It was an unsettling, uncomfortable week in the Nova Scotia legislature, and Premier Tim Houston was clearly eager to “move forward.”
Move forward from what seemed clear enough.
To what was less obvious.
Houston’s very bad week actually began the week before, on March 29, when now-independent MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin rose in the legislature to speak on her private member’s Bill 278, the Non-Disclosure Agreement Prohibition Act.
Here’s some of what she said in the House.
Mx. Speaker, this bill is personal. My employee was coerced into signing a [non-disclosure agreement] with the Progressive Conservative caucus… I’m going to highlight one of the things that this NDA says. It is between Kaitlin Saxton and the Progressive Conservative caucus. It says if she were to break this, it would be “harmful to her, both personally and legally.” … She was not given the opportunity to have a lawyer by her side. Her parents drove her [to the signing]. I think the one thing that would help them, as a family, to heal is if the Progressive Conservative caucus would publicly apologize to them for the way that their daughter was treated.
Saxton had been a communications staffer in the PC caucus office for seven years before resigning in 2018. Later, she worked as a constituency assistant for Smith-McCrossin, who’d become an Independent MLA after she was kicked out of the Tory caucus in 2021. Saxton died of a brain hemorrhage in June 2022. She was 33.
There are a number of backstories here, and at least as many timelines to unravel.
But let’s first follow this latest one.
That night, the premier’s office issued a statement denying all — or almost all.
We can confirm [neither] the caucus nor the PC party ever had an individual sign an NDA with respect to this matter. I can also confirm the document tabled in the legislature by Elizabeth is not a document that was prepared for or by nor was it entered into by the PC Party, PC Caucus, PC Party President, or PC Party interim leader or current leader.
Noticeably absent among the long list of those for whom the document was not prepared for or by nor entered into was former Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party Leader Jamie Baillie. Baillie had been forced to resign his job in January 2018 because of “allegations of inappropriate behaviour,” including sexual harassment involving a then-unidentified female staff member.
We’ll return to Baillie.
On Monday, April 3, Karla MacFarlane, the interim leader of the PC Party at the time the NDA was allegedly signed and now a Houston cabinet minister, introduced a motion in the legislature to kick Smith-McCrossin out of the House and prevent her from taking her seat again until — and unless — she retracted her description of the “alleged non-disclosure agreement” as being between Saxton and the PC caucus and, oh yes, apologized for ever having suggested as much.
An emotional MacFarlane promised to “fight this to the end.”
The end came sooner than expected.
Smith-McCrossin hired a lawyer and threatened legal action to prevent her removal.
Meanwhile, Saxton’s parents, Katherine and Michael Saxton, confirmed the substance of some of what Smith-McCrossin said in a statement that seemed designed to — and certainly should — shame the Tories:
Kait was coerced into signing [a non-disclosure agreement]. That is a fact. But what was worse for her was the total abandonment she endured from her ‘friends’ in the caucus office… Kait was ghosted and had no other choice but to come home and heal … Her career she dearly loved was over and she was treated like a pariah. She was just beginning to live again when she went to work for Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin. Her light was being re-kindled. She was doing what she loved.
Before MacFarlane’s motion could be debated, Houston abruptly declared victory and announced that the motion wouldn’t go forward.
“We were concerned that something that was tabled in the legislature wasn’t exactly what it was purported to be, it was in fact dramatically different,” he told reporters, adding he was now satisfied that Smith-McCrossin had “retracted” her allegation. “I’m satisfied it’s a retraction, and it’s as close as we’re going to get, and I’m ready to move forward, that’s it.”
Smith-McCrossin did acknowledge in a scrum with reporters that the document she’d tabled didn’t prove the PC caucus had entered into an NDA with Saxton, but then added, reasonably enough: “The question, is who then did create that non-disclosure agreement? It is unsigned. I do not have the answer.”
No one has answered that one.
First, let’s look at the document Smith-McCrossin actually tabled. It appears to be a fuzzy photo of a copy of an unsigned, undated but clearly labelled “Non-Disclosure Agreement” between Saxton and… someone.
The point-form background points:
1. Certain events have caused Kaitlin Saxton to terminate her employment with the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Caucus on a mutually agreed basis.
2. Kaitlin Saxton has committed herself to ensure that the events leading to her termination of that employment be kept strictly confidential
3. There are very serious adverse consequences to Kaitlin Saxton if these events are disclosed or discussed in any way, directly or indirectly, whether verbally or in writing; and
4. The making or continuation of any disclosure or discussion of the events leading to Kaitlin Saxton terminating her employment is harmful to her, both personally and legally.
