Former Manitoba finance minister Stan Struthers has issued an apology after five women, including a former cabinet colleague, came forward to CBC News with allegations of unwanted touching — behaviour they say went on for years despite complaints to NDP brass.
CBC has learned party officials received at least three complaints about Struthers's tickling and harassment between 2010 and 2015.
One of those complainants was Joëlle Saltel-Allard, Struthers's former press secretary. She said her boss's behaviour was well-known among staff, who nicknamed him "Minister Tickles" behind his back.
"If he would see me coming down the hall, he would come and start tickling me, or in his office, around staff, around his assistant, so it would happen quite frequently and it continued for a long time," she said.
Karen Peters, a community activist, says she lost count how many times Struthers tickled her when she served alongside him on the Manitoba Round Table for Sustainable Development when he was conservation minister from 2003 to 2009.
"It's about power, being tickled," Peters said. "It comes into your personal space and it ignores your validity as a person to control your personal space — your agency."
The Manitoba NDP cannot confirm there was ever a formal investigation into Struthers, who left politics in 2016. He was never formally disciplined.
More than a dozen former staffers, stakeholders and other MLAs told CBC that Struthers's touching was an open secret within the party during his time in office.
A former cabinet colleague, who asked that her name not be published for fear of professional retribution, said she was subjected to his unwanted touching for nearly a decade. She felt if she were to complain to party officials, it would have been perceived as a sign of weakness.
"People would question your strength and whether you could handle it," she said.
She described the culture at the legislature as a "broken system, where broken people were protected."
Complaining, she said, would also have been seen as betraying the team.
"This is a cabinet minister," she said. "It is about keeping a valuable asset protected."
In a statement to CBC, Stan Struthers apologized for his actions.
"This week I learned of incidents in which my behaviour made former colleagues and staff feel disrespected. I am sorry. I apologize for any interactions I have had that have been inappropriate and that have caused any person to feel disrespected or uncomfortable."
Struthers said his intention was never to treat women as "anything other than equal and respected."
"I have been fortunate to work with many strong, intelligent and talented women and have always valued these relationships."
Saltel-Allard, Struthers's former press secretary, said she tried speaking with co-workers about the minister's inappropriate touching, but they would usually say something like, "Oh, that's just Stan."
She tried sitting farther away from him and changing direction when she spotted him in the hallways.
"I'd also always try to have people with me in the room. But, I mean, he did it even if they were there," she said. "That didn't seem to be a deterrent."
Things came to a head for Saltel-Allard on Sept. 15, 2010. She had to take a two-hour road trip from Winnipeg to Manitou with Struthers for a news conference.
During the drive, Struthers started telling inappropriate and sexually suggestive stories, she said.
"We were driving down the highway and he would put his hand on my thigh."
After the trip, Saltel-Allard went to her immediate supervisor in the cabinet communications office.
She said her director was sympathetic and brought the issue to the party's chief of staff, Michael Balagus.
"The information that was relayed to me by the director, by my communications director, was basically to shut up and suck it up," Saltel-Allard said. "And that was the end of what I heard about it."
'He should have been disciplined. He should not have been a cabinet minister. He should have been probably kicked out of the party.'- Karen Peters, community activist
Balagus, who resigned in 2012 and is now Ontario NDP chief of staff, told CBC he did not recall the complaint but remembered cautioning Struthers about "massaging and hugging" women.
Saltel-Allard's director confirmed he told Balagus about her concerns and, as far as he knew, no action was taken.
"The way that the party dealt with the complaint was just contradictory to everything that they supposedly stand for," Saltel-Allard said.
Nothing was done, she said. No apology, no acknowledgement of what she'd gone through and no offer of counselling services.
"It was the beginning of making me feel insignificant and unimportant and really like my complaints didn't really matter because there was a bigger picture at hand, or there was a bigger goal at hand, and that was, you know, win the next election."
Not long after the trip, Saltel-Allard went on stress leave for three months and then quit.
'Move away or block him'
Karen Peters said the tickling and touching often occurred in front of others, including MLAs. She said she's angry the party apparently did little to try to stop it.
"He should have been disciplined. He should not have been a cabinet minister," she said. "He should have been probably kicked out of the party."
Peters did not complain to the party about Struthers and tried her best to avoid contact with him.
"I actually put my hand away to stop him sometimes, and then he would say, 'Oh, you're not one of those uptight people.' I would generally just move away or block him."
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Struthers was one of five cabinet ministers who resigned in 2014 in a revolt against Premier Greg Selinger's leadership.
CBC confirmed that in 2015, two female staffers brought forward complaints about Struthers to the party's then-chief of staff.
The chief of staff, who spoke to CBC on condition his name not be used, said he talked to Struthers about the complaints and told him such behaviour would not be tolerated.
He said no further action was taken at the request of the complainants.
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