Warning: This story may be triggering for those who have experienced sexual harassment or know someone affected by it.
The only Indigenous employee of a northern Saskatchewan non-profit has alleged she was sexually harassed in the workplace.
Sunshyne Charles, a Cree mother of four, reported unwanted sexting from her boss Matt Heley to executive board members of New North on Sept. 20.
New North is a publicly funded association based in La Ronge that advocates for 35 small communities in northern Saskatchewan.
The sexting scandal was first reported by the Prince Albert Daily Herald.
Heley denies sexually harassing Charles, his executive assistant, in a series of suggestive text messages that started on the morning of Aug. 15.
He was the chief executive officer of New North but has resigned. He said his departure was not related to Charles’ allegation but because he accepted a job offer in Australia.
He doesn’t deny sending the 140 texts.
“When I texted her what I did it was because I was pretty shattered psychologically,” Heley said in an interview. “I’ve never really said anything to her like that before.
“I acknowledge she felt uncomfortable about what I said to her.”
A copy of the series of texts supplied to APTN News shows the first one arrived at 7:03 a.m. on Aug. 15 and the last one at 5:01 p.m. on Aug. 16.
The copy also shows Charles initially responding to her boss, then replying intermittently until she stopped altogether.
“Omg are you even getting these?” Heley asked in his final text.
APTN is not publishing the sexually suggestive texts that Charles included with her letter to the executive board of directors on Sept. 20.
“I did not choose for Matt to imagine up the idea that aside from me being his assistant, I would also be his mistress,” she said in the letter.
“I never expected to be a part of a sexual fantasy of his let alone be forced to read the details of it in text messages.”
Nicole White, the project lead of Enough Already Saskatchewan, which works to raise awareness of and end sexual harassment in the workplace, said this form of unwanted communication violates the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code and the Saskatchewan Employment Act.
It is also a form of bullying and violence, she added, and a breach of trust when it happens in “a power relationship” between a boss and an employee.
Charles, who worked with Heley on and off for six years, said his messages caused her “shock and fear.”
She told the executive board she never “initiated” the conversation nor was she “comfortable” with it.
“What began as a normal chat going back and forth suddenly turned into unwanted explicit sexual content pertaining to various body parts of mine,” she said in her letter, “which included a variety of sexual acts being performed on me by my boss Matt.”
Heley said he told the executive board he “made a mistake.”
“I basically gave my side of the story to them” at a virtual hearing on Aug. 30, he said in an interview.
He said Charles was invited to do the same but did not appear. Nor did she attend similar meetings organized in September and October, Heley said in an interview.
Charles said in an interview she didn’t feel safe – even virtually – with Heley at the meetings.
White said sexual harassment in the workplace is “a big problem” in Saskatchewan.
Between 2016 and 2018 alone, Occupational Health and Safety in Saskatchewan investigated 408 such complaints.
“The actual harassment that is happening is even higher,” she said.
Bruce Fidler, who was chair of the executive board, released a statement on Oct. 7 confirming Heley was no longer CEO.
In referring to Charles’ letter, he said the executive board took the allegations “seriously” and acted “to mediate the complaint and find resolution.”
He said some of New North’s policies weren’t up to date and needed to be revised. He also said the board and staff would receive further training.
Fidler, the mayor of Creighton, did not return requests for comment. APTN has learned he is no longer on the board.
According to Charles, Fidler should have done more to support and protect her. She said she was left feeling unsafe and unable to return to the workplace.
She also said Fidler didn’t discipline Heley.
“I have not only been sexually harassed by my boss, but I also feel that I have been” let down “by the Chairperson, Bruce Fidler,” she alleged in her Sept. 20 letter. “What Matt did was wrong, plain, and simple.
“It is and should have initially been handled by the Executive Board to deal with and at the very least, result in some form of disciplinary action.”
White said the way employers react can further traumatize employees.
“Employers need to take complaints seriously and investigate appropriately,” she said in an interview. “There need to be clear steps and consequences.”
Enough Already Saskatchewan is a five-year federally funded pilot project launched in 2020 to address, prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.
White said harassment can be physical, verbal – in the form of sexualized language, inappropriate jokes, sexist and demeaning comments, or unsolicited sexual texts or emails – and visual, such as in the display of sexually explicit material.
Heley said in an interview he learned about Charles’ allegation and letter to the executive board from Fidler.
He said he was assured by board members “who had seen the allegations that I had nothing to worry about. That I was in the clear.”
He agreed with Charles that the executive board dropped the ball.
“The fact is they still really didn’t do anything,” he said in an interview.
Charles, a member of Lac La Ronge Indian Band in north-central Saskatchewan, said she considered Heley “a close friend” and noted they regularly exchanged text messages outside working hours.
“Conversations between us on weekends were very normal but for whatever reason, only Matt would know, this conversation was going to change everything, at least for me it was,” she said in her Sept. 20 letter.
Charles is still an employee of New North but said she has not returned to the workplace.
In her letter, she said she filed a complaint against Heley with the RCMP in La Ronge.
No criminal charges were laid against Heley but Const. Dan Cline said in an email obtained by APTN that he spoke with Heley on Sept. 6 and “warned” him “not to bother” Charles.
Heley confirmed in an interview he met with an RCMP officer following up on Charles’ complaint.
“The cops told me that it was – the texts between us, or the incident – was clearly a result of miscommunication,” he said in an interview.
Sending 140 texts in one day to Charles was “very uncharacteristic” of him, he added.
Heley alleged Charles initiated a physical relationship with him last spring.
“…Her claims of sexual harassment are simply not all there,” he said in an interview. “And further – on [her complaints] that she felt in fear of me – just have no credibility.”
Charles denied the two had a physical relationship. She said in her letter the pair had a friendly yet professional relationship until he sent the series of unwanted texts.
Enough Already Saskatchewan is led by a coalition comprised of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, Saskatoon Industry Education Council, Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law Create Justice research centre.
White said a recent survey for the project “found 40 per cent of Saskatchewan residents have either personally been impacted by harassment in the workplace or know someone who has.”
However, she said the survey respondents didn’t know where to turn for help.
White said it’s harmful to leave employees to deal with the trauma of workplace sexual harassment on their own.
“When we talk to survivors, many of them articulate that what happens after they file a complaint is just as harmful as what occurred to them at work,” she said in an interview.
Don’t feel supported
Workers who don’t feel supported by their employer, White said, can contact the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission or Occupational Health and Safety.
Hilary Peterson, of Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan, said her organization provides survivors of workplace sexual harassment with four hours of free legal advice through the Shift Project website.
She said there are options in both civil and criminal court when it comes to seeking remedies after experiencing sexual harassment.
“If someone is thinking, ‘I’m not sure what happened to me is workplace sexual harassment,’ those folks would still qualify for our program,” she said.
With files by Michael Bramadat-Willcock/Prince Albert Daily Herald