Stephen Kakfwi, a former premier of the Northwest Territories, is involved in a $1.25 million lawsuit for allegedly sexually harassing a young woman he mentored through a scholarship program.
Cherry Smiley filed the lawsuit against the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation claiming $500,000 for breaching its contractual duty of good faith and honesty, $500,000 for breaching her confidence and $250,000 in punitive damages.
No allegations have been proven in court and no counterclaims have yet been filed from the defendant.
Smiley, a PhD student researching violence against Indigenous women and girls, was accepted into the Trudeau foundation’s scholarship program and subsequently paired with Kakfwi as a mentor.
The two met for the first time at the foundation’s Summer Institute conference in St. John’s, N.L., from June 3 to 6, 2018.
Smiley alleges she and Kakfwi went for dinner on their first night in St. John’s. In the notice of civil claim documents outlining the allegations, Smiley, represented by lawyer Kathryn Marshall, describes Kakfwi inviting her to visit his home in Yellowknife “which made the plaintiff uncomfortable,” the court document states.
After dinner, the pair took a taxi back to the hotel and said their goodbyes in the empty hotel lobby, according to the submission.
Smiley alleges that Kakfwi then “suddenly moved his body extremely close to (hers) and grabbed her upper arm, close to her breast, and squeezed it. He proceeded to hold on to her upper arm for an extended period, rubbing and massaging it.”
At a session later on in the retreat, the civil claim describes a discussion about the Me-Too movement where Kakfwi disclosed that he had once been accused of sexual harassment and called the accuser a liar. “(Smiley) and other attendees were extremely disturbed by this comment,” the claim states.
On June 6, 2018, a gala dinner was held to mark the end of the Summer Institute. At the gala, Smiley alleges Kakfwi pulled Smiley close to him, rubbed her upper arm in the same manner as before and invited her to visit him in Yellowknife.
Upon returning home, the document describes Smiley as feeling “shaken, distressed and upset,” which was compounded by her reliance on a reference letter from Kakfwi to continue to receive the foundation’s scholarship.
When foundation president Pascale Fournier called to ask Smiley how things were going with her mentor, she told the president about the incidents, following up with an email describing the occurrence and advising that she was not comfortable moving forward with Kakfwi as her mentor.
Later that month, Smiley spoke with the foundation’s then CEO, Morris Rosenberg, who told her she was “blowing things out of proportion,” and questioned Smiley in a manner the claim states “was clear (he) did not believe her.”
Smiley said she was also shocked to learn the foundation did not have a sexual harassment policy. She further engaged the president of the foundation’s board of directors, describing the events and assuring that “she had not misinterpreted the incidents.”
In his reply, the board of directors president said, “I understand your email and can assure you that we are taking these events and a few other related events very seriously,” though the notice of claim notes there is no explanation of the “other related events.”
On Aug. 2, 2018 Smiley was informed that Kakfwi would no longer be her mentor and asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). “The Plaintiff felt extremely uncomfortable with this request, which was solely focused on silencing her,” her claim states.
In the submission, Smiley describes a meeting later that month with two board members “focused on pressuring (her) to sign an NDA. She claims they told her that it would be “bad for her” if the incident became public.
Smiley describes feeling “threatened, intimidated, silenced and scared.”
“It was clear that the foundation’s goal was to silence her as quickly as possible rather than address the issue,” as was written in the notice of claim.
“The plaintiff lived in constant fear that her scholarship funds would be cancelled at any moment, and she relied on the funds to support her cost of living and pay for her studies.”
Dyane Adam, vice-chair of the board of directors at the Trudeau foundation, said that “the foundation has a different interpretation of several allegations.”
She said the foundation “approached the alleged incident from June 2018 with deep concern,” and supported Smiley by covering her legal fees and “arranging meetings with her, her counsellor, and supporting companions.”
She said Smiley made the decision to not file a formal complaint leading to an independent investigation.
“The foundation’s policy on the prevention of harassment and violence, adopted in October 2018, and the services of the external ombudsperson were also made available to the scholar,” she said. “However, despite these procedural options available to her, she chose not to file a formal complaint.
“We received the lawsuit yesterday afternoon. In this context, we will not make further comment.”
Neither Smiley nor Kakfwi could be reached for further comment.