A former UCP staff member has launched a lawsuit against the office of the premier of Alberta and it has at least one UCP MLA calling on Jason Kenney to resign.
In a statement of claim filed Oct. 1, Ariella Kimmel — the former chief of staff to the minister of jobs, economy and innovation — alleges sexual harassment, fabrication rumours of her leaking stories and heavy drinking by ministers and senior staffers inside the legislature.
None of the allegations has been proven in court. A statement of defence has not yet been filed.
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The statement of claim says that on Oct. 19, 2020, Kimmel went into the office of Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen, where she discovered him drinking alcohol with another chief of staff. The statement also notes Kimmel was previously in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Dreeshen prior to her role as chief of staff.
The pair in the office told Kimmel they were going to another legislative office for drinks, to which Kimmel said she would meet them there after she finished work.
Later that evening, the statement claims Kimmel met the pair at another minister’s office, where they had been joined by another minister, staffer and a former MLA.
“The plaintiff immediately observed that all the individuals were heavily intoxicated,” the statement of claim reads.
Kimmel was concerned about how intoxicated Dreeshen was and encouraged him to stop drinking, after which he “aggressively yelled at her to the point of where she was in tears and a concerned bystander intervened,” the statement alleges.
The lawsuit also alleges that on Oct. 21, a group of staff gathered in the then-health minister’s office, during which time Ivan Bernardo — a principal secretary in 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 reads.
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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 statement of claim.
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.
Kimmel alleges repeated attempts to have her issues addressed were ignored, before she was eventually fired this past February. Kimmel is seeking just under $400,000 in damages.
The government has responded to the allegations. In a statement Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney’s chief of staff said sexual harassment is abhorrent and has no place in our workplaces or society.
“Any Government employee who believes they have witnessed or been personally subjected to harassment is strongly encouraged to come forward so that appropriate action can be taken,” Pam Livingston said.
“We cannot comment on the specifics of confidential human resource matters, but note that Mr. Bernardo has not been an employee of the Government of Alberta since December 2020.
“The decision to end Ms. Kimmel’s employment with the government was unrelated to the matters contained in her statement of claim. The government will fully respond to the allegations in court as appropriate and required,” the statement continues.
“This government has zero tolerance for harassment and takes all allegations of this nature very seriously.”
“The government will also 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 statement goes on to say respect in the workplace training is already mandatory for all government employees, including political staff.
In a statement, Bernardo said:
“This matter is now before the courts. It would be inappropriate for me to comment in any manner on the statements made within the claim, as I will likely be called as a witness in any proceedings. I welcome an independent and impartial review by the court, and I look forward to providing my testimony.”
Global News has reached out to Dreeshen’s office for comment and will update this story once a response is received.
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Responding to a question about the allegations by NDP MLA Janis Irwin during question period Wednesday afternoon, Kenney said sexual harassment and harassment of any kind is always abhorrent.
“We must have workplaces and society that is free of that harassment. People who have been victims of harassment must feel comfortable to come forward to tell their stories and to see action taken,” Kenney said.
“In this instance, Mr. Speaker, I was informed by my chief of staff late last fall about rumours circulating about inappropriate comments being made to female staffers by that individual. I was assured that action was being taken and shortly thereafter, that individual’s contract ended with the government.”
Irwin pressed Kenney on the issue, asking whether any matter like this in the future will be investigated by an external body.
Kenney said “we are appointing an independent review to advise the government of how to improve human resources practices for political staff so that they know that they are safe to come forward to report their experiences to ensure that action is taken.”
In the wake of the allegations, a member of UCP caucus is calling on the premier to step down.
In a tweet sent Wednesday, MLA for Chestermere-Strathmore Leela Aheer said in part “Ariella Kimmel is an incredible and courageous women. Premier Kenney-you knew! Step down!”
At the Alberta legislature later Wednesday, Aheer went on to say “this is failure of leadership and a failure of being human.”
“When a person discloses that harassment is happening, we have a responsibility to follow through with that and find out and at least make sure that that person is safe within the organization that they’re in,” she said.
“Premier Kenney should step down.”
Kimmel’s lawyer said in a statement that everyone deserves a safe work environment free from harassment.
“Political staffers are often forced to suffer in silence and have little to no recourse. It is wrong, and it needs to end. Politicians need to lead by example. Every political office should have a clear sexual harassment policy and 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,” Kathryn Marshall.
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