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The sexual harassment allegations against former Manitoba cabinet minister Stan Struthers show the NDP deserved to lose the 2016 election, party Leader Wab Kinew said Thursday.
"I am very disappointed with the NDP. We are supposed to be the party that protects the vulnerable," Kinew told reporters. "Our party deserved to lose the last election. We lost sight of what was right.
"It was a failure of leadership," Kinew said.
He made the comments after five women accused the former finance minister of inappropriate and unwanted touching while he served in the NDP government that lost power in 2016. They say party brass told them to "suck it up" and took no action.
Another allegation against Struthers hit the media after Kinew spoke to reporters. A former government employee said that in 2010, when Struthers was agriculture minister, he groped her and made sexual overtures while they were on a flight.
In addition, a former NDP cabinet minister, who didn’t want to be identified, told the Free Press late Thursday that Struthers touched her without her permission, and that he was crafty about it.
"I didn’t even know he was doing it to other people," she said. "I only found out when I was going to an announcement with him, and a person said… ‘I won’t let you get into a vehicle with him.’ She said everyone knows about what he does, and I said ‘Oh, I’m not the only one.’"
The five women told CBC that Struthers harassed them from 2010 to 2015. The repeated complaint against Struthers is that he would tickle the women — he was secretly nicknamed "Minister Tickles" by staff — sometimes in front of others.
One of the five accusers said the behaviour included putting his hand on her leg and talking about sex acts.
Kinew said he had not spoken to the women or to Struthers.
He said he would immediately appoint a commission — "led by women, people who are beyond reproach" — to investigate the allegations and to make recommendations on policy changes about sexual harassment within the party and legislature. The recommendations would be made public, he vowed.
"I am the leader of the Manitoba NDP now — the buck stops with me. The old politics are dead; doing the right thing should always come before politics," he said.
"Until you’re comfortable sending your daughter or sister to work with us, I will not be fit to be premier," said Kinew, who last fall adamantly denied allegations of domestic abuse in 2003 made by a former partner; the Crown stayed two assault charges stemming from the alleged incident.
Kinew has acknowledged a troubled past that included writing misogynistic and homophobic rap lyrics and social media posts. He has received pardons for convictions of impaired driving and assault.
He was a member of the NDP caucus that suspended former cabinet minister Mohinder Saran in December 2016 — and expelled him a month later — after a staff member alleged he’d verbally sexually harrassed her. Saran, who denied the allegations, apologized and took sensitivity training. He continues to sit as an independent MLA for the Maples.
Kinew said he believes the accusations against Struthers.
"I don’t doubt the veracity of anything reported so far," he said. "There was a cult of looking the other way, a permissiveness."
He said while he would like to speak with the women who’ve come forward, he knows they’re aware of his own past and understands they may not be comfortable talking to him.
"I want to acknowledge that I’m not a perfect ally. I’ve learned a lot," he said, adding he hopes they’ll participate in the party commission, which will conduct its proceedings in private.
The NDP leader said a woman went to him Thursday morning with allegations of incidents within the party. He did not provide any details that might identify her, and would not say if her allegations involve Struthers.
"She said, ‘If the party acted when these were first known, maybe I wouldn’t have experienced what I experienced,’" he said.
Kinew said he wants to talk to Greg Selinger, who was premier at the time of Struthers’ alleged actions. Selinger, who remains MLA for St. Boniface, is reportedly on vacation. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Kinew said he was speaking broadly about failures of leadership and doesn’t blame Selinger personally.
NDP press secretary Rorie Mcleod-Arnould later clarified that Kinew’s chief of staff Liam Martin, who held that job under Selinger, was not involved in handling the allegations during his time in government.
The party leadership did not respond to an interview request.
The former cabinet minister, who came forward Thursday after media reports about Struthers, explained why she didn’t speak up at the time.
"I didn’t feel safe. He started doing things to me when I was first elected.
"I didn’t know he was doing it to anyone else. He was very proficient.
"You don’t feel like you can say anything when you’re a backbencher but then you’re a cabinet minister and you still can’t say anything."
The original five accusers include Joëlle Saltel-Allard, who worked for Struthers as his press secretary from 2009 to 2011.
