Manitoba·CBC Investigates

PC candidate breached workplace policy by showing photo of naked women, report says

An internal investigation into the conduct of Progressive Conservative candidate Rick Wowchuk found him in breach of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly’s workplace harassment prevention policy after he showed his former constituency assistant a picture of naked women on his cellphone.

Investigator found 5 breaches of respectful workplace policy by Swan River MLA Rick Wowchuk

Swan River MLA Rick Wowchuk was found to have breached the Manitoba Legislative Assembly's respectful workplace policy five times. (CBC)

An internal investigation into the conduct of MLA Rick Wowchuk, currently running for re-election in the provincial election, found him in breach of a respectful workplace policy after he showed his former constituency assistant a picture of naked women on his cellphone.

The Progressive Conservative Swan River MLA was found to have breached the Manitoba Legislative Assembly's respectful workplace policy five times, including the instance of showing his assistant a picture of naked women, according to a June 11 letter from the legislative assembly. 

"The investigator concluded that this was objectionable or offensive behaviour that the respondent [Wowchuk] ought to know would be unwelcome and which could cause humiliation or embarrassment," wrote Judy Wegner, executive director of the legislative assembly's administration branch.

Four other instances occurred that an internal investigation found were breaches of the legislative assembly's respectful workplace policy.

Those included an incident involving a phone call between the assistant and Wowchuk, who was in the bathtub at the time and remarked that he almost "FaceTimed" the conversation. Another incident involved a comment about the assistant wearing a bikini.

Wegner's letter noted that while the investigator believed the bikini comment had been made, they weren't certain of its intended "tone or meaning."

Another breach involved a text in which Wowchuk used the term "sex code" in reply to a query the assistant had made about messages from a malfunctioning phone.

'I felt degraded as a woman'

CBC has agreed not to name the former constituency assistant. She worked with Wowchuk in the western Manitoba rural riding of Swan River for about two years. 

In the fall of 2016, the assistant and Wowchuk were in his office in Swan River. She said Wowchuk asked her if she wanted to see a picture of "hard-working beavers" on his cellphone.

Thinking he was actually talking about wildlife, she said she looked at the photo only to find it showed naked women wearing hard hats and holding chainsaws.

"Never show anything like that to me again," she says she told Wowchuk.

"I felt upset. I felt angry. I felt all of those emotions, and I gave him back the phone," she said. 

"I was shocked. I was embarrassed. I felt degraded as a woman. Like, why would you think it's OK for you to show me this picture?" 

'I am sincerely sorry this occurred and any offence it caused,' Wowchuk wrote in a statement sent to CBC News. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Wowchuk acknowledges the comments and the photo he showed his assistant "caused offence" and apologized in a written statement sent to CBC.

"I deeply regret doing so and I have taken full responsibility for my actions," he said.  

Following the report, he participated in respectful and workplace sensitivity training, "which I found extremely valuable," he wrote.

"I am sincerely sorry this occurred and any offence it caused. I firmly believe in our government's actions to strengthen our respectful workplace policies and I will continue to work hard to represent my constituents in Swan River."

'Power imbalance': investigator

The assistant filed the complaint to the legislative assembly's human resources department after she was, she says, subjected to bullying and harassment when she worked with Wowchuk.

The June 11 letter from the legislative assembly outlines the findings of the independent investigator who looked into the complaint. The actual investigative report is not released to any parties.

"In the investigator's opinion, the breaches to the relevant policy were aggravated due to the pattern that was created and the power imbalance between [the assistant] and [Wowchuk]," Wegner wrote.

The assistant said once the working relationship between her and Wowchuk began to deteriorate in January 2018, she found no help or assistance.

She said she was accused of bullying another worker in the office and of filing inappropriate travel expenses, and was questioned about the hours she was working, which made the working environment toxic. However, she says she did not want to quit her job.

"I loved the work. I loved helping the constituency," she said. 

She says she asked Wowchuk for a meeting between her, Wowchuk and the premier's then chief of staff, Philip Houde — but no one reached out to her.

PC candidate breached workplace policy by showing photo of naked women

CBC News Manitoba

2 years ago
2:42
Investigator found 5 breaches of respectful workplace policy by Swan River MLA Rick Wowchuk. 2:42

She called Workplace Health and Safety and was told that it was out of their jurisdiction because the complaint involved an elected official. They put her in touch with the legislative assembly's human resources.

