An Alberta minister says he was not aware of allegations made in a lawsuit filed against the office of the premier of Alberta by his former chief of staff.
Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation Doug Schweitzer’s former chief of staff Ariella Kimmel, in a statement of claim filed Oct. 1, alleges sexual harassment and fabricated rumours of her leaking stories to the media as well as heavy drinking by ministers and senior staffers inside the legislature.
Kimmel alleges repeated attempts to have her issues addressed were ignored, before she was eventually fired this past February.
None of the allegations has been proven in court. A statement of defence has not yet been filed. Schweitzer is not named in the lawsuit.
While speaking at an unrelated news conference Thursday, Schweitzer was asked about the allegations made in the lawsuit. He said while he has not read the statement of claim, a lot of what he read in the news coverage on Wednesday was new information to him.
“Quite a bit of it was new to me, particularly in relation to my colleague — all of that information was new to me yesterday,” said Schweitzer.
“I learned a lot yesterday in that report. 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. I was a reference for her. I’d work with her again any second, any day. I believe in her. She is dedicated, she works incredibly hard.
“Sexual harassment is an issue that we have to take completely seriously in any workplace. We have to make sure we hold ourselves to a high standard in government, particularly when you’re in a position of leadership. And I want to make sure that we send that signal to staff and people who work in the legislature, people who work for the government of Alberta, that sexual harassment is not acceptable, period.”
Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that Ivan Bernardo — a principal secretary in Premier Jason Kenney’s government — made a sexually inappropriate comment to one of Kimmel’s female staff members.
“Mr. Bernardo looked at this female’s body and told her ‘I haven’t seen you on this floor before because with a body like that, I would have noticed you!'” the statement of claim reads.
The next day, Kimmel reported the incident to the chief of staff to the health minister, as well as the premier’s director of issues management, according to the document.
About a month later, on Nov. 17, Kenney’s principal secretary met with Kimmel and allegedly told her Bernardo “was not going to be fired” and had decided to leave his post by the end of the year.
In a statement Wednesday, Bernardo said it would be inappropriate to comment as the matter is before the courts.
“When it came to a situation involving Ivan Bernardo, I heard rumblings — like third and fourth hand,” Schweitzer said Thursday. “By the time I heard about it in the legislature, it was already being looked into through the HR process and through the premier’s office. Again, a lot of that information was new to me yesterday.”
The government responded to the allegations in a statement Wednesday, saying Bernardo has not been a government employee since December 2020 and the decision to end Kimmel’s employment was unrelated to the matters contained in the statement of claim.
The government said it will initiate an independent review of human resource policies for political staff, “ensuring that processes are clear and that all staff are fully aware of procedures and policies.”
The allegations were brought up in the legislature again Thursday during question period. NDP MLA Janis Irwin said it is “simply unbelievable” that the minister did not know about the complaints.
“There’s two scenarios in my mind: either the minister is fully unaware of what’s happening in his own office, which is troubling in itself, or he is intentionally misleading Albertans. Which is it?”
Associate Minister of Status of Women Whitney Issik responded, saying the province has zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace.
“We previously mandated mandatory respect in the workplace training for all government employees, including political staff,” she said, reiterating the province will review human resources policies.
The NDP also learned that Bernardo left government and ended up at a law firm working on a government file through Alberta Health Services. Health Minister Jason Copping said he has spoken with the AHS CEO and board chair about it.
“They have indicated to me that they have asked the firm for which this individual worked for, that they be removed from the AHS file while this matter is being addressed,” he said. “This is a serious issue and we’re taking it seriously.”
Kimmel’s lawyer Kathryn Marshall was unable to respond to Thursday’s new political developments, but made it clear in a statement that “no political staffer should ever be fired from his or her job for blowing the whistle on sexual harassment, as was done in this case.”
Schweitzer added that he will see to it that the government review is thorough.
“Hopefully that is a robust exercise for us to make sure that we catch any issues if there are, and make sure there are consequences if there’s found to be sexual harassment through that review. Hopefully there are consequences that come with it,” he said.
“It also sends a signal to the government of Alberta as well that we want to engage with on a regular basis that we take these situations very seriously,” he said. “We want to hold ourselves to the highest possible standard.”