OTTAWA – NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has hired an interim chief of staff whose previous management of several sexual harassment cases in Manitoba has been criticized.
The hiring of Michael Balagus, a well-known strategist in New Democrat circles, follows a number of allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at some of the party’s former members, prompting Singh to commit to creating a safer work environment for women.
The appointment is a disappointment to Joelle Saltel-Allard, a former press secretary who says her complaint of sexual harassment against a Manitoba cabinet minister was not taken seriously.
“If Mr. Singh wants to create a safe environment, it won’t be by hiring Michael Balagus,” she said in an interview, adding the hire is a bit of a contradiction. “For myself, it’s a demonstration that we put politics – the desire to win – ahead of the safety of women,” she added.
Balagus said earlier this year that Saltel-Allard’s complaint was never reported to him.
Balagus is on loan from the Ontario NDP for up to two months while Singh finds a permanent chief of staff to replace Willy Blomme, who left for personal reasons in October.
The long-time NDP strategist has worked for two Manitoba NDP government as well as former federal NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin in the early 1990s.
The alleged harassment of Saltel-Allard took place between 2009 and 2011 while Balagus was working as chief of staff to former Manitoba premier Greg Selinger. She was working at the time as a press secretary for cabinet minister Stan Struthers.
Saltel-Allard and four other women have alleged that Struthers tickled and groped them but that their complaints to party brass were ignored. Saltel-Allard said she was informed through her supervisor she would have to “suck it up” with an election on the horizon.
“I understand that he (Balagus) was not the one who caused the sexual harassment, but in my opinion it was the main reason why there were never any consequences for this behaviour,” she said.
Struthers, who has declined interview requests, issued a written statement last February apologizing to women “for any interactions I have had that have been inappropriate and that have caused any person to feel disrespected or uncomfortable.”
Saltel-Allard’s supervisor at the time, Jay Branch, confirmed her version of events to the CBC in February. The Canadian Press has not been able to reach him since.
Melanie Richer, a spokeswoman for the NDP, said Branch never discussed the complaint with Balagus.
But Balagus nevertheless accepted some of the blame because he had not developed procedures to deal with such complaints.
When the story came to light in February, Balagus, working for Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, was suspended for three weeks before resuming his duties. He has since worked to improve reporting protocols for the Ontario NDP.
Balagus apologized to the women for his part in their experiences and said he was committed to ensuring nothing similar happens in his current role.
Singh said in a statement he was enthusiastic about the arrival of Balagus, describing him as a key cog in the historic NDP breakthrough in the 2018 Ontario provincial election.
NDP House Leader Guy Caron said it’s clear Balagus takes harassment issues seriously and has put initiatives in place in Ontario, including anti-harassment training for elected members.
Some NDP MPs were caught off guard by the announcement.
“The first time I heard about him was yesterday,” said Brigitte Sansoucy, a Quebec MP. “I think we have to learn from our mistakes in life and I’m reassured by knowing that the NDP Ontario rules are clear and the space is safe for women,” she said. “We are trying to establish that here and I hope we won’t give up.”
Fellow New Democrat MPs Alexandre Boulerice and Peter Julian welcomed the addition of the experienced Balagus, given his track record in Manitoba and Ontario.
But Erin Weir, a Saskatchewan MP who was dumped from the NDP caucus in February and forbidden to run in the next federal election over a harassment accusation, said the appointment demonstrates a double standard.
Weir said it shows that decisions being taken by the party are arbitrarily taken by the leader.
“There are no rules that apply equitably to everybody,” he said.