Saltel-Allard saidt Struthers used to touch and tickle her. She said he put his hand on her knee during a car ride and talked about sex.
She said he was called "Minister Tickles" by all the staff, because of his inappropriate tickling behavior.
"It happened to me so many time it is hard to remember," Saltel-Allard said.
She said she complained to a supervisor.
"What I’m really concerned about is the process and how it failed me. This was the party that said it stood up for women but they didn’t support me."
Saltel-Allard said that since she went public Thursday morning, at least a dozen women had messaged her saying they also had been victims of inappropriate behavior by Struthers.
Another complainant, community activist Karen Peters, sat on the Manitoba Round Table for Sustainable Development when Struthers was conservation minister from 2003 to 2009. Peters said Struthers’ actions were "about power" and an invasion of personal space.
Struthers issued an apology on Wednesday: "This week I learned of incidents in which my behaviour made former colleagues and staff feel disrespected. I am sorry. I apologize for any interactions I have had that have been inappropriate and that have caused any person to feel disrespected or uncomfortable."
One veteran New Democrat who asked not to be identified confirmed that she received such attention from Struthers, but it didn’t bother her.
"He always treated me with dignity and the utmost respect," she said. "Did he ever tickle me or hug me? Yes. Did I ever feel violated by it in any way? Never. Not once.
"I think he must be very shaken by these allegations. I appreciated his apology to the women who are speaking about him."
NDP MLA and former acting leader Flor Marcelino said Struthers never said or did anything inappropriate to her, but "I did hear the buzz that he was a guy who was fond of touching others in the course of informal conversations.
"I noticed that he was friendlier than other male colleagues when on (a) few occasions he patted me on the shoulder or arms, or even did briefly a back massage as his way of greetings or starting a light conversation. I just dismissed it as him just being friendly as I noticed him doing it to some male colleagues as well.
Former NDP cabinet minister Christine Melnick said she was approached by a woman in the bureaucracy who reported Struthers’ inappropriate behaviour. She said she offered to support the woman if she filed a complaint; she said Thursday she doesn’t know what happened beyond that conversation.
A woman who worked for the NDP government said there were rumours that young female staffers were especially concerned about being alone with Struthers, but she had no first-hand knowledge.
"I was always treated with the utmost respect by Stan, and by MLAs of all parties," said the woman, who requested anonymity.
Theresa Oswald, a member of the "Gang of Five" cabinet ministers — which included Struthers — who resigned in a revolt against Selinger’s leadership in 2014, declined to comment.
"I have just started in a new role here at Doctors Manitoba, and one of my challenges is to ensure my members feel confident that I am out of the political arena now, and working hard for them," said Oswald, who was unsuccessful in her bid for the party’s leadership months after the revolt and left politics.
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"Consequently, when I am asked to comment on any political issues… I am politely declining."
Andrew Swan, Erin Selby and Jennifer Howard also participated in the revolt. Neither Howard nor former minister Nancy Allan responded to interview requests.
A former longtime NDP staffer, Rachel Morgan, said she had heard rumours about improper behaviour.
"I feel awful that people were suffering, without being able to address it," said Morgan. "I heard rumours some women didn’t want to be alone with Stan.
"One assumes there are avenues for reports about inappropriate behaviour."
— with files from Kevin Rollason and The Canadian Press
Kevin Rollason Reporter
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
"Under the province’s Respectful Workplace Policy, every employee is entitled to work in an environment that is respectful and free of all forms of harassment, including sexual harassment. We want to create an environment where survivors feel comfortable coming forward.
Any complaint our government receives will be taken seriously and followed up on. When an allegation is made, an investigation is initiated. As a result of the investigation, action may be taken against the perpetrator. Action taken is within the confines of the employer-employee relationship, and can include various discipline, including dismissal.
The policies that guide legislative staff and elected officials are currently under review by the speaker’s office to ensure they are comprehensive enough.
Former staff is able to make complaints about current or former employees. Government would launch an appropriate investigation and take action depending on the circumstances, such as a note to file, a letter to the former employee or a referral for possible legal action.
— Rochelle Squires, Manitoba Minister Responsible for the Status of Women