Iqaluit mayor faces backlash after calling out some male Inuit leaders as sexual predators

Sexual harassment in the workplace remains a challenge for women in Nunavut, Iqaluit's Mayor Madeleine Redfern told a House of Commons committee in September.

Madeleine Redfern spoke at federal committee on the Status of Women meeting in September

Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern presented at the House of Commons standing committee on the Status of Women on Sept. 26. She says her comments about some male Inuit leaders caused her to receive death threats. (David Gunn/CBC)

Sexual harassment in the workplace remains a challenge for women in Nunavut, according to Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern.

She was asked to present to the House of Commons' Status of Women committee about barriers for women in politics at a Sept. 26 meeting in Ottawa.

"When our Inuit male leaders travel with their female staff, they think it's a benefit and a perk that they can actually sexually harass, sexually assault or have relationships with women on the road," Redfern told the committee.

The mayor said she has received backlash for her comments, so she tweeted out a clarification email, sent to the committee, ensuring it was understood that she meant some, not all, Inuit male leaders.

"Of course, I know that not all our Inuit leaders are sexual predators. I don't think anyone in their right mind would naturally presume that I meant all," Redfern told CBC News.

The backlash included messages calling for her to be investigated, she said.

"I don't even name names and I get attacked, viciously," Redfern said. "Death threats because I've spoken out."

Her post on Facebook received dozens of positive comments, including some from women who said they had similar experiences with male Inuit leaders.

Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo kept his job after admitting he had an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer. Redfern said it's cases like this that prove women's allegations aren't always heard. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In an interview with CBC, Redfern cited examples that she said shows women aren't always supported or believed when they speak out.

She pointed to MP Hunter Tootoo, who remains Nunavut's sole representative in the House of Commons, despite calls from women's groups for him to resign after he admitted he had an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer.

Redfern also referenced the case of Igloolik businessman Ike Haulli, who has criminal convictions for sexual assault and was found liable for $1.2 million for historical sexual assaults. The Governor's General's office has not announced, whether he's been stripped of the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, citing confidentiality. 

'If you're lucky, you can forcibly say no'

Redfern says she's heard from women who have experienced everything from unwanted invitations, to touching and groping to rape, while on work trips.

"It's not only happened to me; I've known it to happen to dozens and dozens of women," she said.

"You're away from your support network, you're away from your spouse. You're very vulnerable in a community that is not home.

Iqaluit in September. Redfern has worked with non-profits and Inuit organizations in both Ottawa and Iqaluit, and is currently the president of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities. (Katherine Barton/CBC)

"Often it happens after meetings late at night, and you find yourself sort of cornered or pinned and you have to rebuff this, and if you're lucky you can forcibly say no or you can escape. Not everyone has that opportunity, though."

Redfern has worked with non-profits and Inuit organizations in both Ottawa and Iqaluit, and is currently the president of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities.

She says many leaders and managers in Nunavut feel workplace harassment rules don't apply while outside the four walls of the office.

Challenges reporting harassment

In Nunavut, Redfern said the risks of reporting workplace harassment can be even greater than the person's job, as staff housing is often tied to specific positions.

She said she knows women who have reported issues in the workplace, and their supervisors did nothing about it.

Redfern referenced a Nunavut government ethics report that found a woman's sexual harassment complaint valid. She was awarded $3,000 and the harasser was fired.

It was after seven years of continued harassment and complaints by at least four co-workers.  

"Imagine that — going to work, day in day out … year in year out, and you are allowed to be sexually assaulted and that results in a few dollars a day," Redfern said.

In the same year, four other women complained of sexual harassment in the territorial government, but the ethics officer did not find wrongdoing in their cases.

Male Inuit leaders respond

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq says he disagrees with Redfern's comments about work travel, which he called negative and a "blanket statement."

"It's bad to say that," he said.

He said it's possible the issues Redfern spoke about do exist, but he's not aware of them within the Government of Nunavut (GN).

"It's never been communicated to me that it's an issue within the GN. If there's any complaints brought forward within the GN, it will be dealt with properly and swiftly because we don't put up with sexual assault or sexual harassment," Savikataaq said.

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq called Redfern's comments 'negative.' (Ashley Burke/CBC)

"I don't think all Inuit leaders should be painted with the same brush…. If Mayor Madeleine Redfern has known cases or concerns, they should be brought forward and dealt with."

When asked by CBC News if he was aware of any risks or challenges that women might face in reporting workplace harassment, Savikataaq said there were none, or there shouldn't be.

"The law is in place to deal with sexual harassment and sexual assault. I believe the system is in place, it's just whether the system is being used," Savikataaq said.

"I have my morals and values and I don't have to take any precautions, it's not something I worry about, whether I'm making inappropriate comments or gestures."

The president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, P.J. Akeeagok, also said he was unaware of any issues until Redfern's statement.

"If there's anything that comes out of it, obviously we'll look at it as an organization and act on it immediately in terms of if there are any liability potentials or risks," Akeeagok said.

He said the organization's code of conduct ensures women have a "safe place to be able to voice their concerns."

PJ Akeeagok, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, says the organization has tried to modify programs to better support women's advancement. (Steve Hossack/CBC)

Women in politics

Akeeagok said the QIA has tried to modify programs to better support women's advancement and to have female representation on the organization's board.

Premier Savikataaq also said Nunavut is moving in the right direction by supporting women in politics, as evidenced by the record number of women in the fifth Legislative Assembly and in cabinet — three of Nunavut's eight cabinet ministers are women.

That's something Mayor Redfern agrees with. She says it's important that women participate in politics because otherwise, their voices and concerns are not heard or acted on.

"If anything, the good Inuit leaders and the good men that we have in our community — we need them to help us, we need them to step up, we need them to speak out, we need them to defend us when we speak out," she said.