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Two women who have accused Stan Struthers of sexual misconduct are frustrated because they say Wab Kinew and Greg Selinger are putting their personal political dispute ahead of the harassment allegations.
Joelle Saltel-Allard and Shannon VanRaes want Selinger to resign as MLA for St. Boniface, but said Kinew’s demand that Selinger quit his seat is creating a distraction.
"When powerful men choose to debate the nuances of plausible deniability, rather than accept they are both the architects and groundskeepers of structural imbalances, it only serves to further marginalize women who speak out," VanRaes told the Free Press Thursday.
Saltel-Allard said that, "I’m frustrated that we’re even talking about Greg Selinger vs. Wab Kinew, about the NDPs problems past and present, instead of talking about sexual misconduct and how I and others were treated as female NDP staffers."
The former NDP communications staffers went public a week ago, alleging they were inappropriately touched by Struthers, then a cabinet minister, and ignored by the party’s top brass.
On Tuesday, NDP Leader Kinew asked Selinger to resign his seat over what had happened under the watch of the former premier and his predecessor, Gary Doer. Selinger refused to go, called a news conference, and said he would meet with his riding association to discuss what he called "a transition process" for his exit from politics. But he refused to provide any timelines.
VanRaes said she got a call from Selinger Thursday morning.
"Wab Kinew has not reached out to me, but I did speak with Greg Selinger by phone this morning. My position is that Mr. Selinger should resign," she said Thursday afternoon. "That someone could have worked with Stan Struthers for any period of time and been unaware of his proclivities defies belief."
Saltel-Allard also wants Selinger to go.
"I think that Greg’s actions are a distraction. I’ve said from the beginning that I want them not just to talk the talk, but walk the walk. Greg’s resignation would have been walking the walk," she said Thursday.
"I haven’t spoken to Wab, but Selinger did reach out to me and apologized," said Saltel-Allard. "He sent an email, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to speak to him directly. He also reached out through (her husband) Matt."
Selinger and Kinew were both silent again Thursday. Selinger won’t say when he’ll meet with his riding association to discuss his next move, and Kinew won’t say when the caucus will meet to discuss what to do with Selinger.
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The provincial party has refused to give interviews on the infighting, but it did tell its members online Thursday that progress is being made on Kinew’s plans to create a commission headed by women to investigate sexual harassment within the party and legislature.
Saltel-Allard says she’s lost count of the times Struthers touched her inappropriately when she was his press secretary from 2009 to 2011.
VanRaes says the ex-cabinet minister put his hand under her skirt and tried to grope her while the two were the sole passengers on a small plane flying to and from northern Manitoba for a government event. She says Struthers also tried pulling her foot towards his crotch in a separate incident.
VanRaes went to her boss Jay Branch, then head of cabinet communications, who took it to chief of staff Michael Balagus, only to bring back orders that VanRaes was to ‘suck it up.’
Balagus has denied ever being told about any complaints, but last Friday was placed on indefinite leave as chief of staff and election campaign chair by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who was ‘shocked’ to hear that women said Balagus ignored their complaints. Branch has not responded to numerous interview requests.
NDP forming commission
The provincial NDP executive is looking for two women with no history of working in the legislature to form a commission to hear stories of sexual harassment in the political workplace.
“The idea is for people to have an opportunity to tell their stories, a safe place,” executive member Chantel Bage said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “Names are being looked at right now.”
Details are still vague, said Bage, and it’s unclear when the commission will be reporting back to Leader Wab Kinew. There will be an update at the party’s convention in Brandon in early May, but it’s doubtful the commissioners will have finished by then, she said.
The NDP designated Bage to give an interview Thursday on the process of forming a commission — and only on that topic.
“My understanding is it’s only going to be two commissioners,” with no support staff and no recordings, although the commissioners will take notes, Bage said. “A neutral ground may make people feel more comfortable.”
And people who come forward will decide for themselves if they’ll remain anonymous when the commissioners’ report is released, she said.
There’s no decision yet if the women will be party members or non-members, nor are there particular criteria for being a commissioner, except that “they weren’t in the legislature at any point in time” as an MLA or staff, she said.
The NDP executive has not decided if commissioners will be paid or expected to volunteer, or if they’ll travel outside of Winnipeg. Many people who worked for the NDP during its 17 years in power have moved to other provinces.
“It may be voluntary, we may pay,” but there won’t be a significant budget, Bage said. “We want to be sure we get the right people to put forward.”