Erin McDonough was sexually assaulted by the union rep tasked with helping with her workplace
At the age of 22, Erin McDonough had a new vehicle, no debt, and a six-figure salary.
A 2016 graduate of a community college program, she was licensed as a Class 4 Power Engineer in New Brunswick and should’ve been enjoying her career and her life.
But McDonough, now 29 and living in Halifax, said that instead she was subjected to ongoing gender and sexual-based discrimination, bullying, harassment, and sexual assault in her workplace.
“No job is worth getting humped against a wall and having men give you wet willies and call you sugar tits and ask you to go mess around and be completely disrespectful towards you for 12 hours a day,” McDonough said in an interview.
In 2018, she said the harassment took an even darker turn.
During an out-of-town work event in March of that year, McDonough was asked to attend a hockey tournament in Edmundston, NB organized by her workplace. During that event she said Andrew Clark, her co-worker and union rep tasked with helping her navigate her workplace harassment, followed her back to her room where he sexually assaulted her.
“I literally woke up and that’s my first memory, sitting up in my bed and being like, ‘What are you doing in my hotel room?’ And him literally sitting there touching himself, being like, ‘What? You don’t want to have sex?’ And then...from there, well,” McDonough said, her voice trailing off.
The Halifax Examiner reached out to Unifor Canada to ask if the union, the union local, and/or member Andrew Clark were issuing public statements or providing comment but did not receive a response.
“You basically have to grieve the person you were before all this stuff happened,” said McDonough. “One of the biggest struggles for me was I just wanted to get back to what I was like before the assault happened and before everything happened and I can’t. I’m a completely different person now.”
McDonough did go to the hospital where she had a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) exam. She said she initially reported the incident to Edmundston police, but at the time was too scared to provide the details required for an investigation.
As of December, 2021 there is an ongoing police investigation into her 2018 sexual assault allegation.
“There’s a paper trail, and my paper trail is strong too because during the period that I needed stress leave, I just had have so much documentation of me going to my doctor, going to therapists, trying to prove that I really am this messed up over what happened and how they treated me,” she said.
McDonough is now suing Unifor Canada and Unifor Local 523N (Lake Utopia Paper). Clark, the acting vice president of her union local who she said sexually assaulted her, is also named in an amended statement of claim filed with the New Brunswick Court of King’s Bench in June by Halifax firm Valent Legal.
The document claims that the defendants “owed a general duty of care, and a fiduciary obligation” to allow McDonough to work in an environment “free of sexual misconduct, including gender and sexual- based discrimination, bullying and harassment and sexual assault, as a result of its obligations to protect the Plaintiff’s interests and rights in the workplace.”
Neither Unifor Canada, Unifor Local 523Nfile, nor Clark have filed a defence; rather, they are moving to have her suit dismissed.
None of McDonough’s claims have been proven in court.
‘Everybody has the right to go to work and feel safe and respected’
McDonough has been vocal on social media about her experiences while working for the J.D. Irving Group of Companies — specifically Lake Utopia Paper and Irving Tissue — between 2015 and 2020.
“Everybody has the right to go to work and feel safe and respected, no matter their gender, religion, sexual orientation, or what they look like,” McDonough said.
“And that’s why we have unions and that’s why we have policies. So, if those things are all in place and this still happened, then we have some work to do.”
The amended statement of claim filed in June comes on the heels of one filed last year.
In July of 2021 McDonough and her lawyer at the time filed a statement of claim in New Brunswick against J.D. Irving and several employees, some of whom also served as Unifor representatives.
It outlined how she said she was treated at her workplaces and the trauma that resulted. Several incidents were detailed in the 2021 statement of claim, including regular harassment by one employee at Lake Utopia Paper that began in 2016 and involved “repeated and persistent sexual advances” that continued into 2017.
In October 2017 McDonough filed a complaint with the human resources department about the employee and an investigation followed.
The claim noted that through the course of the investigation led by Industrial Security Limited (an Irving subsidiary), McDonough’s complaints were deemed to be “well founded” and there were “multiple corroborating witnesses” to the employee’s conduct.