She went on medical leave in April 2018 and, on the advice of human resources, filed a formal complaint a few months later — in October 2018 — after which an investigation was launched.

She formally resigned in April 2019.

"I was trying to give [the PC caucus] the opportunity to make this right and they never responded," she said. 

Harassment stats don't include assistants

PC Leader Brian Pallister announced in February 2018 that his government would implement a "no wrong door policy" with respect to reporting harassment, intended to include political staff and employees of Crown corporations. He also pledged to publicly report on the outcomes. 

Manitoba PC Leader Brian Pallister announced in 2018 a 'no wrong door' policy with respect to reporting sexual harassment. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The announcement was made following a CBC investigation into the conduct of former NDP cabinet minister Stan Struthers, which revealed multiple women had come forth with complaints about his conduct, but little action was taken. 

In 2018-19, the civil service commission initiated 22 investigations involving sexual harassment, 116 involving harassment/bullying and 302 investigations that involved other forms of misconduct — including attempted fraud, conflict of interest or other inappropriate conduct. 

Since the woman in the Wowchuk case was a constituency assistant and not a Manitoba government employee, her complaint would not be included in this figure.

She thought Pallister's announcement would mean changes to the system. She said that wasn't the case when she filed her complaint.

"Each and every time it's like the door was closed," she said.

"I feel absolutely like there is no winning as an employee [at the legislative assembly]. They have disregarded the effect this has had on me."

'Safer and healthier workplace'

Pallister said Thursday morning that workplace health and safety restrictions prevent him from speaking about the specific allegations involving Wowchuk.  

He said the policy brought in under his administration was designed to encourage people to speak up, and he is pleased some are coming forward with allegations.

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister says his government has moved 'ahead of the other provinces' in terms of how it deals with allegations of workplace harassment. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"That is how we will create a better workplace, a safer and healthier workplace," Pallister told CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Thursday.

Asked how he could allow Wowchuk to continue to run in the election, despite formal complaints against him, Pallister said the Progressive Conservatives have dealt with allegations of harassment "openly and honestly."

"We must be careful not to discourage further concerns being brought forward, right? So that means respecting the confidentiality of the people involved, making sure that we don't make a show of an issue and then cause other people to be reluctant to come forward later," Pallister said.

"Expect more of these to come forward. I will not be part of a government that sweeps these under the carpet. These are issues that have to be dealt with."

Investigation took 9 months 

In the PC government's first term, two instances of sexual harassment were made public by media.

The first involved Emerson MLA Cliff Graydon, who was the subject of a harassment allegation following reports he had asked a legislative staff member to sit on his lap.

Emerson MLA Cliff Graydon was kicked out of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative caucus following allegations of inappropriate comments to staff. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

He was eventually kicked out of caucus. 

A few months later, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that Kildonan MLA Nic Curry faced two separate accusations that he made sexually suggestive comments.

He announced he would not run in the next election and did not return to the legislature following the allegations. 

Assistant wants apology, MLA expelled

Wowchuk's assistant flagged 65 issues in her complaint. However, the investigator found that 46 did not breach a specific relevant policy, two were outside the scope of the policy, eight were not substantiated through the evidence provided, and four were substantiated but not found to be a breach of the policy. 

It took nine months for the investigation to be completed and the letter from Wegner to be issued. The findings were also shared with Wowchuk and PC caucus chair Wayne Ewasko. The letter states that caucus is responsible for any action taken against Wowchuk.

The assistant was never informed that Wowchuk had undergone sensitivity training as result of the investigation. 

Joëlle Saltel-Allard came forward in 2018 to speak about what happened to her when she worked as Stan Struthers's press secretary. 

Former NDP press secretary Joëlle Saltel-Allard says it is important for women to know the outcome of a complaint. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

She said the experience of the Swan River constituency assistant shows a gap in the policy, where the complainants aren't informed of the outcomes of these investigations. 

"It gives you closure, as somebody who has gone through this on a personal level, if you can put closure to the situation and know what happened. You would know that your complaint was validated," she said. 

The former assistant wants an apology from PC caucus and for Wowchuk to be expelled. 

"What I tried to do was get help so that this didn't have to get to this point. I wanted to keep my job. I wanted this to be resolved," she said. "No one reached out to try to resolve this."


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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

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