EDMONTON — Alberta's jobs minister says he heard rumours about his chief of staff raising a sexual harassment issue which she alleges led to her being fired by the premier’s office.
“A lot of that information was new to me,” Doug Schweitzer said Thursday.
“When it came to the situation involving Ivan Bernardo, I heard rumblings third- and fourth-hand. By the time I’d heard about it in the legislature, it was already being looked into through the (human resources) process, through the premier’s office.”
Schweitzer was responding to questions about a lawsuit filed earlier this month by his former chief of staff, Ariella Kimmel, against the office of Premier Jason Kenney.
Kimmel alleges the office fostered a "poisoned work environment'' and repeatedly failed to address her complaint of sexual harassment involving one of her staff.
None of the allegations has been proven in court.
Schweitzer was moved into the Jobs, Economy and Innovation portfolio in the summer of 2020.
In October that year through to her firing last February, says the statement of claim, Kimmel reached out many times to two other cabinet ministers and multiple senior staff in Kenney’s office on the sexual harassment allegation.
In the document, Kimmel alleges that Ivan Bernardo, a senior Health Department adviser, degraded and humiliated one of her staff at an office drinks get-together at the legislature. Kimmel alleges Bernardo told the employee, "I haven't seen you on this floor before because with a body like that, I would have noticed you.''
Bernardo, who now works as a lawyer in Calgary, has said in a statement it would be inappropriate to comment on a matter before the courts, but he welcomes a legal review and looks forward to providing his side of the story.
Kimmel, in the statement of claim, says she had been seeking resolution on the Bernardo matter along with a clear public process from the premier’s office on how such complaints should be handled.
She says she was told Bernardo would be leaving by the end of 2020, which he did.
In the meantime, the lawsuit alleges, Kimmel was subjected to anonymous online smears and gossip before being fired. She is seeking back pay and damages.
The statement of claim makes no reference to Schweitzer.
Schweitzer, when asked by reporters why Kimmel would try to resolve the issue by going to others but not him, did not answer directly.
“When she came on as my chief of staff, I had never worked with her before. We built a relationship over time where I came to trust her. I still trust her to this day. She was an excellent staffer," he said.
“Not one thing was alleged about me, my conduct, my office, the environment of my office," he added.
“I take great pride in making sure that I put in place a work environment that everybody feels as though they’re empowered.”
Kenney’s chief of staff, Pam Livingston, has said Kimmel’s dismissal was unrelated to the sexual harassment issue.
The Opposition NDP, during question period, sought answers on what Schweitzer knew.
“It’s simply unbelievable that (Schweitzer) didn’t know about these complaints,” Janis Irwin, women’s issues critic, told the house.
“Either the minister is fully unaware of what’s happening in his own office — which is troubling in itself — or he’s intentionally misleading Albertans.
“And why would he stand by and do nothing why his most senior staffer and most trusted political adviser suffered?”
Schweitzer wasn’t in the chamber.
Whitney Issik, associate minister for the status of women, replied that the United Conservative government has brought in mandatory training for all staff on respect in the workplace.
“And we are going to be initiating an independent review of human resources policy for political staff, ensuring that processes are clear and all staff are fully aware of the procedures and policies,” said Issik.
Health Minister Jason Copping told the house that Bernardo’s law firm has a contract to advise Alberta Health Services, which is responsible for front-line health-care delivery.
Copping said the heath provider has asked the law firm to remove Bernardo from any of the agency's files while the sex harassment allegation is addressed.
“This is a serious issue and we’re taking it seriously,” said Copping.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2021
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press