Mayoral candidate Glen Murray tried to find out who made complaints when he led think-tank, emails suggest

Winnipeg mayoral candidate Glen Murray tried to find out who made anonymous bullying complaints about him when he led the Pembina Institute, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

The internal Pembina correspondence CBC obtained also reveals the environmental organization’s ombuds director — whose job entailed fielding employee complaints — quit Pembina after accusing Murray of undermining her independence. 

The emails appear to contradict Murray’s claim he was never made aware of complaints about him during the year he ran the Pembina Institute and that the institute had a system in place to ensure anonymous complaints made their way to the board.

Murray’s mayoral campaign stated Thursday the candidate had no knowledge of any complaints against him and noted the chair of Pembina’s board said the institute’s management did not bring complaints to Murray’s attention.

Murray, who was Winnipeg’s mayor from 1998 to 2004, worked mostly from Toronto as the executive director of the Alberta-based Pembina Institute from September 2017 to September 2018.

He opted to resign after being handed a termination notice by Pembina board chair David Runnalls, according to correspondence obtained by CBC in September. 

A CBC News investigation published last month revealed Murray’s year at what he called his “dream job” was mired by what former Pembina employees described as chaotic management, as well as allegations he drank to excess at company functions, engaged in sexual innuendo in workplace settings and rubbed himself up against one employee on the dance floor at a company social function in Banff.

Murray has repeatedly denied the grinding allegation but has not commented on the sexual innuendo allegations. He also denied the alcohol consumption allegations when asked about them on Oct. 3 by the Winnipeg Free Press.

At a Sept. 29 news conference following CBC’s initial report, Murray apologized to Pembina staff for allowing his personal life to affect his work.

He then retracted that statement at a mayoral forum on Oct. 5, saying “I don’t bring my problems to work.”

At an Oct. 7 news conference, he said that his initial written and spoken statement was issued in error.

Murray has repeatedly stated Pembina’s board and leaders never made him aware of harassment complaints.

In a one-on-one interview with CBC News on Oct. 11, he also said he was not made aware of any complaints of any sort.

“There is a respectful workplace policy [at Pembina] which I have respected that allows people to make anonymous complaints at any time that don’t go to the executive director. They go to the board,” Murray told CBC’s Marcy Markusa.

“Not one single complaint was ever filed with me in what is a well-used system — and not just about any kind of harassment. None at all.” 

WATCH | Murray says in Oct. 11 interview no complaints were filed against him at Pembina:

A 1-on-1 interview with Winnipeg mayoral candidate Glen Murray

9 days ago

Duration 9:53

Glen Murray, one of 11 people running to become mayor of Winnipeg on Oct. 26, speaks with Information Radio host Marcy Markusa about why he wants the job.

Emails obtained by CBC News and interviews with Toronto staff call into question Pembina’s ability to process complaints made by staff about Murray when he served as the organization’s executive director.

‘Kept … looking at me for a confession’: employee email

Pembina emails suggest Murray tried to discern the source of two bullying allegations made about him during the fall of 2017, two months after he joined the organization.

“Glen has approached me several times today about two individuals that have gone behind his back and talked against him to the board about bullying, etc.,” a Pembina finance official told then chair Runnalls in an email dated Nov. 14, 2017.

“He kept bringing the conversation back to these two passive aggressive individuals and looking at me for a confession which I did not volunteer.”

That finance official did not respond to requests for comment from CBC.

According to emails obtained by CBC News, one of the two bullying complaints about Murray was logged by Pembina’s ombuds director, Penelope Comette, on Nov. 1, 2017. 

An email from the complainant was also sent to eight Pembina board members, including board chair Runnalls, on Nov. 14, 2017.

In that email, the complainant expressed “concerns about Pembina’s future” and alleged a breach of confidentiality and unprofessional behaviour.

“I personally have been subject to his offensive language … and I have witnessed it with other staff. I am deeply insulted and offended by his foul language and his ‘jokes,'” said the former employee, who left the organization two months after Murray became executive director.

“I would have loved to be part of this new chapter at Pembina. Unfortunately, it is not possible, but I want to see Pembina prosper.”

The former Pembina employee who made this complaint declined comment, saying their current employer did not authorize an interview. 

It is not clear what happened to the complaint after it was logged and sent to Pembina board members.

In a statement issued Thursday, Murray’s mayoral campaign pointed to an excerpt from a Sept. 27 letter authored by his lawyer in response to previous questions about Murray’s time at the Pembina Institute.

