Manitoba Liberals call for inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment, bullying in Winnipeg labour movement

The Manitoba Liberals are calling for an independent inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment and bullying within Winnipeg’s labour movement.

In a letter to Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont asked for an all-party agreement for an inquiry into allegations against union members that came to light through an article published in March by Rank and File, a Canadian labour news website.

“We have a very serious situation here,” Lamont told reporters Thursday.

“There are multiple allegations … including very serious complaints, possibly criminal complaints, that are not being taken seriously.”

The Rank and File article mainly focused on various alleged incidents involving members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), from locals to the provincial and national bodies.

It highlighted incidents of sexual harassment dating back to 2015, intimidation toward women who wouldn’t vote with their local unions, and portrayed a system that failed to properly support women coming forward with accusations.

One of the incidents involves allegations against Abe Araya — the former president of CUPE Manitoba who was removed from his position earlier this year after being arrested by for an alleged sexual assault.

Araya allegedly sexually assaulted someone in Brandon, Man., some time in February 2019. He was arrested in Winnipeg on Jan. 21, 2021, but was released from custody and was scheduled to appear in court last month.

Araya’s arrest came after an internal grievance investigation exonerated him, his lawyer said at the time. The spokesperson for CUPE’s national office could not reveal the nature of the complaint or its result.

The Liberals forwarded a social media post to news media Thursday from a former union official that said everyone within the union, at all levels, knew about the allegations when Araya was elected.

The Liberals also forwarded a post from the then-president of CUPE Manitoba — which has since been deleted — that suggested the allegations against Araya and his arrest were a “set up” to ruin his election run.

Another incident involves an investigation report published by the Canadian Labour Congress in October 2019 that dismissed an allegation of sexual harassment at CUPE Manitoba.

Lamont wants an inquiry because he doesn’t believe the investigation can be handled internally, he said. (cupe.mb.ca)

The accused official was exonerated, the report said, after testimony from another male union member described the incident as “a complete fabrication.” The complainant had said the man not only witnessed the comments, but laughed at them, the report said.

None of the information raised by Rank and File and the Manitoba Liberals is new to the union, and it is “working diligently” to address gender-based harassment and misogyny within it, a CUPE Manitoba spokesperson said in a statement.

The union is deferring anything about a potential inquiry to the Manitoba Federation of Labour, the body representing unions in the province, the spokesperson said.

The Canadian Staff Union, which represents some CUPE employees, has forwarded concerns to CUPE’s national office and is pushing for the union to conduct a “full and wide-ranging investigation” on the allegations, the Canadian Staff Union said in a news release.

Lamont wants to go a step further with an inquiry, because he doesn’t believe the investigation into the allegations can be handled internally, he said.

“This is really about making sure that unions are doing their job properly and protecting workers,” he said.

“It also appears to us that there’s an ongoing pattern of harassment and worse, and that when people have had to try to have it addressed, they’ve been intimidated into silence. This is really an opportunity to give people a chance to speak that we think is incredibly important.

CBC News has contacted the Manitoba government and Opposition NDP for comment, but neither immediately responded.

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