September 20, 2019

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U of M investigators appear overwhelmed by harassment, rights complaints

On the heels of the retirement of a star U of M professor who was the subject of at least three staff and student's complaints during his tenure, a Free Press analysis of data contained in annual reports shows a mountain of harassment and human rights concerns being handled by only a handful of staff.

There were at least 5,577 contacts with the University of Manitoba's human rights and conflict management office in the past six fiscal years, leading to 334 informal and 71 formal complaints overseen by a department that currently includes just four employees.

University of Manitoba spokesman John Danakas said the school is working on its next budget, which is set to go before the school's board of governors for approval at the end of the month.

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On the heels of the retirement of a star U of M professor who was the subject of at least three staff and student's complaints during his tenure, a Free Press analysis of data contained in annual reports shows a mountain of harassment and human rights concerns being handled by only a handful of staff.

There were at least 5,577 contacts with the University of Manitoba's human rights and conflict management office in the past six fiscal years, leading to 334 informal and 71 formal complaints overseen by a department that currently includes just four employees.

University of Manitoba spokesman John Danakas said the school is working on its next budget, which is set to go before the school's board of governors for approval at the end of the month.

 

"The University of Manitoba recognizes the need to direct resources in areas that deal with sexual violence, and recent budgets have reflected this focus with increased funding for additional Respectful Work and Learning Environment staff and additional counselling supports, including a specialized counsellor from Klinic Community Health," he said by email.

"The University intends to continue to increase funding in sexual violence supports."

Danakas could not provide any more specifics about an investigation into allegations of sexual and financial misconduct involving Peter Jones, the founding director of the Richardson Centre for for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals.

The school launched an internal investigation about Jones in December after the publication of a Free Press story outlining details of three whistleblowers' concerns, which had apparently been ignored by U of M for more than a decade.

Jones announced his retirement this week, according to the university. He did not return a request for comment.

Danakas could not say whether the U of M's investigation about Jones was completed, citing confidentiality rules. He also couldn't discuss any details of Jones' departure, such as possible pension packages he might receive or whether any non-disclosure agreements were signed.

"The university's investigation process is kept private and confidential to protect the integrity of the process," Danakas said by phone, adding: "If matters enter into other processes, like a criminal process, then the appropriate measures are taken in terms of sharing information as appropriate."

Winnipeg police said they could not comment on whether any investigations related to U of M staff or faculty are ongoing, noting they will only publicize such investigations if charges are laid.

Meantime, students and staff at the Richardson Centre are left wondering if they will ever get any answers about what came of the Jones investigation.

"There is no happy ending," said Peter Eck, a U of M associate professor in the Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, who complained to senior administration about Jones several times.

"Unfortunately retirement was an option, I guess. But it would be very nice to see a report at one point, and I hope the retirement doesn’t preclude or mean that there will be no report pursued," he said.

"Because don’t we want to learn about what went wrong and don’t we want to improve our culture to do the right thing next time? I don’t think without a report we can do it."

Peter Jones

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Peter Jones

According to its annual reports, the U of M's human rights and conflict management office handled hundreds of formal and informal complaints from students and staff in the past six years, most pertaining to personal harassment.

Formal complaints are supposed to be written down within a year of an alleged incident happening (though some exceptions are made) or if the issues can't be resolved informally.

Informal complaints are handled "through conflict management coaching, conciliation, mediation and/or education," according to the office's latest report.

Between 2012 and 2018, there were at least 218 personal harassment complaints and 107 human rights complaints fielded by U of M staff. As for sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints, the numbers are harder to parse.

Up until the 2016-17 fiscal year, sexual assault complaints were handled under the same umbrella as sexual harassment, making it difficult to tell how many assaults were alleged.

From 2016 to 2018, there were 16 sexual assaults complaints (11 informal and 5 formal) brought to the human rights' office. From 2012 to 2018, there were 52 sexual harassment complaints (44 informal and 8 formal).

The office's annual reports differ in how they count the numbers of complaints, investigations launched and breaches of respectful workplace policies, among other categories. The 2015-16 annual report in particular does not provide the numbers of contacts with the office, nor the number of cases closed, referring instead to percentages and trend lines year over year.

Since 2012, it appears at least nine complaints fielded by the human rights office were found to have breached the school's respectful workplace policy, while at least 14 more didn't pass muster upon investigation.

Asked whether the school's human rights office might need more bodies, Eck said he wasn't sure.

"It could very well be or maybe they’ve got the wrong bodies listening to the wrong people," he said.

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski
Legislature reporter

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

Read full biography

History

Updated on Friday, May 10, 2019 at 7:28 PM CDT: Updates story

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