I’ve examined a number of legal non-disclosure agreements in my time, and this doesn’t read like a lawyer-created one. For starters — and enders — there are no benefits to her for signing and no clear consequences for violating it beyond the vague “very serious adverse consequences… both personally and legally.”
It reads more like something drawn up by a non-lawyer, perhaps as a prelude to a legal version.
That said, Kaitlin told her parents she’d been coerced into signing an NDA. And Smith-McCrossin says Kaitlin told her the same thing.
Perhaps there is a signed version of this or a similar document. Perhaps there is another more legal final version.
Who should know if that’s the case?
Let’s go back to Jamie Baillie.
In late January 2018, Baillie, a chartered accountant by trade, abruptly resigned as Tory leader after a unanimous request from his own caucus. That followed an independent third-party investigation. The details the party disclosed were sketchy, but they did involve inappropriate behaviour including sexual harassment of an unnamed party staffer.
“I am protecting the individual,” MacFarlane, who became interim leader, explained at the time. “It’s a delicate, delicate issue and it’s been a difficult process and we’re respecting those involved at their request.”
We know what Baillie requested. “My priority,” Baillie wrote at the time, “is my family and I ask that our privacy be respected.” He has said nothing more since.
After Smith-McCrossin tabled her document in the legislature, Saltwire reporter John McPhee reached Baillie by phone. Bailie denied ever having seen the document.
Last week, my colleague, Jennifer Henderson, emailed Baillie seeking clarification:
Jennifer Henderson: Did you ever sign any type of non-disclosure agreement with Kait Saxton? And I’m not talking about the unsigned, undated document Ms. Smith-McCrossin produced. I’m talking about whether YOU signed any non-disclosure agreement with Kait.
Jamie Baillie: I do not make a habit of commenting on matters before the House and will not start now.
Coincidentally, I also reached out to Baillie via Messenger the same day with a similar but slightly different question: “My question is whether you had any involvement in this matter during or after your time as PC leader?”
Baillie’s by-now well practised response: “Thanks for your note. I do not make a habit of commenting on matters that are before the House and will not start now.”
This particular matter before the House, of course, involves Baillie’s own personal conduct, and his non-response to questions about it speaks far more eloquently than his pro forma silence.
So too does Tim Houston’s nothing-to-see-her-folks skate away from the abyss last week.
He and Smith-McCrossin have an unhappy personal history that probably factors into the calculus here.
In June 2021, then-opposition leader Houston booted Smith-McCrossin from the Tory caucus for her role in an anti-vax highway blockade and barred her from running again for the Tories.
She ran as an independent and won.
Then, earlier this year, the province’s justice department threatened legal action against her for naming Allison Holthoff — who’d already been publicly identified by her family — as the patient who died at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre after waiting seven hours to see a doctor. The department later backed down.
But it’s clear there’s little love lost between the premier and his caucus and the independent member for Cumberland North.
More significant — and often lost in the noise — is the Houston government’s recent odd seeming reluctance to bring forward its own legislation restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements, which are often used to coerce victims of sexual abuse into silence.
When the NDP introduced a private member’s bill last April to restrict the use of such arrangements — modelled on legislation passed in California as well as a law in Prince Edward Island — party leader Claudia Chender said she had had “discussions with the department of justice and status of women, and the Houston government is looking at the issue and may introduce legislation in the fall.”
But by October — in the wake of the Hockey Canada scandal, about which the premier himself had plenty to say — when reporters asked Justice Minister Brad Johns whether the Tories planned to move forward with legislation, he said:
It’s not a priority right now of this government. I think it’s better to just slow things down and see how things continue to go in P.E.I. and make a decision in the future on whether or not the province will do that,” even helpfully adding the government had no timeline for making a decision about legislation.
A few weeks later, on October 31, Houston himself put a punctuation point on the government’s sudden disinterest in the subject when he told reporters: “There’s always individual circumstances as to how [NDAs] come about, how they’re signed, what they mean, what the wording is…. I’m not aware of situations where people would be forced to enter into these.”
Perhaps it’s time the premier spoke to Kaitlin Saxton’s parents. Or to his former colleague, Jamie Baillie.
Perhaps it’s time he simply brought forward legislation to protect vulnerable people from being coerced into non-disclosure agreements designed only to protect the powerful.
That would be the best way to move forward.
NOTE: The spelling of Karla MacFarlane’s name has been corrected.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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