Sask. women share #metoo stories detailing 'toxic' culture of restaurant industry

Women are speaking up about sexual harassment in the Saskatchewan restaurant industry.

Stories emerge after CBC News investigation revealed series of sex harassment allegations

People say more must be done to eradicate a culture of sexual harassment in restaurants. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Saskatchewan women are sharing experiences — some dating back decades — of being sexualized and harassed in the restaurant industry in response to a CBC News investigation.

Melissa Burdon said there is a pervasive tolerance toward sexual harassment in the industry. 

"It's absolutely everywhere," said Burdon, who has worked in the Regina restaurant industry for 10 years. "And when women are speaking up, they're not being taken seriously." 

The recent CBC News investigation revealed numerous sexual harassment allegations against mental health advocate Jim Demeray, who had worked in the Regina restaurant industry. 

Thirteen women have alleged a pattern of repeated verbal sexual harassment and two say Demeray acted inappropriately toward them while in a position of power. ​They say they were subjected to constant, highly sexual and explicit comments​ by Demeray in the workplace while he was their boss between 2000 and 2016. 

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."

Demeray has declined follow up requests for comment from CBC but responded to CTV on Tuesday.

"There have been careless words spoken that I regret," Demeray said. "I'm sorry for that. But I have always respected my female colleagues."

A Regina mother emailed CBC News to say she encouraged her daughter to complain to higher-ups about Demeray but, "she needed a job and felt if she did, she would be fired." 

She alleges Demeray made "appalling" remarks toward her young daughter, for example asking her "a lot about anal sex" or suggesting he had a sex dream about her.   

The mother is concerned that restaurant culture encourages the exploitation of young women.

"It is deplorable that young women are forced into accepting this kind of behaviour and harassment as normal, or just something to be endured for the sake of a good job and good tips." 

Burdon said many restaurants have started outwardly marketing a "sexualized server." 

"There's this idea that these women are going to flirt for more money or are going to be put up with this harassment because it just seems to be this industry standard that has been created through restaurants profiting off of that."

'Play the game'

Regina writer Kristen McLeod said she worked at Earls in the late 90s, when waitresses wore baggy jeans, button-up shirts and Doc Martens. The 46-year-old said she witnessed a "toxic culture" shift as the restaurant industry became more sexualized. 

She said women and men who didn't embrace the change lost money or quit. 

McLeod said at one point she was only scheduled in the less lucrative family zone in the Earls restaurant rather than the high-tipping lounge section. She said a male manager told her it was because she had gained 30 lbs and "didn't fit the mold." 

"I was really insecure and instead of quitting and finding something more positive to do, I lost the weight and played the game." 

McLeod hopes the conversation around #metoo moments in the restaurant industry will include how "a deeply sexist and patriarchal culture" grooms young people to conform to sexualized workplaces.

"Maybe some people can say no, but how can you expect that from a single mother who needs money? Or a student?"

Kristen McLeod said she has spent years unlearning what she 'drank like Kool-Aid.' She hopes stories emerging about sexual harassment lead lead to reforms that would make her feel comfortable to have her three daughters in the industry. (Submitted by Kristen McLeod)

The women say the memories of what happened to them are still vivid.

Michelle Ducie, 46, said she will "never forget her first job" as a 15-year-old hostess at a Regina hotel restaurant. 

"After a few hours, the owner told me I should have a shorter skirt and unbutton one or two in my shirt." 

Ducie pretended to speak to a customer on the phone but actually called her dad.

"He said, 'Walk out and I'm on my way.' By the time I told the owner I was going to the bathroom and walked out the front door my dad pulled up. He said 'Don't ever go back.'" 

Speaking out for the first time 

Tenille Lafontaine was compelled to speak publicly for the first time about her own experiences after reading about the investigation into Demeray, in part, because the women who allege sexual harassment are not named. 

Lafontaine worried this meant people could "point fingers," detach from the situation or flat-out dismiss the allegations. 

She said her former supervisor's actions toward her still linger in her mind decades later. She said it happened when she was 17, in a grocery store where she worked part-time. 

It's not really rocket science to have human resources type support in place. ​​​​​- Crystal Lang

She said her male supervisor put his arm around her, squeezed her shoulder and said to another man in the trio:  'have you met our new employee Tenille? Isn't she great?" 

"At that moment, his hand went from my shoulder down my arm and cupped my breast entirely," she said. "This was no mistake." 

Lafontaine remembers freezing. 

"It shook me and it was a scary moment. I was vulnerable. I was alone in an area with two grown men and I could do nothing."

Tenille Lafontaine is pictured at 17 years old, the age she was when she says a supervisor sexually assaulted her in the workplace. (Submitted by Tenille Lafontaine)

She felt ashamed and alone, like there was no one she could tell. Lafontaine, now a mother to two daughters, said she's hopeful that with more conversation, social media and resources other women won't feel so alone. 

Sexual harassment daily

Crystal Lang said she still can't believe what she endured in the restaurant industry. 

When she was a teen she dreamed of being a chef and was hired into a Regina restaurant kitchen around 2006-07 in Regina. 

"The atmosphere was 100 per cent toxic. There was probably sexual harassment that happened daily," she said.

In the close quarters of a kitchen there was no way to get away from the sexual remarks, she said. She decided to try her hand at serving and worked at multiple restaurants. Some experiences were more positive than others, but all but one involved varying degrees of sex talk or strict regulations about women's appearance. 

She said at one family-centric chain restaurant, her general manager referred to her as "big sexy" in front of everyone. 

"If the management can get away with that, so where does the standards lie for anyone below that?"

She's hopeful that the industry has changed for the better. 

Not rocket science

Burdon said there needs to be more consequences and accountability for restaurant and bar staff, especially higher-ups. 

"There needs to be more internal repercussions for these men who are doing these things. Usually they're protected by owners and that needs to stop, people need to be fired." 

She said hiring more female management and leadership could be a step in the right direction, but all managers need to learn how to intervene, whether it's staff or customers doing the harassment.

University of Regina sociology professor Lori Walker agreed, saying more training is needed from the top-down. 

"There's another thing called bystander intervention, and that means you're training managers and employees to intervene when they're seeing that a worker is being harassed," said Walker, who is also a former criminal analyst with the Regina Police Service. 

Walker said companies must also "ensure there is a safe and structured process by which employees can submit complaints with regards to managers and supervisors." 

Lang said it's not complicated for workplaces to create a healthy culture, but they have to choose to do so. She said companies should establish strict rules, enforce them and hire people that believe in those values rather based on their years in the industry.

"It's not really rocket science to have human resources type support in place."