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Former Alberta legislature staffer alleges ‘poisoned work environment’ in lawsuit

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TORONTO —
A former Alberta government staffer is suing the premier’s office, alleging her contract was terminated after speaking out against a toxic workplace that included on-site intoxication and sexual harassment.

Ariella Kimmel, a former chief of staff for Alberta’s minister of jobs, economy and innovation, alleges that she was subjected to a “poisoned work environment,” and was eventually let go after provincial staff believed she had leaked news of former Chief of Staff Jamie Huckabay’s international holiday.

According to the statement of claim, Kimmel had been at a gathering at a minister’s office in October 2020 when she told Devin Dreeshen, the former minister of Agriculture and Forestry, that he should stop drinking as he had become intoxicated.

As the two left, she claims Dreeshen yelled at her for telling him to stop drinking, to the point where Kimmel was brought to tears and a bystander had to intervene. Kimmel and Dreeshen had been in an “on again and off again romantic relationship” prior to Kimmel’s employment with the province, according to the document.

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Just two days later, Ivan Bernardo, a principal secretary in Premier Jason Kenney’s government, allegedly made an inappropriate comment toward one of Kimmel’s female colleagues while at another gathering. It’s claimed that Bernardo said: “I haven’t seen you on this floor before because with a body like that, I would have noticed you.”

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According to the statement of claim, Bernardo was “known for making sexually inappropriate comments to female staff members.”

None of the allegations have been tested in court.

Kimmel reported the allegation against Bernardo and was told that he “would not be fired” as he already decided to leave at the end of the year. She also told Kenney’s principal secretary about the incident with Dreeshen and expressed concerns surrounding his excessive drinking and the issues that it had caused for herself and others.

In December 2020, Kimmel raised concerns that the alleged sexual harassment had not been addressed and was assured that it would be, but Bernardo was only told that his contract would not be renewed and there were no support measures for the victims involved.

In January 2021, Kimmel found out that others had been told that she leaked the Bernardo incident and information surrounding Huckabay’s trip to the United Kingdom over the Christmas holidays to reporters, even though she was not the one who leaked the information.

Huckabay’s holiday trip eventually led to his resignation later that month.

Kimmel was terminated on Feb. 5, 2021, and eventually found out that office rumours from senior staff members indicated that she had been terminated for “leaking” the Huckabay travel story to reporters.

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In a statement, Pam Livingston, chief of staff to Premier Jason Kenney, called sexual harassment “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,” she wrote in the statement.

“This government has zero tolerance for harassment and takes all allegations of this nature very seriously. We are fortunate to have a highly skilled and diverse public service and we are committed to providing a safe and productive workplace for all of them. In that light, we previously mandated mandatory ‘Respect in the Workplace’ training for all government employees, including political staff.”

Livingston adds that the reason for Kimmel’s termination is “unrelated to the matters contained in the statement of claim.”

The province has also begun an “independent review of human resource policies for political staff” to ensure that everyone is aware of the procedures and policies.

Kimmel is suing for $199,233 in damages for breach of contract, $100,000 in punitive damages and $100,000 in moral damages for failing to implement a sexual harassment policy, subjecting Kimmel to a “poisoned work environment” and spreading “malicious” rumors about Kimmel.

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Kimmel claims that her treatment with the provincial government has caused mental stress, embarrassment, hurt her reputation and hurt her future employment opportunities.

She is also seeking a declaration that she was wrongfully terminated and a declaration that the government “breached its contractual duty of good faith and honesty in contractual performance.”

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