More Saskatchewan women accuse prominent mental health advocate of sexual harassment
Jim Demeray calls allegations against him ‘baseless and untrue’
This story was updated on Monday to include:
- New allegations from more women, and witness accounts from men.
- More information about how the staff event videos surfaced.
- Jim Demeray resigns from the board of the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.
- Tim Hortons Smile Cookie campaign drops UnderstandUs as a beneficiary.
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC LANGUAGE
Fifteen former employees of a high-profile mental health advocate in Saskatchewan say they're struggling to reconcile his growing influence among schoolchildren with his past behaviour toward girls and young women in the restaurant industry.
Advocate Jim Demeray, 38, recently issued a statement to CBC News addressing allegations that he participated in a racist sketch called "African for that," and says he regrets participating in the "Sexcellence" awards at an Earls staff event.
But Demeray denies allegations from 15 women who say he repeatedly sexually harassed, objectified or behaved inappropriately toward them when he was their boss at two Earls restaurants in Regina between 2000 and 2016.
"These allegations against me are baseless and untrue," Demeray said in an emailed statement. "In my 16 years working in the restaurant business there was never a complaint or a suggestion that I acted inappropriately around female staff."
The women want Demeray, who earns money promoting mental wellness, to address what they say is his legacy of mental harm. Many of them were teenagers at the time and at least one was underage during the alleged sexual harassment. Some say the mental damage he inflicted still lingers with them today.
Demeray founded the mental health awareness organization UnderstandUs in 2011, when he was still working at the popular Canadian restaurant chain. Earls fired him in 2016, and he has since focused almost entirely on promoting mental wellness and selling UnderstandUs clothing.
In 2018 and 2019, UnderstandUs received donations totalling nearly $250,000 from the Tim Hortons Smile Cookie campaign. Demeray was also named a Future 40 under 40 by CBC Saskatchewan.
On Monday, Tim Hortons said it would no longer be donating to UnderstandUs.
"Smile Cookie proceeds in Regina this year will be donated to a different charity," a company spokesperson said in a statement. "We will be working with our local restaurants owners in Regina to identify a cause that's particularly important to their guests and communities."
As part of his outreach, 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." The team will often give kids make-overs and stage professional photo shoots where they're asked to share their inner doubts and feelings.
In 2019, UnderstandUs launched five awareness campaigns and gave presentations to 11,500 people in 12 cities, towns and First Nations in Saskatchewan.
Many of the women CBC News spoke with support the overarching goals of UnderstandUs, but worry that someone with Demeray's alleged track record can't foster mental wellness in young girls.
At least, not without acknowledging past behaviour.
"If he is advocating for mental health, he should at least really share his story and be honest," one woman said. She was 18 years old when she started working as an Earls hostess. She remembers being shocked when Demeray, the general manager at the time, told her that he had a sex dream about her. Three other women, two of whom were teenagers at the time, said he said the same thing to them.
It became part of a "pattern of abuse of power," she said. "It changed how I thought a woman had to be to have worth in the eyes of men."
Another Regina woman who is troubled by his advocacy work started working at Earls as a hostess when she was 17 years old. She remembers Demeray asking her "Who are you f--king?" when she was a minor. "He's created so many mental health problems for women, so to know that he's in schools talking to young girls is scary."
None of the women is alleging sexual misconduct of a physical nature. Thirteen are alleging a pattern of sexual harassment and two say Demeray acted inappropriately toward them while in a position of power. CBC News has agreed not to name them and has given pseudonyms to some.
Additionally, two men who worked as kitchen staff spoke up on Monday about the alleged harassment they witnessed.
1st video emerges
The "African for that" sketch came to light as the Black Lives Matter movement swelled in June. A video clip from an Earls staff event in 2011 was posted online, CBC News has learned, by the current partner of Demeray's ex-girlfriend. He posted it to social media under the identity of a different man, then emailed it to a number of people, posing as a Black woman. Since its release, the video has triggered real concerns among some members of the Black community.
The scripted video shows Demeray and another white man musing about tasks they wished an app could do before repeatedly saying "There's an African for that," and then a Black man appears on-screen to do the tasks.
"Nine years ago my friend Henok Berhe asked me to act in the filming of a sketch," Demeray wrote in a statement to CBC News.
"I sincerely apologize if anyone has been offended by my participation in the sketch as it was not my intention to be insensitive."
Regina-based advocate for Black mental health Latoya Reid called the video "disgusting."
"I could not bring myself to watch the whole video because it was too shockingly hurtful," Reid said, saying it seemed to portray slavery, where everything labour-related had to be done by a Black person for a white person, as entertainment for a "jeering" audience.
She noted Demeray was in a place of privilege as manager at Earls. In the video of the event where the taped sketch was shown, Demeray lists his mental health advocacy organization UnderstandUs as one of the event sponsors.
Responding to CBC News, Demeray included a screenshot of Berhe's social media post in which the Black man takes responsibility for the video and condemns online backlash against Demeray as "inappropriate" and "malicious." In an interview, Berhe said he created the "satirical" video based on things he "observed as a Black person in Regina."
Reid said Black men's participation doesn't lessen the hurtfulness of the video. She said Demeray should use this as an opportunity to educate himself about systemic racism if he continues at the helm of UnderstandUs.
"I don't think someone who has such limited knowledge about [how] systemic racism can cause mental health defects in persons of colour should be running an organization that's advocating for mental health, unless he gets … more in tune with the struggles faced by people of colour as it relates to mental health and systemic oppression."
Gideon Belete, the other Black man in the video, and Greg Moore, the other white man, declined to comment.
