Nova Scotia

One woman's frustrating, futile fight for justice after being sexually harassed

Liz LeClair, who has spent her career raising money for non-profit foundations and organizations, says she was harassed by a wealthy donor. She tried to make her harasser accountable. But everywhere she turned, she says, the systems failed her.

Fundraiser Liz LeClair says she was harassed by a wealthy donor. A daunting quest for accountability followed

Liz LeClair says there are systemic barriers to justice for victims of sexual harassment. (Robert Short/CBC)

He commented on her breasts, her legs and her clothing.

He asked what the weirdest sexual thing she'd ever done was and where she daydreamed about having sex with him.

He even propositioned her on a long, business-related drive when they were alone in his vehicle.

None of these allegations have been tested in a formal legal setting. But Liz LeClair, the woman making them, says that's part of the problem.

The Nova Scotia woman is going public with her allegation of sexual harassment against a wealthy businessman, saying the legal and human rights systems, as well as her former employers, have failed to hold him accountable.

"The systems in place are essentially broken and hinder a victim's ability to come forward and speak about abuse," says LeClair. "The scales of justice are very much tilted in favour of the abuser and not the abused."

Some of LeClair's concerns have been highlighted in recent weeks by the experiences of others who have tried, and failed, to see their sexual harassment concerns addressed by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

The commission dismissed one complaint in March after staff made a mistake filling out the paperwork and the Human Rights Act didn't allow them to correct it. Another woman was prevented from filing a sexual harassment complaint against the same employer because she did not contact the commission within 12 months of the harassment taking place.

LeClair says the man who harassed her never faced any consequences for his actions. (Robert Short/CBC)

LeClair, 41, has spent her career raising money for organizations such as the Victoria Hospitals Foundation in B.C., the IWK Foundation and Dalhousie University. She now lives in Dartmouth, N.S., and works for the QEII Foundation as director of major gifts.

The man she says harassed her was a donor she met through her work. The CBC is not naming him because the allegations have not been tested in a legal setting and because LeClair worries she could get sued if he is named.

She says he once mentioned that her red blouse accentuated her breasts, and that she must have worn it to turn him on.

Another time, he suggested she was attracted to him and that she "gave off a vibe" that she "wanted it."

In December 2013, in response to a friendly and professional email in which LeClair wished him a Merry Christmas, he replied, "It was my pleasure to meet with you, always feels good for us old guys' egos to meet with pretty young women."

The exchange, which centred on arranging meetings for the new year, culminated in a poem he sent on Dec. 24: "Arise oh goddess of youth/Bring your favour forth/that I may quench my thirst/At your sweeten mound/And Cast your eyes upon/My unworthy self/So I can revel in your gaze."

The man LeClair says harassed her sent this poem to her in 2013. (CBC)

It was the following spring that the uncomfortable road trip took place, as the two drove a couple of hours away to visit another donor.

According to a human rights complaint LeClair would later file, he asked how many people she had slept with, whether she'd ever had a threesome, what she would do to him during sex and where they should do it, among other questions.

LeClair says she tried to laugh off the behaviour, but it rattled her.

Once the meeting with the donor was done, the man said they could now "get down to business," adding that there were a number of motels and hotels on the way home that they could go to, the complaint says.

She says when she asked what he meant, he told her the trip was just a ploy to get her to have sex with him.

When she declined, he became sullen and barely spoke, she says, and she spent the rest of the trip worrying about whether she had just ruined a key fundraising relationship.

LeClair was working for the IWK Foundation when the harassment began. The foundation declined to comment on the matter. (Robert Short/CBC)

LeClair says although she did tell some peers at her workplace about the behaviour, she didn't file a complaint at the time.

She says she was worried about the impact a complaint could have on her career and was concerned that disclosing the harassment could hurt her employer, the IWK Foundation — an organization she believed in.

LeClair also didn't want to potentially subject another young woman to harassment by handing over responsibility for working with the man to someone else.

But in 2019, after she had moved from the IWK Foundation to Dalhousie, LeClair decided it was time to speak out.

She reported the harassment to both the non-profit organization and the university and filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission as well as the man's company.

However, at almost every turn, she has been disappointed.

Workplace responses

The IWK Foundation hired a law firm to conduct an independent review of the allegations. The resulting report was not shared with LeClair, but she was told the organization's board and staff would receive training each year to ensure staff feel comfortable reporting incidents of harassment.

