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New allegations rock U of M

For years, staff and students have lodged complaints of inappropriate behaviour against the director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals

 

For years, staff and students have lodged complaints of inappropriate behaviour by Peter Jones, the director of the
Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. There’s a renewed call for the university to investigate
For more than a decade, administration at the University of Manitoba appears to have mostly turned a blind eye to an alleged pattern of inappropriate sexual and financial behaviour from one of the school's star professors.

After receiving inquiries from the Free Press this week, it appears the Winnipeg school is now investigating allegations made against nutrition expert Peter Jones.

Despite being the subject of multiple complaints from students and staff dating to 2007, Jones carried on working as the director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals (RCFFN), which he helped found in 2005.

Under Jones' watch, RCFFN has drawn international acclaim for its innovative health research. Gov. Gen. Julie Payette visited the centre when she toured Winnipeg last month.

In September, U of M president David Barnard revealed the school was looking into allegations of inappropriate behaviour involving five faculty members and three of their investigations had to do with sexual misconduct.

Peter Jones.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Peter Jones.

It did not appear Jones was under the microscope then.

Last month, an anonymous email account named Times Up RCFFN began contacting the school’s senior administration (including Barnard) about Jones. After apparently little response from U of M, the email source contacted the media.

When former music professor Steve Kirby left the U of M in June 2017 under a shroud of sexual-harassment allegations from students, those at the university who had previously made complaints about Jones wondered why the nutrition professor didn't face similar scrutiny.

Sources began speaking with the Free Press under condition of anonymity earlier this year. Three people eventually went on the record to voice their frustrations.

The Free Press has learned -- through interviews, emails and documents it obtained -- Jones allegedly mismanaged funding at the RCFFN; dated graduate students while continuing to evaluate them; and did not disclose his sexual relationships with students to the U of M.

In at least two cases, Jones allegedly caused employees to take medical leaves of absence due to stress he inflicted upon them.

In emails to a several U of M staff members -- including Barnard, Karen Wittenberg (dean of agriculture and food sciences), Jim House (head of the department of food and nutritional sciences), and Jackie Gruber (human rights and conflict management officer) -- the Times Up RCFFN sender detailed similar complaints to what the Free Press had been hearing from sources for months.

The source of the emails did not respond to requests for an interview.

On Wednesday, the Free Press requested interviews with Barnard and two vice-presidents -- Digvir Jayas (research and international) and Jay Doering (partnerships) -- who allegedly knew about complaints regarding Jones.

The school responded with a prepared statement that did not mention Jones by name.

"We cannot speak to specific investigations. Our attention to confidentiality is intended to protect all those involved in any investigation and also to maintain the integrity of the process. We are committed to a process that encourages individuals to come forward to raise concerns," wrote Lynn Zapshala-Kelln, vice-president of administration.

"We recognize that keeping confidential the details of the investigative process makes it difficult for the university to publicly explain its responses relative to specific allegations. But maintaining the integrity of the process is critical in the long-term to ensuring all allegations are dealt with effectively and, ultimately, to combatting all forms of inappropriate behaviour," she said.

"When there are breaches of the behavioural policies, actions are taken to ensure the safety of the campus community. Any inappropriate behaviours will be responded to so that they come to an end, the campus remains a safe space, and those individuals responsible are disciplined appropriately. Sexual harassment is not tolerated at the University of Manitoba."

FULL STATEMENT FROM U OF M

Read the full statement

"The University of Manitoba unequivocally condemns all forms of harassment and remains committed to building a culture of safety and respect.

When President Barnard apologized in September to anyone who had experienced inappropriate behaviour at the University of Manitoba, he shared with the community that there were more investigations ongoing. His apology was intended to make it easier for other people to come forward and share their stories.

Ours is a culture that encourages individuals to report inappropriate behaviour.

We cannot speak to specific investigations. Our attention to confidentiality is intended to protect all those involved in any investigation and also to maintain the integrity of the process. We are committed to a process that encourages individuals to come forward to raise concerns. We recognize that keeping confidential the details of the investigative process makes it difficult for the University to publicly explain its responses relative to specific allegations, but maintaining the integrity of the process is critical in the long-term to ensuring all allegations are dealt with effectively and, ultimately, to combatting all forms of inappropriate behaviour.

When there are breaches of the behavioural policies, actions are taken to ensure the safety of the campus community. Any inappropriate behaviours will be responded to so that they come to an end, the campus remains a safe space, and those individuals responsible are disciplined appropriately.

Sexual harassment is not tolerated at the University of Manitoba.

We recognize that responses in the past have not always met the standards we expect today. We are constantly reviewing and improving our policies and practices. Our review of current processes and practices, being conducted by respected legal experts, is well underway and should be completed soon.

The University of Manitoba is committed to working with the entire campus community to support a culture of safety and respect."