'Underage goddess'; more videos surface
CBC News obtained more footage from the Earls staff event that featured the "African for that" sketch. The annual all-staff event is known as the Earls Partners Achievement Awards (EPAs) where employees would get drunk, dance, sing and receive awards in categories such as rookie of the year, best smile and biggest flirt. A two-hour video of the entire 2011 event shows Demeray and shift manager Moore roasting employees to large cheers from the crowd.
Demeray reads out the nominations for one category: the "Sexcellence" awards. One of the nominees was a minor; he calls her an "underage goddess." He reassures the winner of the award that she won because she was "hot." He is also recorded saying "There's a ton of good-looking minors here tonight."
In a written statement, Demeray said, "I do regret participating in the Sexcellence awards, which was one of more than a dozen awards presented at a staff event. That particular award was meant to jokingly recognize both men and women who managed to dress sharply within the confines of the restaurant's dress code. In retrospect, I think it was inappropriate, and I am sorry if it caused anyone discomfort."
A spokesperson for the restaurant chain said Earls was not aware of these awards or of Demeray's "egregious conduct."
"These actions are in direct violation of our zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment at Earls," Kristin Vekteris said.
A woman CBC News has called Chelsea described how humiliated she felt when Demeray would ask explicit questions about her sex life in front of colleagues, including, "Do you like it in the ass?"
"I'd pray every shift that Jim wouldn't be there," she said.
Chelsea started working at Earls when she was 19 years old. She said she was too afraid of Demeray to complain, and didn't want to risk losing shifts. None of the women filed formal complaints to the Earls restaurant chain.
The Earls spokesperson confirms the company has no record of harassment allegations against Demeray. Vekteris said that if complaints had been brought to the human resources department, the "zero-tolerance policy would have immediately enacted, and an investigation would have been opened."
"At the time, I knew I felt unbelievably uncomfortable, but I was too young to understand what it was. I knew it was wrong," Chelsea said. "I never said anything to him. I was always too afraid of him."
Women described sexual comments Demeray allegedly made to them in the workplace, including "Nice tits," "You have the best ass here," "I'd like to tap that," "I'm so f--king horny right now" and "Just suck my c--k and you'll be good."
One woman who came forward on Monday said when she worked there between 2013 and 2016, he referred to himself as "Daddy" in the workplace and would insist on hugs.
Another woman, who said she wasn't sexually harassed but believes Demeray behaved inappropriately, said not long after she started at Earls she ended up in a small office with Demeray with the door closed.
She was 15 years old, and alleges he kept commenting on her lips, calling them "beautiful and plump."
"I was just so young," she said. "I definitely didn't feel comfortable, but I thought that I should feel flattered."
A former bartender remembers Demeray joking about an underage hostess and asking, "When does she turn 18, again?"
"[Demeray] is supposed to be this beacon of mental health when he's caused a lot of trauma to people," said one former server who worked for him until 2013.
"A big thing of mental health is sexual manipulation and being made to feel you had to look a certain way," another said. "I don't want UnderstandUs to not be a thing. I struggle with the fact that it's him at helm."
On Monday, UnderstandUs board president Colter Wood declined to comment.
Demeray was a board member with the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, but a spokesperson for Innovation Saskatchewan, the ministry responsible for funding the foundation, said Demeray had "resigned from the board ... effective immediately." The minister also declined to comment on the allegations.
After CBC News contacted Demeray for this story, two former Earls employees and one UnderstandUs board member emailed reporters, providing character references and detailing positive experiences with him. None of them wanted to be named.
Women who spoke to CBC News said they chose to seek employment at a restaurant chain that had a reputation for hiring attractive people and requiring women to wear skirts and high heels, until it amended its dress code in 2016 to allow for pants.
Several women said they were excited to become "Earls girls" and join the trendy social scene during this time. Managers would frequently party with employees. Some women described Demeray as charismatic, impressive and fun-loving.
They said they were initially flattered when he would compliment their bodies or give them attention.
All of the women said they discovered they would be more likely to get scheduled for good shifts if they played along with Demeray's sexually explicit conversations. One woman said that Demeray was "in such a position of power that all of us young girls just went along with him."
Three women said when they rebuffed advances they had their shifts cut.
"I think it was because I wasn't feeding into his flirty games," said one of the women. She is the woman who said Demeray didn't sexually harass her but did insult her publicly.
Emma, 30, said constant sexualized and image-driven comments from her boss during formative years had such a lasting psychological impact on her and her self-image that she still discusses it with her husband years later.
"He created a complex about my appearance and who I was, and that I wasn't good enough."
Multiple women said they want Demeray to apologize for past behaviour — behaviour that Demeray flat out denies.
Male staff vouch for women
After the allegations were first publicized, two men who worked in the kitchen while Demeray worked at Earls told CBC News they witnessed several situations similar to those detailed in the story.
"With [Demeray] denying things, that's absolutely frustrating, and he should definitely be held accountable for his actions," said Rory Dunn, who worked with Demeray from 2012 to 2015.
"It's unfathomable that anyone working at Earls during that time would say that these allegations are untrue."
Dunn said he wanted to speak up now because he fed into the "toxic culture" in the workplace where sexual harassment was played off as a joke. He noted that Demeray "set an example that this was OK."
"Some people will argue that he has changed," one former bartender said. "But without him publicly acknowledging his past actions, it is hard to believe he's changed in terms of the ways he treats and views women."
If you have information related to this story — or you want to share your own experiences with harassment in the restaurant industry — contact firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.