The foundation declined to comment, saying it respects the privacy and confidentiality of current and former employees.

Dalhousie University failed to ensure she would not have to interact with the man in her workplace. The man showed up at an event related to a project she had worked on — an event she was assured by her bosses that he would not be attending. Rather than being turned away, he was permitted to remain. It was LeClair who left, biding her time in a coffee shop until the event was over so she wouldn't have to see him.

Dalhousie University told LeClair the man would not be present at the event, but he showed up and was not turned away. (CBC)

Dalhousie also declined an interview, but said in a statement that harassment and sexualized violence are "unacceptable" and are taken seriously by the school.

Following LeClair's complaint to the man's company, it hired a consultant to interview her about the allegations. Afterward, she was told the company would provide unspecified board training and complete a policy review.

Disbelief and retaliation are two common reactions when an employee reports discrimination to their workplace, according Nicole Slaunwhite, a counsellor with the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia who fields phone calls and emails from the public to help them explore their legal options.

"[Employers] will say, you know, this person that you say harasses, they couldn't have done that. They have a great reputation and they've never done it before, or they've always treated their other co-workers really well," Slaunwhite says.

Dalhousie University declined an interview but said harassment is 'unacceptable' and is taken seriously by the school. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Employers also often respond to disclosures of harassment by moving the victim to a different location or laying the person off during the investigation so it doesn't cause "unpleasantness" in the workplace.

"So sometimes the victim of harassment is actually the one who effectively gets punished because they are the one who has raised the concern," Slaunwhite says.

Options are limited

For Nova Scotians who don't feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment to their workplace, there are alternatives. But they, too, can be problematic.

When LeClair first considered going public with her story, she consulted a lawyer to explore her options.

What she learned surprised her, and was a bitter pill to swallow: since her case was not one of sexual assault — because the man never touched her sexually — but rather one of verbal sexual harassment, a criminal complaint would not be possible.

Although sexual harassment can be addressed through a civil lawsuit under certain circumstances, LeClair would have had to file the case against her former employer, not the man. And since she didn't officially disclose the harassment to her employer at the time, it would have been difficult to prove they didn't meet their legal obligations to protect her.

Simply going public through social media with her allegations and the man's name would be risky, as it would potentially open her up to a pricey defamation lawsuit.

"What I was told was the defamation suit that I would receive would destroy my family.… We would never have any money — we'd be paying off the crippling debt for defending ourselves for the rest of our lives."

The appropriate avenue for her complaint, she was told, was the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

Complaint dismissed

LeClair followed that advice, starting the complaint process in early 2019 alleging discrimination by the man's company.

But the commission dismissed her complaint this February — two years later — saying she had failed to file it within the required 12 months of the last date of harassment.

In fact, LeClair's last contact with the man — a December 2018 meeting in which she says the harassment continued — did fall within the 12-month window, but the commission's decision stated that since LeClair initiated the meeting, it could not serve as the last date of discrimination.

"It made my stomach sick to see someone write a letter to me saying that it was my fault, basically, that the last meeting happened because I had initiated it. I literally was doing my job."

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission dismissed LeClair's complaint because it said she didn't file it within the 12-month window. (CBC)

The province's Human Rights Act allows the commission to extend the 12-month statute of limitations if it's in the public interest. But in LeClair's case, it was commission staff themselves who initially told her that her final meeting with the man would qualify and that she didn't need an extension to allow her complaint to proceed.

LeClair says the 12-month statute of limitations on claims of harassment is unreasonable.

"Twelve months is insane," LeClair says. "In 12 months, most people haven't even figured out what's happened to them or processed it or understood."

Human rights commission process flawed

LeClair says the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission complaint process is riddled with other structural problems that put victims at a disadvantage and can thwart both justice for individual complainants and changes at a societal level.

Unlike many employers, complainants often cannot afford to hire a lawyer, and there are no systems in place to help victims get legal representation at the commission.

That disparity shows up in the results.

"The person self-representing is statistically very unlikely to succeed," Slaunwhite says.

Lawyers are familiar with the processes and laws and can dedicate more time to preparing a defence for the accused harasser.

"A self-represented person, of course, has to still go about their daily life and, you know, look after their family and maybe be trying to find new work and also be dealing with the personal effects of having been harassed," Slaunwhite says.