“The director of Human Resources at Lake Utopia Paper informed the Plaintiff that the complaint had been “resolved”. However, despite these assurances, (the employee) was not terminated, nor disciplined to any significant degree,” the claim said.
In another of several outlined incidents, McDonough said that on one particularly hot day in 2017 she wore shorts to work, just like many of her male co-workers often did.
It was the first and last time she’d do so.
She said that a co-worker “rubbed her bare legs with his hands” when they were working in the control room.
On another occasion, the same man approached her as she was leaving the women’s locker room and “used his body to physically thrust himself against her” before pinning her against the wall where he “dry humped her.”
‘Failed her dramatically’
When McDonough moved to Nova Scotia earlier this year, she was urged to reach out to Emma Halpern, executive director and manager of legal services with the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia.
In an interview, Halpern said she was horrified when she met with McDonough and heard her story.
“She was working in a place and had a union that was designed for that very purpose, to address harassment of workers, to address violence towards workers,” Halpern said.
“And yet the very entity that was designed to protect her failed her dramatically and further caused her harm and assault. That has to be brought to light in order for us to understand these harms and for us to move forward to a future where we don’t see this happening to others.”
Halpern said when she and her legal team first went through McDonough’s file, they quickly determined she’d done “everything she was supposed to” in terms of identifying the harassment and assaults at the hands of her co-workers. She then sought legal recourse, as was required, by going to her union.
‘An important case to bring forward’
Halpern described what happened to McDonough as a dramatic example of the failures of a legal system, specifically as it pertains to women.
“You can imagine how horrific that would be and how you would lose faith very quickly in the justice system, in the ability to access justice, and really start to believe that we have a system that’s very much stacked against women and does not create safe work environments for women to be free of sexual violence and sexual assault,” Halpern said.
Describing herself as “taken aback and alarmed” by the lack of support McDonough received in the aftermath of her experiences, Halpern said she wanted to ensure McDonough had proper legal representation and support going forward.
“In my work, very rarely have I met someone as courageous and forthright and strong as Erin. She is brilliant and articulate and, quite frankly, a force to be reckoned with...You shouldn’t have to have that level of strength and resiliency to bring (something like this) forward,” Halpern said.
“And yet the reality is that it really takes someone with that internal drive and strength that Erin has to be able to really bring these things to light because it is so hard. It is so insidious and so harmful the way in which sexual harassment and sexual assault actually occur in male-dominated workplaces.”
After meeting with McDonough, Halpern reached out to lawyer Michael Dull at Valent Legal and together they pored over her file.
“This was an important case to bring forward given this reality that from our perspective, the initial allegations that she was making about the workplace were very serious and needed to be taken seriously,” Halpern said.
“But not only were they not taken seriously. She was then further assaulted by the person who was put in place to protect her, and that is a very, very serious violation and one that needs to be litigated and brought to light.”
‘Clearly we’re not doing enough’
Halpern said that over the course of her career she’s spoken with many women who’ve worked in a variety of male-dominated workplaces. She said workplace sexual harassment and assault are unfortunately far too common.
“You don’t have to take it from me, you just have to open a newspaper to see the number of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases that come out of those male-dominated workplaces everywhere, from policing to military to corrections. We know that it is happening across this country,” Halpern said.
“And yet as a society it is being swept under the rug and it is unfortunately not something that we are addressing with the full force of our legal system or even from a societal pressure standpoint. Clearly we’re not doing enough because it’s continuing to happen.”
Halpern said people in unions, workplaces and within justice systems must create avenues for change. This begins, she said, by believing survivors when they come forward and also working with them. She hopes McDonough’s story encourages other survivors to speak up and pushes those in positions of authority working in male-dominated workplaces to take action.
“I hope that there’s justice for Erin in her case and that the harms that she experienced are truly brought to light and that she receives some personal justice in her fight,” Halpern said.
“But I also hope that Unifor in particular takes very, very seriously what has occurred in this case and puts policies and practices in place to ensure that future women are safe in their workplaces.”
Union has jurisdiction
In an oral decision on January 6 of this year, Court of King’s Bench Justice Kathryn Gregory agreed with defendants J.D. Irving and employees and union members Andrew Clark and Dave Arseneau that the court didn’t have jurisdiction to hear the statement of claim filed by McDonough last July.
