Manitoba

Ontario NDP reinstates chief of staff accused of ignoring harassment complaints against Manitoba MLA

Ontario's NDP leader announced Thursday that Michael Balagus, the former Manitoba NDP chief of staff accused of ignoring women's complaints of harassment by a cabinet minister, will resume his duties within the the party following his suspension last month.

'I feel sick to my stomach' former NDP staffer says after decision to reinstate Michael Balagus

Ontario NDP chief of staff Michael Balagus was placed on a leave of absence following a CBC investigation into the conduct of former Manitoba MLA Stan Struthers when he was in office. Balagus was reinstated by the Ontario NDP on Thursday. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Ontario's NDP leader announced Thursday that Michael Balagus — the former Manitoba NDP chief of staff accused of ignoring complaints of harassment by a former cabinet minister — will resume his duties within the party following his suspension last month.

One of the former cabinet minister's accusers said on Twitter the decision makes her "sick to my stomach."

Party leader Andrea Horwath placed Balagus — now the Ontario NDP's chief of staff — on a leave of absence following a CBC investigation into the conduct of former Manitoba MLA and cabinet minister Stan Struthers when he was in office.

"It is a Chief of Staff's responsibility to ensure that employees are able to work in a safe environment. Michael recognizes and takes responsibility for the fact that the systems in place at the time let these women down," Horwath said in a prepared statement Thursday announcing Balagus's reinstatement.

"I'm confident in Michael's ability to lead our team."

Struthers, who left provincial politics in 2016, has been accused by several women of inappropriately touching and tickling them. 

He has since apologized.

'Little if any consequences'

Former NDP communications staffers Shannon VanRaes and Joëlle Saltel-Allard both accused Struthers of inappropriate touching in 2010. They complained to their direct supervisor, Jay Branch, who told them the concerns were relayed to Balagus.

Saltel-Allard reacted swiftly to the Ontario NDP's announcement, saying "I feel sick to my stomach" in a tweet on Thursday.
'It's clear that Andrea Horwath doesn't understand the full implications of the role he played in allowing sexual misconduct in Manitoba,' former Manitoba NDP press secretary Joëlle Saltel-Allard said after Balagus was reinstated Thursday. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

In an emailed statement to CBC, she accused Balagus of being a "major reason this behaviour was allowed."

"It's upsetting that there are little if any consequences for these actions by Balagus. He instilled a culture of fear and exerted considerable control over staff and their livelihoods," she said.

Obviously at some point a decision was made that that skill set and aiming for that election was more important than the well-being of staff.- Shannon VanRaes

"It's clear that Andrea Horwath doesn't understand the full implications of the role he played in allowing sexual misconduct in Manitoba."

VanRaes says she wasn't surprised. 

"I was extremely disappointed, particularly so because a decision was made to reinstate Mr. Balagus without speaking to those most impacted by his lack of leadership and without waiting for the results of the recently announced commission."

She believes the decision to reinstate Balagus is political.

"Mr. Balagus was brought in as a fixer and they're heading into an election. And obviously at some point a decision was made that that skill set and aiming for that election was more important than the well-being of staff."

Balagus was the Manitoba NDP's chief of staff from 2003 to 2012 — first under premier Gary Doer and later under Greg Selinger, who announced his resignation as an MLA last week in the wake of the controversy about the inappropriate touching allegations.

Balagus was seen as the architect behind the Manitoba NDP's last two election victories, in 2007 and 2011. He is now tapped to lead the Ontario NDP's 2018 election campaign.

He issued an open letter on Thursday, apologizing to his former staffers. (You can read the letter in full below.)

"A number of years ago in the Manitoba legislature, a cabinet minister behaved very inappropriately towards several women, who were left feeling unsupported, and that their concerns about this were not addressed," Balagus stated in the letter.

"As the chief of staff in the Premier's Office when some of these events occurred, I must take my share of responsibility for the fact that proper systems were not in place and that these women were left believing they weren't listened to, and that they had no recourse."

Balagus has previously denied allegations he was aware of any complaints by staff about Struthers.

"At no time did Jay Branch [the director of communications in 2010] or any other supervisor bring to my attention the appalling actions involving Stan Struthers," he said in a prepared statement in February.

Michael Balagus's open letter: 

A number of years ago in the Manitoba legislature, a cabinet minister behaved very inappropriately towards several women, who were left feeling unsupported, and that their concerns about this were not addressed.

As the chief of staff in the Premier's Office when some of these events occurred, I must take my share of responsibility for the fact that proper systems were not in place and that these women were left believing they weren't listened to, and that they had no recourse.

I apologize to them, and to everyone on our team for this.

We owed them better.

As the Ontario NDP, we have been working on these issues for some time.

Under Andrea Horwath's leadership, we've strengthened our policies and procedures for reporting concerns, and over the last year we've implemented an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training program that all staff, managers and MPPs have taken.

Events in Manitoba underline that these issues require our full attention and our full commitment. Every person who works on our team deserves to be respected at work, and to be listened to when they advance concerns and issues – and these events have reinforced with me my personal responsibility in my role as chief of staff to ensure this is always true.

I commit to you that this is what I will do in my work with our leader, our caucus and each and every member of our team.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

With files from Katie Nicholson

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