“To Mr. Murray’s knowledge, no one ever filed a complaint against him,” Bailey Harris said in that letter.

“Mr. Murray’s representatives reviewed these allegations with Mr. David Runnalls, the former Chair of Board of the Pembina Institute during Mr. Murray’s tenure. We are advised that the former Board Chair unequivocally said that the senior management team never brought forward any complaints of this nature against Mr. Murray.”

Belittled for picking up child from daycare: employee

Former Pembina employee Nithya Vijayakumar, who was a transportation advisor based in the organization’s Toronto office, told CBC News she complained about Murray to ombuds director Comette.

Vijayakumar said Murray belittled her commitment to her job during a meet-and-greet event with three employees from ERA Architects Inc. on Nov. 2, 2017.

“He was talking about how he made the switch to his new role at Pembina and how it was a passion project of his and he was dedicated to working — in contrast to me, who leaves work early to pick up my kids from daycare,” Vijayakumar said in a telephone interview.

“I wasn’t aware that people were looking down on me for that, and as a new parent, I was already insecure about the work-life balance and how much time I was giving to either my kid and family or work.”

Vijayakumar said she complained to Comette about what she described as a dig.

A woman wearing glasses and an orange sweater looks off to the left.
Former Pembina employee Nithya Vijayakumar claims Murray belittled her commitment to her job during a meeting with Toronto architects by noting she sometimes left work to pick up her then 18-month-old child from daycare. (Nithya Vijayakumar/Twitter)

Emails obtained by CBC News show Comette logged a complaint about this topic on Nov. 3, 2017. It is not clear what happened to the complaint after that.

“There was clearly not an established process for getting complaints from staff to the board,” Vijayakumar said. 

Emails obtained by CBC News show at least one board member repeatedly asked for Pembina human-resources reports to be added to board meeting agendas after they were not included.

Vijayakumar quit the Pembina Institute in February 2018, five months after Murray joined the organization.

Murray’s campaign said to his knowledge, no one ever filed a complaint against him.

Independence undermined, ombuds director claimed 

According to emails obtained by CBC News, Comette accused Murray of undermining her independence before she quit the organization.

In November 2017, the ombuds director asked Murray to hire more human resources staff but he resisted that effort, according to the emails.

“In a small organization like Pembina the focus should be on developing a healthy work culture first and figuring out what role HR plays in that second,” Murray wrote in an email dated Nov. 27, 2017.

Three months later, Comette initiated a severance discussion, according to communications obtained by CBC.

In an email dated Feb. 24, 2018, she complained Murray told her not to communicate with staff, obstructed her ability to report to the board of directors and ultimately changed her role with the organization.

“My role, reporting structure and title have changed. I do not accept these changes,” Comette wrote in the email.

“The Director of the Ombuds Office holds a unique role that requires significant independence,” she continued.

“In all organizations (and governments) the Ombudsperson runs the risk of being obstructed and/or marginalized by senior leaders. This has been the case at Pembina.”

Comette declined CBC’s request for comment, stating she is unable to do so.

Murray’s campaign was asked to comment on Comette’s claim she was undermined but did not address it.

Murray resisted whistleblower training: emails

In March 2018, Murray pushed back against a Pembina board directive to provide whistleblower training to employees.

“We have so many critical priorities I am at a loss to understand why this is time sensitive and staff who have heard of this don’t understand what issue this is trying to address and why this is a priority for our board?” Murray wrote in an email to a board member on March 16, 2018.

“They are asking who are we supposed to be blowing a whistle on?”

The board persisted. In March 2018, Pembina’s board asked Murray to hire an external contractor to handle ombuds office duties on behalf of the institute, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

In June, Murray was told again to make this happen.

“Three months is ridiculous. I hope the discussion today reinforced the responsibility!” one board member told another in an email dated June 7, 2018.

Murray told board members he hired Cambridge LLP to do the ombuds work in July 2018.

Murray said one of the partners at the firm “is a former colleague of mine and we benefit from a preferential rate for the service. All calls to the Ombuds office will be assessed by … a founding partner of the firm to direct it appropriately with confidentiality,” Murray said in an email dated July 4, 2018.

“To avoid any conflict of interest any calls related to the Executive Director will be handled by” the founding partner, he said.

Murray’s campaign was asked to comment on the whistleblower training and ombuds office contract but did not address those matters.

