not just one side of the story that matters,” he said. “That the same interactions can be experienced very differently from one person to the next.
“I am not going to speak for the woman in question. I would never presume to speak for her. But I know that there is an awful lot of reflection to be had as we move forward as a society on how people perceive different interactions.”
Earlier this year, CBC News communicated by phone and email with the woman who was the subject of the editorial. She said she was not interested in being associated with any further coverage of the story. She also asked that her name not be used and that she not be contacted about the story again.
A former co-worker remembers the reporter’s account of the encounter. Valerie Bourne was the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance at the time and said the reporter was “distressed” by her contact with Trudeau.
“My recollections of the conversation were that she came to me because she was unsettled by it. She didn’t like what had happened,” said Bourne. “She wasn’t sure how she should proceed with it because, of course, we’re talking somebody who was known to the Canadian community.”
Trudeau sidestepped a question about whether he would order an independent investigation of the matter, as he did when MPs in his caucus and party staffers were accused of inappropriate behaviour.
The editorial in the Creston Valley Advance suggested that the day after the incident, Trudeau offered an apology of sorts: “I’m sorry,” he is quoted as saying. “If I had known you were reporting for a national paper I never would have been so forward.”
The prime minister addressed that apology Thursday
“Again, I’ve been reflecting on the actual interaction and if I apologized later, then it would be because I sensed that she was not entirely comfortable with the interaction that we had,” Trudeau explained.
“Like I said, I’ve been working very hard to try and piece it together, and even when the original editorial came out at the time I was fairly confident, I was very confident, that I hadn’t acted in a way that I felt was in any way inappropriate.”
The paper’s editor at the time, Brian Bell, also spoke to CBC News.
“I don’t recall that the reporter was coming across as having been traumatized or distraught about it, but definitely that whatever physical touch or whatever had occurred in that moment was definitely not welcome, and definitely inappropriate,” he said.
Trudeau said he can only be responsible for his side of the interaction.
“A man experiences an interaction as benign or not inappropriate and a woman, particularly in a professional context, can experience it differently,” he said. “And we have to expect that and reflect on that.”