It was found instead to fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the union’s collective agreement. “At issue is whether this court has jurisdiction over the alleged claims by Ms. McDonough, or are these claims over which a labour arbitrator provided for in the collective agreement has exclusive jurisdiction,” Gregory said in her decision.
Gregory said the collective agreement incorporates the principles set out in the New Brunswick Human Rights Act, the Canadian Bill of Rights, and by letter of reference “a policy mandating a respectful workplace free from harassment of any kind.”
“Clearly these agreements are intended to capture claims which are in the nature of sexual harassment.” Gregory stated.
The court ruled to dismiss the action “for want of the jurisdiction.” The court also granted the defendants $800 in costs payable by McDonough.
‘No meaningful investigation ever took place’
The amended statement of claim was filed in June in recognition of Unifor’s jurisdiction over McDonough’s alleged claims.
It said the “acts and omissions” of the union and Clark resulted in McDonough being put off work without disability benefits from October to March 2019.
McDonough hasn’t worked in her field since June 2020 and “has been unable to return to work in her firm of choice.” She’s currently working two jobs unrelated to her community college training.
The amended claim also noted that: As a result of the acts and omissions of the Defendants and the Defendant Clark, the Plaintiff has suffered significant psychological injuries, and has been put to out-of-pocket expense for medical treatment, rehabilitation, psychological counselling and other care, for which she makes a claim for special damage.
Although McDonough reported her sexual assault to her union, the amended statement of claim said nothing was done to address it. It also states that despite her reporting it, her alleged assailant continued to be responsible for the investigation into her prior sexual harassment allegations.
“I’d have to work night shifts with him where there would be like six people in the whole mill and I’d just be literally trying to get through the mill, get through the night shift, without running into him,” McDonough said.
The amended statement of claim notes that despite repeated assurances that her complaint was taken seriously by the union, no investigation occurred.
“Given that no meaningful investigation ever took place, there were no changes to the Plaintiff’s work environment following her report of sexual harassment allegations to the Defendants,” the amended statement of claim said.
“She continued to endure sexual harassment until she was forced to remove herself from the toxic and dangerous work environment under medical advice.”
The amended statement of claim also states that Unifor is “vicariously liable” for Clark’s actions, specifically McDonough’s sexual assault and battery.
“The Defendant Clark sexually assaulted the Plaintiff while he was employed by Unifor and over the course of that employment. Unifor is vicariously liable for the resulting damages,” the claim notes.
McDonough said because of what she’s endured, she can no longer work in the industry or in her home province. She believes no one would hire her there even if she could.
“I went to school for two years. I took a really good engineering course and I was making six figures at 22 and I quite literally had it made. I was riding the gravy train and I was going to stay there and be very much set up for life,” McDonough said.
“This girl was smart. She did it right. She doesn’t have debt, she went to school, and then it was just like ‘Smack.’ A bus hits you. Where else am I going to work with my two-year course in New Brunswick, let alone the fact that I’m traumatized? I’m not going to be able to go back into a male-dominated industry and feel safe after this.”
‘A completely different person now’
McDonough said she wanted to speak out not only because what happened to her is wrong, but also so that other women working in similar male-dominated industries might be more willing to come forward and share their own experiences.
“I had to work extra hard. I always said they had nothing on me because I would give ‘er, I’d be there early, didn’t call in sick, because I was just so paranoid of them labelling me,” she said. “I gave my all and look where it got me.”
Although she doesn’t yet know if she’ll go back to school and pursue a new career or if she’ll ever return to New Brunswick, McDonough is certain things will never be the same.
“I’m a completely different person now... It wasn’t just the incident. It was the aftermath of how people treated me and responded to the trauma. It’s an uncomfortable topic and they don’t want to talk about it,” McDonough said.
“It was really unfortunate to see people turn their back on me and not believe me and just want me to stop talking about it. That was really difficult. But I’m now moving forward and while it’s been really hard, I like this version of Erin way better anyways.”
A court date to determine whether the amended statement of claim moves forward was set vfor September 19 in Saint John. That appearance was moved to an as yet undetermined date due to the unexpected holiday created by the death of Queen Elizabeth II.