-Lynn Zapshala-Kelln, vice-president (administration) at the University of Manitoba

The U of M would not say Friday whether those actions included removing Jones from campus or putting him on administrative leave.

Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday and Friday.

Peter Eck, a former colleague, said he complained about Jones to senior management multiple times between 2010 and 2013.

"I was not very happy with students having sexual relationships with Peter Jones, being directly supervised by him, and then evaluated and graded," said Eck, an assistant professor in genetics.

Eck said the U of M knew about Jones' alleged misdeeds, but never stepped in -- except for one time in 2012, where officials requested he go on a temporary research leave as a disciplinary measure.

According to Jones' resumé, he was on a sabbatical for seven months that year. According to sources the Free Press spoke to, Jones never really left the university.

"They (the U of M) need him because he’s superficially connected to everything. They want him, but that’s what he abuses," Eck said. "So they shelter him very well and they all know the abuse.

"Don’t tell me deans don’t know. Don’t tell me vice-presidents don’t know. Of course (they know). They supervise it."

U of M professor Peter Eck.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

U of M professor Peter Eck.

Two new complainants came forward Friday.

One said Jones promised her tens of thousands of dollars in stipend money for her PhD research, then yanked the funding after she got to Canada.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears professional repercussions, is an international student. She came to U of M specifically because Jones recruited her to do research.

A couple months after her arrival in May, she said Jones told her the funding was no longer available and she should seek out a scholarship elsewhere.

"I felt really vulnerable," said the student, who had no family or friends living in Winnipeg. She sought therapy and legal advice at the University of Manitoba student advocacy office.

In a conversation with Jones, the student said she couldn't do her research without the RCFFN funding.

"This is going to be too much for me because I have to run these things and I have to find the money to do that. And he said, 'Welcome to my world,'" she said, describing the meeting.

"He doesn’t care. You feel like all the time you have to do whatever he wants, even if it doesn’t make sense. He has very unrealistic demands of you."

Another international student, who also asked to remain anonymous, said he came to RCFFN to conduct research, but he now wants to go home because the work environment is "not healthy." He's currently conducting a study that requires clinical participants.

"I have a really bad experience with (Jones). He’s demoralizing me and every time (something with the study goes wrong), he’s blaming me: 'It’s because of you the project is not working,'" the young man said.

The student said Jones repeatedly tells him his accent is what's turning people away from the study.

"There is no support from the centre, and I’m here by my own," the man said. "I have mental harassment. I started taking anti-depressants now. It’s getting worse."

Meridel Smith, a former RCFFN employee, lodged a 72-page formal complaint about Jones to the U of M human rights equity office in 2009. She previously approached the school's human resources department with concerns two years earlier.

Complainants come forward

Meridel Smith, a former Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals employee who reported directly to Peter Jones, called her two years at the centre “the worst career and life decision I have ever made.”

In a 72-page formal complaint, which she sent to a University of Manitoba equity office investigator in September 2009, Smith described a "toxic environment" at RCFFN, in which Jones' "incessant abuse of authority, power and confidences" eventually drove her to seek a medical leave of absence.

Meridel Smith, a former Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals employee who reported directly to Peter Jones, called her two years at the centre “the worst career and life decision I have ever made.”

In a 72-page formal complaint, which she sent to a University of Manitoba equity office investigator in September 2009, Smith described a "toxic environment" at RCFFN, in which Jones' "incessant abuse of authority, power and confidences" eventually drove her to seek a medical leave of absence.

Those abuses include sexual discrimination, violations of U of M policies about staff privacy, mismanagement of finances, and preferential treatment of certain students or employees with whom he had a close relationship.

In the complaint, Smith, who covered administrative, budgeting and HR tasks for RCFFN from January 2007 to January 2009, described a chaotic workplace in which Jones frequently intimidated staff to acquiesce to impulsive demands.

On several instances, Smith wrote, RCFFN administrative staff were pressured to hire certain students at pay rates far above their qualifications. She also detailed two instances where Jones appeared ready to hire candidates who were less than qualified because he liked the way they looked.

During an August 2007 round of hiring, “It was brutally clear on who should be hired, but P. Jones was insisting on the less-qualified person,” Smith wrote, adding: "He laughingly pointed out, candidate B would be well-liked by the study volunteers because she was very pretty and, '(T)hey would like to look at her.'”

On one occasion, Smith wrote she witnessed Jones laughing about giving an employee a poor job reference to another U of M department, apparently in an effort to prevent her from obtaining employment elsewhere.

Smith described routines where Jones would leave early to go sailing in Gimli, bringing select employees with him for paid time away. He would invite staff to leave early Fridays to go for drinks with him, Smith said; outings that were also paid.