Pembina declines comment on complaints

Chris Severson-Baker, Pembina’s current executive director, said the institute regrets it is unable to comment on personnel matters for privacy and legal reasons.

“Pembina has comprehensive workplace policies and procedures in place, including policies and procedures governing respectful workplace behaviours and the prudent use of resources and assets,” he said in a statement.

Chris Severson-Baker, executive director of the Pembina Institute, declined to say how many complaints were brought to Murray’s attention. (Pembina Institute)

During the summer of 2018, Pembina enlisted George Greene, the founder of consulting firm Stratos, to conduct a survey of employees and interview directors, according to emails obtained by CBC News and interviews with former employees.

Lindsay Wiginton, who worked as a Pembina transportation director based in Toronto, said she was among those interviewed by Greene.

She said she told Greene that Murray belittled her in front of other Pembina staff at Terroni, a Toronto restaurant, for insisting upon having her work duties spelled out in a written document. 

“That felt like publicly shaming my efforts to protect myself contractually,” Wiginton, who quit Pembina in 2019, said in a telephone interview from Toronto this week.

Wiginton also said she told Greene about the emotional toll of working in an office where she said she was asked to conduct duties outside of her work plan.

“I spent a lot of my energy sort of trying to prevent myself from needing to interact with him,” she said.

Murray’s campaign was asked to comment on the event Wiginton described, but did not address it.

Greene did not respond to requests for comment.

‘We felt vulnerable’

After an emergency board meeting to assess Greene’s findings on Aug. 24, 2018, Pembina board members, including Runnalls, presented Murray with a termination notice on Aug. 31, 2018, and later granted him the option to resign, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

Murray resigned on Sept. 9, 2018. He said this fall he resigned from Pembina for “personal and family reasons” and that he was not a good fit for Pembina because he attempted to make changes to the organization.

Vijayakumar questioned the latter claim.

“I think it was a lot more than that. I think people were less concerned about the structural changes that he was making, and it was more about creating a toxic environment in Toronto,” she said.

“We felt vulnerable because he was a powerful, distinguished man in our office. We’d listen to him when he’d take us out to lunch and over drinks. We’d listen to him talk about different people in the political space, and it didn’t feel safe.”

A woman wearing glasses smiles at the camera.
Former Pembina Institute employee Lindsay Wiginton says Murray belittled her for asking that her work duties be written down. (Lindsay Wiginton/Twitter)

Wiginton said she too did not feel safe in Pembina’s Toronto office. The institute’s board never should have allowed the office environment to deteriorate to the point where an external consultant had to be hired to investigate, she said.

Pembina’s board “didn’t put in place the mechanisms that they could have to manage the risk, especially given that [board chair] David Runnalls said specifically that he made a high-risk, high-reward decision to hire Glen,” said Wiginton.

Murray’s campaign was asked for comment on Wiginton and Vijayakumar’s statements about the Toronto office, but did not address them.

Runnalls declined comment.

Five men are standing behind podiums on a television set. A sign on the floor says "Winnipeg Votes."
Murray, at the far right, is one of 11 candidates running to become Winnipeg’s next mayor. He’s shown here with four other candidates at CBC’s mayoral debate on Oct. 19. From left to right: Scott Gillingham, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Shaun Loney and Kevin Klein. (James Turner/CBC)

Wiginton and Vijayakumar are among nine former employees or board members who have spoken to CBC News about Murray’s time at the Pembina Institute.

Murray’s mayoral campaign has distributed letters of support from Runnalls, one-time Pembina retreat speaker Bill Reed and former Pembina employee Angus Affleck, who previously worked in the constituency office when Murray was the member of Ontario’s Provincial Parliament for Toronto Centre.

Murray is among 11 candidates now running to become mayor of Winnipeg in the Oct. 26 civic election.

Runnalls suggested Murray’s experience at Pembina would make him a good mayor.

“At a time when climate action against the growing reality of changing weather and threats from heat domes, fires and increased flooding, cities will have to take the lead in meeting these new challenges,” Runnalls writes in his letter of support. 

“Glen is perfectly placed to respond to the challenge and to turn Winnipeg into Canada’s leader on climate change.”

Wiginton said she found Runnalls’s statement frustrating, given her experience.

“This attitude that in order to solve climate change, we should promote the people who are big talkers and have big ideas but don’t pay attention to caring for people is exactly why we’re failing to address climate change,” Wiginton said.

“This is something that I think both Glen and David Runnalls profess to take very seriously, and I feel like we can’t make the changes we need to without being decent to each other.”