Alberta premier's office dealing with a 'Me Too' scandal that could escalate into a caucus crisis

Allegations of sexism, harassment, vindictiveness and drunken behaviour in the heart of government are a monumental problem for the Alberta premier.

Lawsuit against premier’s office makes accusations of a ‘poisoned work environment'

A former Alberta legislature staff member is suing the premier's office, saying she suffered from a toxic workplace culture and was fired as retribution for speaking out about the problems she saw there. (David Bajer/CBC)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Premier Jason Kenney's usual response when facing an opponent can be summed up in three words: deny, deflect, demonize.

That's how he's dealt with political opponents on a litany of issues as diverse as the pandemic, the federal equalization program, and the Allan Inquiry into so-called anti-Alberta activities.

But not this time.

This time the premier's office is facing a political challenge that cannot be denied, deflected or demonized.

Her name is Ariella Kimmel.

She was once part of the Kenney government, a political staffer who had access to the most senior politicians, including cabinet ministers and staff inside the premier's office.

She was with the UCP government from Day 1, after it won the provincial election in April of 2019, moving upward to work as chief of staff to Doug Schweitzer when he became minister of jobs, economy and innovation in August of 2020.

She was fired last February and is now suing the premier's office for $400,000 in lost wages and damages, revealed in an exclusive story from CBC News. 

Her lawsuit paints a disturbing picture of a "poisoned work environment" where men in positions of power allegedly drank and sexually harassed women.

Kimmel says she complained repeatedly of harassment to senior staff in the premier's office but her complaints were ignored or downplayed and she herself became a victim of a rumour campaign she had been leaking damaging information to the news media. 

She said the rumours were false, but they nonetheless damaged her reputation and preceded her dismissal.

I must point out that these are allegations in Kimmel's lawsuit. Nothing has been proven in court. We have not yet seen a statement of defence from the premier's office.

Kenney himself is not being sued. But the lawsuit does mention various senior members of the Kenney government as part of Kimmel's narrative of allegations involving harassment and a government apparently slow or unwilling to take action.

Those named in the narrative include Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen and Ivan Bernardo, who was principal advisor to then-Health Minister Tyler Shandro, as well as people close to the premier including Matt Wolf, the premier's director of issues management, and Kenney's principal secretary at the time, Larry Kaumeyer.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen is listed in the lawsuit, which alleges he drank excessively and it affected the work environment. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Kenney might not be named in Kimmel's narrative, but its allegations of sexism, harassment, vindictiveness and drunken behaviour in the heart of government are a monumental problem for the premier.

This is one issue where the government cannot simply bluster or brazen its way through, as it has done with so many other problems, most notably how it has handled the fourth wave of the pandemic.

We saw how carefully Kenney trod when asked about the lawsuit by NDP MLA Janis Irwin during question period on Wednesday.

"Thank you for the question," said Kenney, who is rarely thankful for a question from the Opposition.

"First of all, I join the member in saying that sexual harassment, harassment of any kind, is always abhorrent, and we must have workplaces and a society that are free of that harassment. People who have been victims of harassment must feel comfortable to come forward, to tell their stories, and to see action taken.

"In this instance, Mr. Speaker, I was informed by my chief of staff late last fall about rumours circulating about inappropriate comments being made to female staffers by that individual. I was assured that action was being taken, and shortly thereafter that individual's contract ended with the government."

He went on to say the government is appointing an independent review for political staff on harassment and reporting.

Kenney might not be denying, deflecting or demonizing Irwin's question but it would seem he  has come up with another d-word strategy: dumping. As in trying to dump this mess on the back of "that individual" who, in Kimmel's lawsuit allegations, is Ivan Bernardo, former principal advisor to Minister Shandro.

Kenney makes his way to the chamber in the Alberta legislature in March 2020. Kimmel alleges in her lawsuit that senior staff in the premier's office fabricated rumours about her, contributing to her termination. None of the allegations has been proven in court. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

After leaving government, Bernardo returned to practicing law and was placed on retainer as legal counsel to the board of directors at Alberta Health Services. Critics are now wondering how, if the government was truly dismayed by the behaviour of "that individual," he managed to find work with a government agency like AHS. 

During question period Thursday, Health Minister Jason Copping said AHS has removed Bernardo from any work with health services.

And the questions keep coming. Jobs Minister Schweitzer told City News Calgary on Thursday that Kimmel was an "excellent staffer." When asked why she was fired, he responded, "I'd have to point you to the HR team for the legislature that's run out of the premier's office."

But that doesn't answer the question. Did Schweitzer ask at the time why she was being fired? Did he speak up for his "excellent staffer"?

UCP MLA Leela Aheer is not asking questions but demanding results: namely, that Kenney resign. "Premier Kenney – you knew! Step down!" said Aheer on Twitter.

When asked if she'll cross the floor, she responded with another tweet: "No, actually. I earned my position. PREMIER KENNY (sic) needs to leave. Not me."

I have asked Kenney's office for a response but have not heard back as I write this column. Aheer's comments put Kenney in a particularly awkward spot.

The last time a UCP MLA loudly and publicly demanded Kenney resign, the MLA in question, Todd Loewen, was kicked out of caucus and now sits as an Independent MLA.

Does Kenney dare do the same to Aheer?

The UCP government is mired in a Me Too moment and doesn't want it to become a Me Too movement.

Kenney needs another verb in his d-word quiver: demonstrate. As in, demonstrate to the public in general and his political staff in particular that he is serious when he says, "people who have been victims of harassment must feel comfortable to come forward, to tell their stories, and to see action taken."

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Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.