Smith wrote about a July 2008 incident where an employee approached her to pay an invoice for $30,000 at Jones' advice, which was outside of her job’s scope. The amount was above $5,000 and needed to be filed through the university’s purchasing department, she said.

Smith said she explained she wasn't able to help, but Jones allegedly pressured her until the cheque was cut.

During her medical leave from October 2008 to January 2009, Smith wrote Jones got another employee to hack into her emails (who later admitted as much to her) within days of her departure. Jones had allegedly told the employee Smith would not be returning to work, though she was only on leave at the time.

Jones also allegedly disseminated Smith’s doctor's note to other staff, she said, violating the Personal Health Information Act.

“Placed in the identical situation, I would have outright refused to have knowledge of someone else’s passwords… and I would have fought 'tooth and nail' against anyone forcing me to obtain this information,” she wrote in her complaint.

Smith said she brought multiple concerns to the U of M human resources department, but wasn’t satisfied with its responses. She also alerted the U of M ombudsman, as well as associate vice-president of research Digvir Jayas.

Smith left her job at RCFFN in January 2009, shortly after returning from medical leave.

“It has taken many months for me to get to a point where I could file this complaint, where I have been able to write down all of the events that cause me such great distress and to be able to relive these on paper,” she wrote in her conclusion. “I respectfully ask the University of Manitoba to consider all matters contained in this letter with due seriousness and due diligence, and to act upon them accordingly.”

Smith was later told a U of M lawyer believed her complaint "would not really go anywhere."

It doesn’t appear the U of M followed-up on Smith’s concerns.

***

Julia Rempel doesn’t believe her encounters with Peter Jones were the most egregious she’s heard about her former boss, but said they bear repeating to prevent future misconduct.

“If the university had looked into the complaints at any point, or had a better system for victims to make formal complaints, that could have prevented the gross misuse of power, sexist treatment of women, and harassment in the past,” she said.

Jones allegedly propositioned Rempel when she was working as his subordinate in 2013.

Rempel said Jones asked her to accompany him on a work outing to a Hutterite colony one evening, and she agreed thinking others would be along for the ride. It wound up just being the pair of them.

Jones drove them approximately a half-hour outside Winnipeg and during their meeting at the colony, Rempel said he pulled out a bottle of scotch.

Rempel alleged he drank, then drove them back into the city. She said he then asked her to go for dinner at a restaurant.

“The more he drinks, the more he gets inappropriate,” Rempel said. “He starts to comment on my looks, my job, telling me I’m very pretty, very smart.”

Rempel, who was in her early 20s at the time, said she was getting uncomfortable and believed Jones "was quite drunk at this point.”

Jones allegedly suggested they could become a “nutrition power couple,” something she had heard he previously told other women.

Rempel said she tried to get Jones to call a taxi and go home, but he refused. She did not want him driving drunk, so she took his car, drove to her place, and planned to find him a cab from there.

“I never invited him inside, because I didn’t want him to (be there), and that’s when he starts saying more mention of things such as, ‘He doesn’t believe in monogamy.’ That’s when he tried to lean forward to kiss me," she said.

Rempel said she told Jones to leave, went inside and left him on the porch. She began group-texting her friends who also worked at RCFFN and called one of them for help.

Jones wound up passing out on her front porch, Rempel said, and her friend's husband came to get him.

The next day at work, Rempel alerted human resources about Jones’ behaviour, then later met with them for more discussion.

Rempel ultimately didn’t file a formal complaint because she worried about losing her job. She lamented Jones was so well-connected in the nutrition community complaining about him could affect her career.

“I was put in a very difficult situation because at that time… I had recently purchased a house, I was single and by myself. (Jones) is known for laying people off or firing (people). You don’t have job security at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods,” she said.

A U of M human resources representative suggested Rempel speak with the school’s human rights and equity advisor.

“Even if no official complaint is made, it would be useful for her to speak with you; it might help prevent any future incidents from happening,” the representative wrote to Rempel in an email provided to the Free Press.

Rempel said she didn’t meet with the advisor and it appears her informal complaint didn’t have any ripple effect.

In the weeks following, Jones appears to have kept emailing Rempel, asking to follow-up on their discussion from that night.

“We discussed such a vast array of issues over the duration of the conversation (some of which were sensitive and kind of emotional), that I thought it not unreasonable to consolidate some of the outcomes and conclusions drawn from that discourse,” Jones allegedly wrote in an email dated Aug. 9, 2013.

Rempel had told him she felt his behaviour was inappropriate.

“I guess it is fair to deem that inappropriate, but I wanted to let you know that the suggestion was made only with very best of intentions. Particularly in enabling you to meet the career goals you have set if I can assist in any way,” Jones allegedly wrote, concluding with: “Hoping you have… a really great weekend without any encountering strangers passing out on your front porch.”

That winter, Rempel took a medical leave due to work-related stress. She was laid off in 2015.

