Founder of mental health non-profit UnderstandUs resigns amid sexual harassment allegations

WARNING: This story contains graphic language. A prominent Saskatchewan mental health advocate has resigned from the non-profit he founded after multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, from his time in the restaurant industry, were revealed in a CBC News investigation.

WARNING: This story contains graphic language

The majority of women who spoke with CBC News about Jim Demeray said they supported the overarching goals of UnderstandUs, but worried someone with Demeray's alleged track record could not foster mental wellness in young girls. (Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools/Twitter)

The founder of the mental health organization UnderstandUs has resigned from his executive director position after numerous sexual allegations against him came to light. 

Jim Demeray "has agreed to resign from his position effective immediately and will no longer be involved with the organization," the board of directors of the Saskatchewan advocacy group said in an statement on Tuesday afternoon. 

The board said it was recently made aware of "serious allegations of misconduct" through a CBC News investigation published on Sunday and updated Monday to reflect new allegations.

Fifteen former employees who brought allegations forward said they are struggling to reconcile Demeray's growing influence among schoolchildren with his past behaviour toward girls and young women in the restaurant industry between 2000 and 2016.

As part of his outreach with UnderstandUs, Demeray has spoken to thousands of students in elementary and high schools about vulnerability, emotions, stigma, healthy relationships, self-esteem, compassion and kindness.​​​​​​ UnderstandUs says it makes its biggest impact by "engaging those in their most impressionable age."

In 2019, UnderstandUs launched five awareness campaigns and gave presentations to 11,500 people in 12 cities, towns and First Nations in Saskatchewan.

When contacted by CBC, Demeray called allegations against him "baseless and untrue," saying "in my 16 years working in the restaurant business there was never a complaint or a suggestion that I acted inappropriately around female staff."

Jim Demeray founded UnderstandUs in 2011. He moved to a full-time position with the mental health awareness organization in 2018. (UnderstandUs)

Thirteen women have alleged a pattern of verbal sexual harassment and two say Demeray acted inappropriately toward them while in a position of power. Two men who worked in the kitchen at this time also came forward to corroborate the allegations.

​The women say they were subjected to constant, highly sexual and explicit comments​ by Demeray in the workplace about their bodies and sexual acts. Some comments included: "Nice tits," "You have the best ass here," "I'd like to tap that" and "I'm so f--king horny right now" and "Do you like it in the ass?"

A former Earls server said Demeray asked her if her boyfriend had a large penis and if it satisfied her, then suggested that he would satisfy her more. That allegedly happened at Earls in 2015, four years after Demeray started his mental health non-profit.

One woman remembers stopping at Demeray's office at the end of her shift and asking him if there was anything else that he wanted her to do before she left and he allegedly replied, "Just suck my c--k and you'll be good."  

Demeray allegedly told multiple staff members, some who were teens, that he had sex dreams about them. Women said they were given better shifts if they went along with it — and those who didn't said they lost shifts. 

Many of the women CBC News interviewed said they supported the overarching goals of UnderstandUs. However, they worried someone with Demeray's alleged past behaviour toward young women and teens could not foster mental wellness in young girls. 

The UnderstandUs board said, "the allegations that have been brought forward in no way reflect our values as an organization."

It added that board members are committed to continuing the non-profit's mission of combating mental health stigma. The Regina-based volunteer board is made up of Colter Wood, Carleen Desautels, Kelsey Stewart and Nicole Cook. Mark Johnston resigned from the board on Monday.  Former board members and provincial government employees Tanessa Boutin and Aaron Orban left in mid-July, citing time commitments and work-life balance. 

Pictured is the UnderstandUs board on Tuesday afternoon. The board says it will ensure it does everything possible to build community trust moving forward. It plans to immediately start a review of operations. (UnderstandUs)

The board said it wants to build trust in the community and will "immediately be starting a review" of the organization's operations. 

"It is our hope to take this opportunity to ensure we're operating to the highest standards, so we can continue the important work we know is needed, in opening up conversations and promoting a better understanding of mental health," the statement said.

Demeray founded UnderstandUs in 2011 when he was still working at the popular Canadian restaurant chain Earls. The chain fired him in 2016 and he has since focused almost entirely on promoting mental wellness and selling UnderstandUs clothing. 

The organization gained momentum in recent years. In 2018 and 2019, UnderstandUs received donations totalling nearly $250,000 from the Tim Hortons Smile Cookie campaign. Proceeds were once again slated to go to UnderstandUs in 2020, but Tim Hortons said Monday it would no longer be donating to the organization.  

The province also said that Demeray had resigned effective immediately from his board position with the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.

The women who brought allegations forward said they want Demeray to address what they say is his legacy of mental harm. Many of them were teenagers when the alleged abuse happened. Some were as young as 15 when the alleged sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour occurred. 

Some women say the mental damage he inflicted still lingers with them today.