Former Manitoba premier Greg Selinger apologizes after women allege ex-minister tickled them. (Photo by The Canadian Press)

Former Manitoba premier apologizes after women allege ex-minister tickled them

WINNIPEG — Former Manitoba premier Greg Selinger is apologizing — but declining calls from his own leader to resign — after numerous women have come forward alleging one of his former cabinet ministers sexually harassed them.

Several women who worked with Stan Struthers, an NDP cabinet minister from 2003 to 2014, say he tickled them, groped them or made sexual remarks.

The women have said Struthers touched them in front of others, but Selinger said he never witnessed any inappropriate behaviour.

“Our government and political party failed them,” he said at his Winnipeg constituency office Tuesday. “Too many suffered in silence for too long. I want to apologize so that the voices of these women can be heard.”

Selinger said two women came forward with concerns about Struthers to his chief of staff, Jeremy Read, in 2015. Selinger said the women didn’t want to take the complaints further. They just wanted the behaviour to stop.

He said he directed his chief of staff to make it clear to Struthers that any sexual harassment had to end and a legislature committee started working on improving safe workplace policies.

Selinger said recent allegations that have come to light made him sick to his stomach and he wishes more had been done under his watch.

“I wish that these incidents of sexual harassment were brought to my attention. The grotesque incidents that have been brought to light during the past few days happened under my watch as leader of the party and government of the day,” he said.

“As such, I must take responsibility for our inaction in addressing these incidents.”

Selinger said he was asked by current NDP Leader Wab Kinew to resign or cancel Tuesday’s media availability responding to the allegations facing Struthers. But Selinger said he’s not ready to go yet. He said he’s open to an “exit strategy” but will decide that in consultation with his constituents.

“I told (Kinew) I’ve always been open to a transition strategy which is respectful to the people of this community,” he said.

Shannon VanRaes, who worked with Struthers, said last week she was on a flight with him in 2010 when he asked if she liked being tickled.

VanRaes said she told him no, but Struthers put his hand under her skirt and later made sexual comments. Later that year, she said, he got down on the floor, grabbed her foot and pulled it toward his crotch.

Joelle Saltel-Allard has said Struthers used to touch her when she was his press secretary between 2009 and 2011. She said he put his hand on her knee while they were driving to a press conference and talked about sex acts he would enjoy.

Both women say they lodged a complaint with their boss, Jay Branch, and were told he took it to Selinger’s former chief of staff, Michael Balagus. Both say they were later informed they would have to develop thicker skin and “suck it up.”

Balagus has denied he was told about the formal complaints. Attempts to reach Branch, who worked as a journalist for The Canadian Press more than a decade ago, have been unsuccessful.

Another government communications worker, Julie Kentner, said Struthers tickled her during a meeting in 2013 while they were discussing a document.

Kentner said she told supervisors and they took her seriously, but she later decided not to pursue the matter formally.

Struthers, who has declined interview requests, issued a written statement last week apologizing “for any interactions I have had that have been inappropriate and that have caused any person to feel disrespected or uncomfortable.”

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