By December 2013, a university HR representative had emailed Rempel again, encouraging her to speak to the human rights office, as the school had “received information from another complainant about Dr. Jones and they would really like to be able to have this information confirmed by someone else."

***

After Peter Eck told his superiors his co-worker, Peter Jones, was sleeping with students, Eck was demoted.

“I was not very happy with students having sexual relationships with Peter Jones, being directly supervised by him, and then evaluated and graded,” said Eck, now an assistant professor in genetics at the U of M.

Eck alleged Jones was not disclosing his relationships to the university's higher-ups.

During a work conference in 2010, Eck said Jones invited him to have a threesome with one of his graduate students. He declined.

“Sleeping with students is not just frowned upon. In many U.S. institutions, they’ve got laws restricting it. People can get fired,” Eck said, referring to Harvard University as an example. “I was shocked I had raised all these issues (with U of M) and it went nowhere.”

Eck said he brought up Jones’ behaviour with multiple managers between 2010 and 2013, including his department head, Jim House, head of human ecology Gustaaf Sevenhuisen, dean of graduate studies Jay Doering (who is now the associate vice-president of partnerships), and vice-president of research and international Digvir Jayas.

After speaking out, he lost his role as Canada Research Chair in nutrigenomics. Though he can’t trace a direct line from losing that job to his disputes with Jones, Eck said he suspects his complaints to management affected his gig.

Eck believes weak workplace policies at the U of M about relationships between staff and students helped shield Jones.

“Everything (Jones) did, he can do. It’s so vague in our institutions at the University of Manitoba that he can do it,” Eck said. "Everybody knows what’s happening, but nobody talks about it.”

Eck moved his lab and office out of the RCFFN in early 2014.

Since his departure, Eck said RCFFN students have been approaching him with more stories about run-ins with Jones. Some of those students began seeking legal advice.

Eck insisted the university should hire an external investigator or ombudsman to handle the many complaints because investigating internally has so far produced no results.

Smith detailed several incidents where she said Jones bullied staff, picked favourites, and didn't follow U of M policy when it came to handling money.

In one circumstance, Jones allegedly asked her to pay an invoice for $30,000, which she said was outside of her job description and needed to be filed through the school's purchasing department. Smith said Jones kept pressuring her until she cut the cheque.

Smith eventually sought a medical leave of absence in October 2008, and left work at RCFFN in January 2009.

"P. Jones’ incessant abuse of authority, power, and confidences eventually drove me to seek medical attention and counselling for several months in order to deal with the debilitating effects of his action," Smith wrote in her 2009 complaint.

"I respectfully ask the University of Manitoba to consider all matters contained in this letter with due seriousness and due diligence, and to act upon them accordingly."

In her statement, Zapshala-Kelln acknowledged the school had historically mishandled complaints.

"We recognize that responses in the past have not always met the standards we expect today. We are constantly reviewing and improving our policies and practices," she said. "Our review of current processes and practices, being conducted by respected legal experts, is well underway and should be completed soon."

Peter Jones in 2011.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Peter Jones in 2011.

Three of the sources the Free Press spoke to said they have been contacted by a law firm conducting an investigation on behalf of the U of M. The lawyer asked to schedule meetings with them this month.

Julia Rempel, another former student and employee at RCFFN, lodged an informal complaint about Jones to the U of M human resources department in 2013.

She didn't create a formal complaint in writing, because she worried it might jeopardize her career since Jones is so well-connected in the nutrition community, which she hoped to work in.

"I am speaking openly now as I hope I can contribute to help prevent these actions from him, or other professors in positions of power, in the future," Rempel said in an interview.

In 2013, she alleged Jones propositioned her about becoming a "nutrition power couple" and tried to kiss her during an evening outing for work. Rempel was not interested. She said Jones was so intoxicated that same night that he passed out on her porch.

Rempel and others the Free Press spoke to have long been frustrated by the U of M's alleged protection of Jones.

"In my opinion, it’s because his face was on the front page of the U of M website, at one point. He brings in a lot of money -- a lot of money -- for the U of M and that’s why I think they haven’t done anything," Rempel said.

After being the subject of at least three complaints from students and staff, Jones was awarded the school's prestigious distinction of "distinguished professor" in 2016.

He's one of 21 such honorees in the school’s history "who have demonstrated outstanding distinction in research, scholarship, creative endeavours, professional service and teaching," according to a description on the school’s website.

Before coming to U of M, Jones, who is from Vancouver, was a professor at McGill University, Université Lyon and University of British Columbia. He is currently the Canada Research Chair in nutrition and functional foods.

In an article announcing his designation as distinguished professor, UM Today referred to Jones as a "trailblazer" who is "recognized for his innovative work."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Monday, December 10, 2018 at 6:28 PM CST: Updates story.

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