Non-disclosure agreements overused

If a complaint is resolved through the commission before it comes to a board of inquiry, the final and only public stage of the process, the complainant is usually asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the complaint itself and any financial compensation.

For LeClair, that was a deal-breaker. She says at one point during the process, the company's lawyer offered to discuss a settlement, but any settlement likely would have come with a gag order.

"I'm like, no. That's my dignity."

It's an element of the process that is criticized by Equity Watch, a local group that monitors the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. In a recent report, it said too many cases are settled privately, which means the "crucial element of public education is sabotaged."

Lengthy resolution times

The length of time most complaints take to reach their end is also a hardship for victims, who often feel left in the dark about what's happening.

"You're just left to kind of wait and sit around twiddling their thumbs, thinking every single day that … nothing's happening, like no one's doing anything, and you're watching the person that you've reported continue to live their life," LeClair says.

While two years passed before her complaint was dismissed, others drag on much longer, including the case of Halifax firefighter Liane Tessier, who waited 11 years for her case to be resolved.

Liane Tessier with some of the paperwork related to her human rights commission complaint, which dragged on for 11 years. (CBC)

According to the most recent Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission annual report, the average time from when a complainant first gets in touch with the commission to the filing of a complaint was 33 days, and the average time from filing the complaint to a conclusion was 316 days.

In 2014, the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman launched an investigation of the commission after it received a number of complaints. The ombudsman wrapped up its work on the probe in 2017, but would not make its report public. 

However, it did release its recommendations, which included a review of the approach to human rights services in the province and the development of a quality assurance system.

A spokesperson for the human rights commission said all the recommendations have been implemented.

Members of Equity Watch, a group that keeps tabs on the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, protests the dismissal of Christine Shupe's complaint on April 8, 2021. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Equity Watch has highlighted its many concerns with the complaint process, including the lengthy resolution times, the 12-month statute of limitations, the lack of resources available for complainants and the use of non-disclosure agreements.

"I think the present government has got to decide they're going to make human rights a priority in this province. And I'm sad to say it hasn't been made a priority in Nova Scotia for quite a long while," says the group's spokesperson, Judy Haiven.

Equity Watch is calling for a new, three-part system consisting of a human rights commission that does rights-related research and analysis, a separate tribunal that complainants can access directly and a legal support centre that can provide legal advice and represent them at the tribunal.

Justice Minister Randy Delorey, who is also the minister responsible for the Human Rights Act, said the act and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission were not 'explicitly on the radar,' but he is willing to look at them. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Randy Delorey, who took over the role in late February, says the commission and the Human Rights Act were not "explicitly on the radar," but since his mandate is to tackle systemic issues and barriers to justice, he is willing to look at them.

He says he hopes to meet with Joseph Fraser, who became the new CEO of the commission on April 19, "with a lens to taking down barriers for access."

Fraser told the CBC the commission has discussed potential amendments to the Human Rights Act with the Justice Department, but he hasn't had a chance to explore those himself yet. Fraser says the 12-month statute of limitations is "something that we would want to turn our minds to."

He also says he wants to fill any staffing vacancies and work on making the commission more accessible and efficient. One potential way to do that, he says, is by ensuring self-represented parties have legal support.

Joseph Fraser is the new director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. (Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission)

In some provinces, people who have been sexually harassed at work can seek justice through workplace safety regulations, but that option is not available to Nova Scotians.

Nova Scotia is one of few provinces that does not include harassment in its occupational health and safety legislation. The provincial NDP tabled a private member's bill in October 2019 to change that, but the government did not pursue it and it failed to proceed when the legislature was prorogued in 2020.

A spokesperson for the Labour Department said staff are working to figure out how to approach psychological injuries and mental health as they relate to workplace safety. Part of that work will include conversations with stakeholders, the department said.

'The only thing I have left is my voice'

LeClair says despite the dismissal of her human rights complaint, she's committed to pushing for change.

But she finds herself wondering why she has to fight so hard — why so many avenues to justice seem closed to her.

"If I was younger, more afraid, less educated about it, less supported by my family, less income or less ability to pursue these avenues or I had a different job, I can't imagine I would even keep down this road," says LeClair, who has a very supportive husband and extended family.

"Everything is built to intentionally or unintentionally to stop you from reporting."

She isn't letting those barriers stop her.

"The only thing I have left is my voice and my truth to tell my own story and my experience. And he can't take that away from me."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

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