‘It appears that these allegations were not taken seriously,’ says chief commissioner David Arnot

Guy Quenneville – CBC News

Posted: October 31, 2019
Last Updated: October 31, 2019

In addition to an ongoing human rights complaint filed against him, two other co-workers of former Mendel Art Gallery and Remai Modern CEO Gregory Burke made allegations dating back years that he had harassed them, according to documents recently filed in court.

Now, Saskatchewan’s chief human rights commissioner is criticizing how those two earlier investigations — which did not substantiate the complaints — were handled.

“It appears that these allegations were not taken seriously,” David Arnot, the chief commissioner for the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, wrote in a recent letter to the lawyers representing Burke and the art gallery in the current complaint against him.

The investigations will now be reviewed under the commission’s expanded probe into the human rights complaint and whether Burke had a pattern of discriminating against female co-workers, Arnot said.

‘Not wholly independent’

According to an Aug. 12 letter from Arnot — attached to an affidavit filed Tuesday by Burke in Saskatoon Court of Queen’s Bench — the art gallery board hired an investigator to look into two harassment complaints made against Burke by two female Mendel colleagues. (Mendel Art Gallery eventually became Remai Modern.)

These complaints are separate from the one filed with the human rights commission, which alleges that Burke discriminated against a female colleague “on the basis of sex [gender] and sexual harassment.”

Burke has denied the allegations in the human rights complaint.

One of the internal complainants alleged Burke behaved in a sexist way and that he undermined and intimidated female colleagues, especially those in leadership roles, according to Arnot’s letter.

“The February 10, 2015 and April 4, 2016 workplace harassment investigations … interviewed limited witnesses and reviewed limited documents,” Arnot wrote.

While the investigator spoke to the complainants, no female witnesses were interviewed, nor was the overall workplace assessed, Arnot added.

“The [investigations] are not wholly independent because they were carried out by an investigator retained and presumably compensated by the board,” he said.

Arnot said the investigations offered no explanation for why Burke’s version of events on certain issues was preferred.

“The reports provide no explanation, other than lack of corroboration, for concluding that certain complaints are unsubstantiated,” according to Arnot’s letter. “On these points, the investigator could have easily reached the opposite conclusion.”

Alain Gaucher, who served as the Mendel board’s chair at the time the investigations took place, declined to comment Thursday.

“The matter is before the court,” he said.

CBC News has contacted Burke’s lawyer, Jay Watson, for comment.

CBC News has also reached out for comment from Kevin Wilson, the lawyer representing the art gallery in the human rights complaints process.

Commission’s approach challenged

In the affidavit filed by Burke this week, Burke asks a judge to end the human rights investigation because the process has dragged on for too long. The human rights complaint was filed in October 2015.

Burke said the lingering taint of the unresolved complaint, and the accompanying press coverage, have ruined his reputation and made him unemployable.

Wilson, the lawyer for the gallery, has questioned the commission’s decision to focus on the other two complaints.

“Those complaints were investigated by an independent third party investigator and were determined not to be substantiated,” Wilson wrote in a 2018 letter to the commission.

Arnot, in his August letter to Wilson and Burke’s lawyer, Jay Watson, said “a thorough investigation in this case requires the commission to make numerous factual findings and to assess the very investigations raised by the respondents.”

“It appears that credibility will be key in assessing the veracity of the allegations of [harassment],” Arnot added.

Dissatisfaction with management style cited

Human rights investigations are generally kept under a tight lid for privacy reasons. But Tuesday’s public court filing contained several pieces of correspondence that provide some suggestion of the defence offered by Burke and the gallery.

“The respondents [Burke and Mendel/Remai] allege that Burke was responsible for implementing significant organizational change” as the Mendel Art Gallery transitioned into Remai Modern, according to a May 2017 Arnot letter.

That letter came in response to a request from Burke and the gallery to have the human rights complaint summarily dismissed.

“[The respondents] allege that the complainant expressed dissatisfaction with Burke’s management style and the operational decisions he made,” Arnot wrote.

According to Arnot’s more recent August 2019 letter, the investigator hired by the Mendel board labelled one of the complainant’s allegations against Burke as “hearsay” and “extrapolation.”

Arnot added that the individual complaints were considered in isolation “and do not consider the possibility of a pattern of subtle undermining behaviour on the basis of gender in the workplace.”

Arnot concluded that it is “not appropriate” to rely on the decisions reached in previous reports.

“The commission has a duty to complete a thorough, professional, and neutral investigation,” he said.


Originally posted by the CBC News on 10/31/2019.