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Trudeau Foundation accused of delaying sex harassment lawsuit, insisting it be heard in Quebec

Former NWT premier Stephan Kakfwi, who was a foundation mentor, is also named in lawsuit and denies any harassing or sexual contact with complainant Cherry Smiley

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The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation has twice sought a change of venue for a trial into allegations by a former foundation scholar who says she was sexually harassed by her assigned mentor, pressured to keep it quiet and left unsupported and unbelieved.

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A year after Cherry Smiley’s lawsuit was first filed, the Trudeau Foundation has not yet filed a statement of defense but has twice filed motions that the suit be dismissed or denied jurisdiction so it can be heard before a judge in Quebec.

“In my years of litigation, I’ve never had a defendant try so hard to have the action heard in a specific province,” said Smiley’s lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, a partner at Levitt Sheikh LLP in Toronto.

Smiley’s claim was filed in Vancouver in May 2021. In December the foundation asked the court to dismiss it, saying BC doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear the case because the foundation is based in Quebec and the incidents allegedly took place in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Stephen Kakfwi in 2001.
Stephen Kakfwi in 2001. Photo by Chuck Stoody /The Canadian Press

Smiley refiled the lawsuit in St. John’s — and added Stephen Kakfwi, former premier of the Northwest Territories who was her assigned mentor with the foundation’s program, as a defendant.

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On May 22, the foundation objected to that venue as well.

Their motion says: “Newfoundland and Labrador is not the most convenient forum in which to proceed with this litigation.” The foundation said Quebec is the proper venue for the lawsuit as that is where its headquarters are and where all but one of its six officers resides.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. In a statement to the National Post, the Trudeau Foundation disputes Smiley’s claims.

“We do not agree with, and have contested, the legal claim filed by Ms. Cherry Smiley,” said Dyane Adam, vice-chair of the foundation’s board of directors. “As the matter is now before the court, we will not make any further comments at this time. We intend to let the legal process follow its course.”

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Questions about efforts to dismiss the claim or move to a trial went unanswered.

Kakfwi, 71, was only recently added as a named defendant but has already filed a statement of defense. He denies any harassing or sexual contact with Smiley.

One thing Smiley and Kakfwi agree on, however, is the foundation didn’t adequately investigate the allegations but were keen on them signing confidentiality agreements that would silence them on the matter.

Kakfwi has been the Dene national chief, a member of the Northwest Territories legislative assembly, and territory premier from 2000 to 2003.

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Smiley, 38, is a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation in British Columbia and the Dine’ Nation. She received a Trudeau Foundation scholarship in 2016, during her PhD at Montreal’s Concordia University.

The foundation, a not-for-profit organization, is named after the father of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but the prime minister is not currently involved in its operations, although he was until 2014. His brother Alexandre Trudeau represents the Pierre Trudeau Estate.

The foundation offers scholarships for doctoral researchers and matches them with a mentor to help them become “engaged leaders who have meaningful impact in their communities and institutions,” according to their mission statement.

Smiley attended a foundation conference in St. John’s as part of her scholarship program, where she met Kakfwi, her assigned mentor, in June 2018. Her statement of claim says that over dinner Kakfwi invited Smiley to visit him at his home in Yellowknife, “ which made the Plaintiff uncomfortable.”

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Afterwards, they shared a taxi to the hotel where they were both staying. In the lobby, she claims, “Kakfwi suddenly moved his body extremely close to the Plaintiff and grabbed her upper arm, close to her breast, and squeezed it. He proceeded to hold onto her upper arm for an extended period, rubbing and massaging it. ”

At a closing conference dinner a few days later, she claims, Kakfwi again pulled Smiley close, grabbed her arm near her breast, and reiterated his invitation, saying she could stay “in his spare bedroom.”

She claims she was frightened and intimidated because she required a reference letter from Kakfwi to continue receiving Trudeau Foundation funding.

In his statement of defence, Kakfwi claims there was nothing sexual or harassing about their interactions.

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“His interactions with the plaintiff were brief in nature, always in the presence of others, and could not be constructed by any reasonable person as being sexual or harassing in nature,” his statement says.

He said he was joined at the conference by his wife, who is a former foundation mentor, but she was not at that first dinner.

Kakfwi said he had dinner with Smiley and a male scholar who he was also assigned to mentor during the conference.

During dinner, he claims he invited both scholars to visit him in Yellowknife, “to experience the richness of the northern Indigenous culture and broaden their horizons as Trudeau scholars.” Kakfwi said he and his wife had previously hosted foundation scholars at their home.

After dinner, he claims he texted his wife to let her know he was on his way back and he and Smiley shared a taxi to the hotel. He said he sat in the front seat and Smiley in the back.

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They parted in the lobby, which he said was “bustling with people.”

He denies grabbing Smiley’s arm, rubbing and massaging it.

Kakfwi said his wife joined him at the gala banquet and as he was leaving, he approached Smiley at her table to say goodbye. Her back was towards him, he claimed, so he touched her arm to get her attention from her.

He denies there was any sexualized contact.

In August, Kakfwi says in his statement, foundation officials asked him to attend a meeting in Edmonton and there he was told of misconduct allegations against him.

He was asked to resign from the foundation and to sign a confidentiality agreement.

He claims he was shocked by this and was refused a copy of the complaints. He asked if the allegations would be investigated by the foundation. The foundation asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which he refused.

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Kakfwi’s lawyer, David Eaton, a St. John’s based partner at McInnes Cooper, said Kakfwi’s response to the allegations and the foundation’s handling of the complaint are fully set out in his statement filed in court. I have declined to comment on the foundation’s jurisdiction motions.

“It is not appropriate for me to provide any further comment,” Eaton told the Post.

Marshall, Smiley’s lawyer, said the foundation seems to be trying to delay a hearing rather than answering the allegations in court.

“It would be very prejudicial to my client to be heard in Quebec. She is not a fluent French speaker, and neither am I, and the only connection of the case to Quebec is the foundation is headquartered there, but it’s a national foundation and the parties all live in different parts of the country.”

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She suggested the foundation might be trying to drain Smiley’s resources.

“They’ve got limitless resources. They can hire lawyers in any part of the country, which they’ve done, and they got all of this taxpayer money to use. It’s like they’re just used to getting their own way,” Marshall said.

Smiley started an online fundraising campaign to help her fund her lawsuit.

“I don’t have the deep pockets or political backing of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, so I’m counting on regular Canadians to help me achieve the justice I deserve,” her GoFundMe pitch says. It had $935 in donations towards its $10,000 goal at deadline.

In an affidavit filed in court, Pascale Fournier, president and chief executive officer for the foundation, said cost was a factor in the request to hold any trial in Quebec.

He said it would be expensive for the foundation to transfer documents and send witnesses to St. John’s and “the Foundation’s resources are limited.”

A hearing to set a date for a hearing on the motion is scheduled in St. John’s for June 21.

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