Former Tiber River employee’s lawsuit alleges Winnipeg company let her go because of pregnancy

A former employee is suing a Winnipeg-based wellness company that is currently facing backlash from a social media campaign, alleging Tiber River let her go because she was pregnant.

Deanne MacNeil, who was the company’s marketing manager, filed her statement of claim against Tiber River Naturals in Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench in the late fall of 2020.

It alleges the company terminated her position a few months before she was set to take her second maternity leave.

The statement of claim says MacNeil had been back from her first leave for two weeks in late October 2019, when she told her bosses she was pregnant again. She told them she would be taking leave around when she was due on April 1, the lawsuit says.

Three months later, she was terminated with two weeks’ notice in a meeting with company president Michelle Lalonde and founder Adriana De Luca, according to the court filing, which argues her termination was wrongful and a violation of Manitoba’s Employment Standards Code.

That left her 200 work hours short of what she needed to qualify for employment insurance benefits, the claim says.

MacNeil also got a letter in that meeting that outlined a different separation offer from Tiber River that would give her a total of eight weeks of working notice — enough to qualify for employment insurance, according to the statement of claim.

That offer was on the table if MacNeil signed a document releasing the company from legal liability linked to her termination, the claim says, which she declined.

Her position was terminated when Tiber River’s marketing department was outsourced to another company, 6P Marketing, according to her lawsuit.

That company offered jobs to other members of Tiber River’s marketing team, the claim alleges, but De Luca told MacNeil at a meeting a few days later “that the reason she was not offered the same opportunity … was because she was pregnant.”

The suit argues Tiber River’s actions “were and continue to be harsh and reprehensible” and deserving of “punitive damages and/or aggravated damages.”

It says MacNeil has suffered damages due the alleged wrongful dismissal, “the full amount of which will be proven at trial.”

The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven in court.

Tiber River has filed a statement of defence arguing the case should be dismissed.

Social media backlash

In recent weeks, Tiber River has become the target of a social media campaign accusing the company of fostering an abusive workplace marred by racism, withheld wages and other labour violations.

The “Not My Tiber” campaign follows similar worker campaigns in Winnipeg in recent years, including those at Stella’s Café and Bakery and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

In a statement on Instagram this week attributed to Lalonde and De Luca, Tiber River said it has tapped an external human resources firm to independently assess the workplace and committed to following its recommendations.

Lalonde, who also co-owns the company, is married to Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding, government media relations director Blake Robert confirmed in an email on Saturday.

While Fielding’s conflict of interest disclosures have included Tiber River leases, those are in reference to Lalonde’s financial interest in the leases, not Fielding’s, Robert said.

“The minister has made all the appropriate disclosures to the conflict of interest commissioner, who understands the minister’s disclosure forms to reflect the statement above,” Robert said.

Tiber River Naturals co-owner Michelle Lalonde, seen here in a May 2020 file photo, is married to Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding. A spokesperson for the province says Fielding has no financial interest in the company himself, but has recused himself from any ministerial-level decisions regarding the company’s labour practices. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Fielding spoke with the commissioner again recently to confirm he’s taken appropriate steps “in light of the concerns raised on social media,” Robert said.

That includes recusing himself from any ministerial-level decisions linked to Tiber River’s labour practices.

Company denies allegations

In Tiber River’s statement of defence, filed in late November last year in response to MacNeil’s lawsuit, the company claims it didn’t have a say in who the outsourced marketing firm hired.

The company also denies De Luca told MacNeil that the reason she wasn’t hired was because of her pregnancy — and that if she did, “which is not admitted, but expressly denied, this was purely conjecture on [her] part.”

The statement of defence says the company knew MacNeil was pregnant, but didn’t know how far along she was or when she planned to take maternity leave.

The court filing claims the company gave MacNeil working notice to March 1, 2020, which made her eligible for employment insurance.

Tiber River says gave MacNeil a separation offer, but “denies that inappropriate consideration was offered … or that there was anything improper” about it.

The statement of defence confirms MacNeil didn’t sign to accept that separation offer, but says Tiber River “has no knowledge as to the reason for [her not] doing so.”

The company’s statement on social media this week also said Tiber River has appointed a new chief operating officer to handle day-to-day operations including communications between owners, managers and staff.

“[We] have been so disheartened and sorry to hear that not everyone’s experience has lived up to what we set out to create,” says the post.

“We are also sorry that some of our current and former staff felt they had no other choice but to turn to social media with their concerns.”

Tiber River also said it is bringing in an organizational culture and civility expert, additional human resources capacity and an accredited leadership coach.

The Not My Tiber social media account’s demands include a public apology from the company, compensation for wages it says were withheld and for Lalonde to step down as president.