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PETER Nygard often said he was proud of his roots in Finland. But some members of Winnipeg’s Finnish community were not so proud of Nygard.

A Finnish-Canadian woman from the Winnipeg area — whose family visited Nygard’s Falcon Lake cottage when she was a child — told the Free Press recent sexual assault allegations against Nygard come as no surprise to Finnish people in Winnipeg. Another Finnish-Canadian woman, who worked for him, said the same.

The first woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said her father worked "very closely" with Nygard at his company for more than 20 years and he set a strict rule for her not to go near Nygard as a young child.

"He is a very bad man with women and you need to stay away from him, promise me that," she remembers her father saying.

The woman said she and Nygard’s families spent "quite a bit" of time together and she remembers playing with his kids at his cottage. Nygard has fathered seven children with four women.

"I’ve known for decades that this has been going on," she said about the allegations.

Nygard has repeatedly told how he emigrated from Finland with his parents when he was 11 years old, settling at first in Deloraine. The Winnipeg-based fashion mogul now faces allegations of sexual assault, human trafficking and rape, some brought forward by women alleged to be underage at the time of the offences and some dating back to the 1980s. In 1980, Nygard was charged with rape in Winnipeg but the charge was later stayed when the 18-year-old woman refused to testify.

Nygard, through his lawyer, has vigorously denied all accusations of sexual assault.

"I think it’s been a well-known thing and I personally know some family friends have been threatened by him when they speak out against him," the first woman said. "So people have been afraid."

She said she knows several women who came to Winnipeg from Finland to work for Nygard. "Nobody ever lasted too long," she added.

The second woman, who also asked for anonymity, told the Free Press she came from Finland to work for Nygard in 1980 and worked at the company for 18 months. 

She said he advertised a "once in a lifetime opportunity" in a Finnish newspaper, but when she started her job as a pattern maker, she was not paid the money she was promised and had to work 16-hour days without being paid overtime. "I wasn’t used to somebody using me like a slave," she said.

Nygard has been accused of abusive labour practices over the years and in 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered him to back-pay one of his employees more than $10,000 of unpaid overtime.

The woman also said she remembers Nygard making "stupid" jokes and that she heard stories of him acting inappropriately.

"He was kind of a womanizer," she said. "He liked to use women."

She said many Finnish women are happy the recent allegations have come out.

city.desk@freepress.mb.ca