Jill Arnott is worried the firing of a Cree woman in northern Saskatchewan could deter other sexual harassment victims from stepping forward.
“It tells victims not to rock the boat,” said Arnott, a sessional lecturer and executive director of the Women’s Centre at the University of Regina.
“It reinforces the message that every victim of violence already has received, which is don’t tell. Don’t tell or the consequence will be yours.”
Arnott was reacting to the firing of Sunshyne Charles, who worked at New North, a provincially funded lobby group for 35 small communities located in La Ronge, 600 km north of Regina.
As APTN News reported earlier, Charles was terminated on Dec. 23 – four months after alleging former New North CEO Matt Heley sexually harassed her on Aug. 15.
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“I totally think I’m being punished for speaking up,” Charles told APTN.
“I have filed complaints with [the Saskatchewan] human rights [Commission] and with [provincial] employment standards.”
Charles supported her allegation by sharing a series of 140 text messages Heley sent her in a 24-hour period. Because of the sexually graphic nature of the messages, APTN opted not to publish them.
Heley, who has since resigned for a reason he said was unrelated to Charles’ allegation, said he sent the texts but did not sexually harass his former employee.
Charles forwarded the texts to executive board members of New North, including chair Georgina Jolibois, a five-term mayor of La Loche, Sask., and former NDP MP for the region. As an MP, Jolibois was the NDP critic for Indigenous Services and deputy for northern economic development before becoming deputy health critic.
Charles said three of the five New North executive board members didn’t believe her allegation of sexual harassment against Heley. APTN reached out to those three; two declined to comment and one didn’t respond.
Jolibois, who is Dene, is said to be on leave from New North to run for the provincial NDP in the Athabasca byelection. She didn’t respond to requests for comment and neither did NDP leader Ryan Meili.
Susan McKenzie, the interim CEO of New North, didn’t reply when APTN sought to confirm when Jolibois went on leave as chair.
In an emailed statement, the Jolibois campaign said the candidate was busy with her campaign.
However, spokesperson Modeste McKenzie said the Saskatchewan NDP believes “harassment of any nature is abhorrent and inappropriate.”
McKenzie said Jolibois, before going on leave, was “actively involved in updating [New North’s] harassment policies and processes, to ensure all employees have a safe and respectful workplace.”
He said if Jolibois wins, she “will join a caucus team that is nearly 70 per cent women and one committed to pay equity, strengthening supports for women fleeing domestic violence and reforms to occupational health and safety laws to protect contract and gig workers from harassment in the workplace.”
McKenzie referred further questions on the “staffing matter” to New North, where McKenzie told APTN the organization wouldn’t comment on personnel issues.
The ruling Saskatchewan Party, which funds about 95 per cent of New North’s nearly half million dollar annual budget – including $185,796 for salaries and benefits in 2020 – declined to comment.
“In accordance with Saskatchewan election rules, we will not be able to respond until after the byelection is complete,” said Shaylyn McMahon with the Ministry of Government Relations.
“Please contact us again after the byelection.”
Larry Kowalchuk, a human rights lawyer in Regina, said Saskatchewan has some of the toughest laws in North America when it comes to protecting women and men who face sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment’s illegal under our human rights code,” Kowalchuk said in an interview before quoting from the law: “No person shall refuse to employ or continue to employ, threaten to dismiss, or penalize in any way any person with respect to that person’s employment or term…
“On top of that, you can’t discriminate with respect to that person’s employment…or intimidate, retaliate against, coerce or impose any pecuniary penalty, loss or disadvantage on any person.”
Alongside his own legal practice, Kowalchuk is a consulting lawyer with The Shift Project, which supplies legal advice to workers experiencing sexual harassment in their Saskatchewan workplace.
He said the law protects anyone who has complained about or is thinking about complaining about sexual harassment. As well as anyone providing a disclosure or testifying about sexual harassment.
“That’s how broad the protection is under the code,” Kowalchuk noted.
He said sweeping occupational health and safety legislation under the Saskatchewan Employment Act also protects employees and contract workers.
“The division has a sexual harassment investigation unit specifically to deal with possible sexual harassment complaints,” he said. “So you can contact them and they will do an investigation.”
Arnott said firing Charles looks bad.
“It tells me that they have a bigger investment in protecting their name, their reputation – in terms of the organization – than anything else,” she said, suggesting New North missed an opportunity to be a leader and educate the community about the issue.
As did the NDP, Arnott said.
“You’re supposed to be the party championing this all the time. What are you doing for her [Charles]? She’s got the text messages. You could read them – any one of you. Do something for her.”