Fact check: Manitoba MLA behaviour under the microscope after harassment allegations

Intimidating glares, disparaging comments and finger-pointing.

Culture of intimidation cited by provincial parties

On Tuesday, six female Progressive Conservative MLAs defended Premier Brian Pallister over allegations he is contributing to a toxic environment in the Manitoba Legislature. (CBC)

Intimidating glares, disparaging comments and finger-pointing.

Accusations of untoward conduct by MLAs in the Manitoba Legislature have become public after barbs were traded in competing news conferences on Tuesday. 

The complaints were levelled just hours after the provincial government released for the first time statistics on the number of complaints related to harassment, bullying and misconduct experienced by government employees.

After question period Tuesday, several female NDP MLAs and Liberal MLA Judy Klassen denounced what they described as the toxic environment in the legislature and levelled much of the blame at Premier Brian Pallister.

"We strongly believe that the tone must be set at the top and it is incumbent on the premier to ensure the concerns of myself and other members are treated properly and seriously," NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine said.

Liberal MLA Judy Klassen and NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine described a culture of intimidation in the Manitoba Legislature at a Tuesday media conference. (CBC)

In response, several women from the Tory caucus made accusations against members from other parties.

Deputy premier Heather Stefanson said the claims of harassment, bullying and intimidation against Pallister are false.

"I will tell you that those are very serious allegations put forward by the member for St. Johns," she said, referring to Fontaine in particular, "and so if she has the proof of that, we ask her to come forward with that proof."

CBC News has attempted to fact-check the various allegations.

Harassment alleged on International Women's Day

The claim:

Fontaine — joined by Klassen and her NDP colleagues Bernadette Smith, Flor Marcelino and Amanda Lathlin — said they have each tried to address complaints of bullying, intimidation and harassing behaviours by members of the PC caucus, specifically Pallister.

CBC asked the New Democratic Party for specific examples.

A party official said in an email that Fontaine mentioned harassment in the chamber on March 8 — International Women's Day. She referred then to belittling behaviours such as a male MLA staring at and yelling at a female MLA, or one MLA remarking in front of others that "I hope she gets everything out" while a female MLA was in the washroom.

Pallister called her out a few days later, on March 12, for "smearing and tarnishing the reputations of all in this chamber by innuendo."

Fact-check:

The Pallister government did not respond to questions Wednesday about the allegations. It has not been confirmed if these concerns were privately brought up with government.

Fontaine also took issue with Pallister addressing MLAs directly during question period as opposed to addressing the Speaker, as MLAs are supposed to do, she said on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, PC female MLAs said members of other parties are looking elsewhere when answering questions as well.

The House rules are clear: "Every member desiring to speak shall rise in his or her place and address himself or herself to the Speaker."

Premier 'intimidating': Klassen

The claim:

Klassen, among the most pointed critics of Pallister's behaviour, alleges the premier stares her down in a "hostile" manner, which she says gives her a "knot in her stomach."

"It just makes you feel that you're an inch tall and it's very demeaning," she said. "I find it totally intimidating and I feel threatened when he does that."

Klassen says Pallister 'intimidates' her 1:45

She says she presented her concerns to Rochelle Squires, Manitoba's minister for the status of women, under the impression she could confide in her.

Klassen said she was dismissed by Squires.

The conversation took place in private after a briefing meeting, Klassen said.

Fact-check:

When asked about Klassen's recollection, Squires explained that she took exception to an earlier comment by Klassen that criticized conservation officers.

The exchange in the legislature happened on May 17. Klassen said "conservation officers always treat our [Indigenous] hunters like we're the enemy, as if we're nothing but rampant poachers."

Pallister said Klassen's charge was disrespectful (see the video above for his comments).

In their private meeting, Klassen told Squires that she didn't appreciate the premier's response to her comment.

Klassen says she came to Status of Women Minister about hunting bill; Squires fires back 1:48

"I'm sorry, but if the member opposite feels that it is being bullied to be asked not to cast aspersions against the civil service, well, I take great offence to that," Squires said Tuesday (see the video above).

"Instead of hearing me and examining the issue and proposing solutions, Minister Squires also went on the attack, attempting to shame me for 'painting an entire group with one brush' … without examining this very important issue that my constituents bring up with my office often," Klassen said in a statement emailed to CBC News on Wdnesday. 

Squires accuses Altemeyer of heckling

The claim:

When female PC MLAs met reporters Tuesday, ​Squires offered her own example of heckling she says she faced.

She alleged that NDP MLA Rob Altemeyer said "smirkingly that he enjoyed watching me as his friends jeered from the sidelines. I felt like saying to him, this is not [the strip club] Teasers and I am not here for your visual pleasure."

In response, the NDP said Wednesday that Altemeyer's actions do not constitute harassment.

Fact-check:

During an exchange over greenhouse gas emissions, the official transcript from May 31 shows Squires accusing the NDP of "empty moralizing" by demanding action on the environment when they did nothing while in power.

"Oh, that's funny. The minister is fun to watch. I will give her that," Altemeyer said in reply. "She's never shy to take a whole range of facts which I just put on the record, ignore them completely and try and change the channel."

Fontaine said Squires was misrepresenting Altemeyer's words.

"Her attempt to twist for partisan purposes the comments of Rob Altemeyer do not merit a response," a statement from Fontaine reads.

Squires also claimed that the NDP's Bernadette Smith repeatedly points her finger at her and calls her out, but she didn't describe it as bullying.

"That is the culture of the legislature."

Code of conduct mulled 

Speaker Myrna Driedger, who is conducting a review of the decorum in the legislative assembly, suggested during question period on Tuesday a code of conduct might be necessary to ensure civility.

Squires would like to see the culture change.

"Obviously we can do a lot better to make sure that all women feel supported in the workplace and the chamber."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter at CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote about rural Manitoba for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press