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Female MLAs speak out against toxic culture in their workplace while province releases harassment stats

<p>Minister for the Status of Women Rochelle Squires, foreground, was one of six female PC MLAs to refute allegations that the Premier was threatening or intimidating opposition MLAs in the house, Tuesday. </p>

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Minister for the Status of Women Rochelle Squires, foreground, was one of six female PC MLAs to refute allegations that the Premier was threatening or intimidating opposition MLAs in the house, Tuesday.

On the same day the provincial government released grim statistics about workplace harassment in the civil service, female MLAs from every party spoke out about what they feel is a culture of toxicity and intimidation in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba.

First, the province unveiled data showing hundreds of investigations and allegations were brought forth by members of the civil service and government political staff in the last fiscal year.

There were 378 internal investigations on 476 allegations, some of which are ongoing.

Of the investigations, 12 had to do with sexual harassment, 80 involved harassment or bullying, and 286 were related to other forms of misconduct, which could include conflicts of interest or fraud.

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On the same day the provincial government released grim statistics about workplace harassment in the civil service, female MLAs from every party spoke out about what they feel is a culture of toxicity and intimidation in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba.

First, the province unveiled data showing hundreds of investigations and allegations were brought forth by members of the civil service and government political staff in the last fiscal year.

There were 378 internal investigations on 476 allegations, some of which are ongoing.

Of the investigations, 12 had to do with sexual harassment, 80 involved harassment or bullying, and 286 were related to other forms of misconduct, which could include conflicts of interest or fraud.

Most of the allegations were found to be substantiated, including seven of sexual harassment.

The province couldn't say Tuesday how many perpetrators were connected to the sexual-harassment claims or whether anyone had been fired or demoted as a result.

Premier Brian Pallister and Status of Women Minister Rochelle Squires addressed the numbers, which were released by government for the first time and will be publicized annually.

"For me, it was very bittersweet to read this report and to know that harassment and bullying and sexual harassment is as prevalent in our workforce as it is," Squires said. "However, it was also gratifying to know that people trust our government to come forward.

"They trust the process. We know that there has been a culture of secrecy in the past."

Pallister said he wants every parent in Manitoba to feel their children are safe working at the legislature.

He also added there's been a slight uptick in reports of harassment, bullying or misconduct since the province initiated its strategy for dealing with allegations in February.

"We do expect there will be an uptick, because the promotion of that ‘no wrong door’ approach is going to give civil servants confidence that there will be no reprisals and that they can report. And that’s a healthy thing, that’s a good thing," the premier said.

After Squires rose to answer a question about the stats in the house Tuesday afternoon, opposition MLAs began questioning the "no wrong door" policy, starting with Judy Klassen.

The Liberal MLA for Kewatinook said she told Squires during a briefing meeting in May she felt intimidated by the premier in the chamber.

"I found it so frustrating that this minister was talking about all the great things that she’s doing supposedly under the Status of Women (department), and here, I had tried coming to her specifically in a Bill 29 briefing where I thought I could confide in her. It was the perfect time, I felt, and instead I was just shot down," Klassen said.

Klassen told reporters she feels threatened by Pallister when he answers her questions, saying he sometimes stares at her with "a complete hostile face."

Liberal MLA Judy Klassen, left, and NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine were among the opposition MLAs who voiced concerns about feeling threatened by the Premier while sitting in the house.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Liberal MLA Judy Klassen, left, and NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine were among the opposition MLAs who voiced concerns about feeling threatened by the Premier while sitting in the house.

"If you would ever see it, it just makes you feel like you’re an inch tall, and it’s very demeaning. I find it totally intimidating and I feel threatened when he does that," she said.

Other NDP MLAs — Nahanni Fontaine, Bernadette Smith, Flor Marcelino and Amanda Lathlin — stood behind Klassen, saying they've felt similarly intimidated by members of the PC caucus.

Fontaine said Pallister's comments and tone of voice can be intimidating and she's felt personally attacked by the premier since the house was recalled for an extended spring seating.

"I left the chamber on Thursday crying. We’re just trying to do our jobs as legislators. And so I think the material point is where can we go to feel that our concerns are being taken seriously?" she said.

"Ever since we’ve been.... recalled back to session, it’s been, every day, personal attacks on myself. And you just sit there and you just take it."

After the opposition MLAs spoke to media, six female MLAs from the PC camp gathered to refute allegations against the premier.

"This is the very day that minister Squires and our premier announced the results of a report that was out on harassment in the workforce here in the civil service. So we’re a little skeptical about the timing of this and them coming out with what they did today," said deputy premier Heather Stefanson.

Squires said the legislature has had "a toxic culture in this building for many, many years, particularly for women," and she often feels intimidated when standing up to address the house. However, she said, accusations against Pallister being threatening toward female MLAs are unfounded.

"(The premier) has a long history of defending and standing up for women, and so I categorically deny any allegations that he would intimidate, harass or bully women in the chamber," Squires said.

"I would also like to point out that our premier has never been accused of hitting his intimate partner," she added, referring to domestic-violence allegations previously cast against NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

The Crown stayed two charges of assault against Kinew in 2004.

Speaker Myrna Driedger addressed behaviour concerns towards the end of question period Tuesday. She said a draft policy about workplace safety in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba has been given to all MLAs and she welcomes their feedback.

Driedger mused a code of conduct may be the next necessary step for the chamber, though heckling has been scaled back in recent years.

"We’ve also come a long way, but we are in 2018, and we do need to look at maybe redefining what our workplaces look like," she said. "Speakers from across Canada are starting to have more discussions about what is the level of heckling that should be allowed in the chamber."

Still, Pallister said, "The conduct in this legislative assembly has been, until recent days, better than I’ve seen in any legislative assembly or in the House of Commons in my 20-plus years of being involved in politics.

"It’s been more considerate, it’s been more reasoned, it’s been far less vocal. I would say the Speaker deserves a lot of credit for that, and I think the members of the chamber do as well," the premier said.

"Today, I would say, was an expression of frustration. It’s a place that isn’t absent frustration for all of us, but in terms of the accusations that were made today, I’m sorry but I can’t give them any substance, and my record speaks to that."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski
Legislature reporter

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Updated on Tuesday, June 12, 2018 at 7:34 PM CDT: Adds photos

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