'First sign of hope': Former NDP staffers applaud Pallister's new harassment policy

In the wake of CBC's investigation into the conduct of a former NDP cabinet minister, Manitoba's premier announced new policy Thursday to deal with sexual harassment at the legislature.

Policy announcement comes in wake of CBC investigation into conduct of former cabinet minister

Former press secretary Joëlle Saltel-Allard says the new policy announced Thursday gives her hope for change. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

The two former staffers who raised allegations against former NDP cabinet minister Stan Struthers are applauding the Progressive Conservatives new policy on handling sexual harassment complaints.

Premier Brian Pallister held a press conference Thursday morning, announcing a sweeping new policy that will apply to all government organizations and Crown corporations. It includes a "no wrong door" approach to reporting harassment, increased public reporting of complaints received and bringing in an external expert to review procedures.

The policy will extend beyond political staff and the civil service to include staff across the province affiliated with government, Pallister said. 

"This will be mandated and I believe it will be welcomed, quite frankly. I have had preliminary discussions with Crown agencies and municipal governments. They're looking for guidance and leadership on this issue and they are receiving that today," the premier said.

A sweeping new policy on handling sexual harassment complaints will apply to all government organizations and Crown corporations, Manitoba's premier announced Thursday. 2:09

This new policy comes in the wake of a CBC investigation into the conduct of Struthers, which revealed multiple women had come forth with complaints about his conduct, but little action was taken. 

'Real changes are being made'

Joëlle Saltel-Allard and Shannon VanRaes told CBC News the new steps announced by Pallister Thursday gave them comfort after they came forward saying Struthers inappropriately touched them when he was an elected official.

"It's actually the first sign of hope I've received in the last couple of weeks," Saltel-Allard told CBC News, calling the announcement a "good first step." 

VanRaes said speaking publicly about what happened to her 2010 opened up "very painful wounds" but said Thursday's announcement was an encouraging development.

"Knowing that real changes are being made as a result of women coming forward with their experiences goes a long way to providing closure," she said.

'Shut up and suck it up'

A CBC probe found that at least four former staffers made complaints after they say Struthers inappropriately touched or tickled them between 2010 and 2015. No formal investigation ever took place, although dozens of former staff members have said his conduct was an open secret at the legislature.

Saltel-Allard, Struthers's former press secretary, said she went to her direct supervisor with complaints he had touched her and told her sexually inappropriate stories during a two-hour car ride.

Saltel-Allard said the complaint went up to the chief of staff and the end result was she "was basically to shut up and suck it up."


Part of the new "no wrong door" policy will give all staff, including political staff, the option to take their complaints to Fred Meier, the clerk of the executive council — the highest ranking civil servant.

Saltel-Allard says if the five steps announced Thursday had been in place when she was being harassed, she believes perhaps she'd never have had to come forward publicly.

Struthers has since apologized "for any interactions I have had that have been inappropriate and that have caused any person to feel disrespected or uncomfortable."

He was first elected in 1995 and was one of five ministers who resigned from cabinet in 2014 in a revolt against then premier Greg Selinger's leadership. He remained an MLA until 2016.

Premier Brian Pallister announced a new harassment policy on Thursday. (The Canadian Press)

The policy also includes a plan to proactively disclose the disciplinary action taken when complaints are received.

"I want every employee to know they have a right to a respectful workplace and there will be no reprisals if they assert their rights," Pallister said. "I want every mother and father in our province to know their child will be safe, respected and heard if they make a choice in the future to work in the Manitoba government."

'Opened an important door'

VanRaes says she went to her direct supervisor after Struthers attempted to put his hand up her skirt during a plane trip to Dauphin. She said the complaint never went anywhere, and cited the incident when she quit a year later as a reason for her departure.

Giving staffers other options to report harassment is a good step forward, she said. 

"By giving both political staffers the option of going directly to the Clerk of the Executive Council, the government has opened an important door for individuals fearing retaliation," VanRaes said.

​The Opposition NDP, which was in government during the period when Struthers is alleged to have behaved inappropriately, released a draft update of its policies on addressing harassment complaints.

The policy covers allegations of misconduct brought forward by constituency assistants, caucus staff and elected officials within the party.

The policy lays out a zero-tolerance approach to harassment, the NDP said in a news release. 

​"It reinforces that political considerations must never come before doing the right thing for those who have been the subject of unacceptable behaviour," the news release said.

It will establish two "safe persons," with at least one identifying as female, who will be trained in policies and can act on a complainant's behalf. 

The policy will be finalized following feedback from the party. 

Government will disclose complaints

The government will report annually all harassment complaints it receives, the nature of the complaint, whether an investigation took place and what disciplinary action was taken. This will include political staff and civil servants.

It will also hire an external expert to review current policies and processes and make recommendations to identify gaps.

This will be done on top of the review currently being done by Manitoba's Speaker of the legislative assembly's harassment policy.

Read the full new harassment policy below:

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About the Author

Kristin Annable

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Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca