Colleagues’ complaints lodged as long as 10 years ago
MERIDEL Smith, a former Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals employee who reported directly to Peter Jones, called her two years at the centre “the worst career and life decision I have ever made.”
In a 72-page formal complaint, which she sent to a University of Manitoba equity office investigator in September 2009, Smith described a “toxic environment” at RCFFN, in which Jones’ “incessant abuse of authority, power and confidences” eventually drove her to seek a medical leave of absence.
Those abuses include sexual discrimination, violations of U of M policies about staff privacy, mismanagement of finances, and preferential treatment of certain students or employees with whom he had a close relationship.
In the complaint, Smith, who covered administrative, budgeting and HR tasks for RCFFN from January 2007 to January 2009, described a chaotic workplace in which Jones frequently intimidated staff to acquiesce to impulsive demands.
On several instances, Smith wrote, RCFFN administrative staff were pressured to hire certain students at pay rates far above their qualifications. She detailed two instances where Jones appeared ready to hire candidates who were less than qualified because he liked the way they looked.
During an August 2007 round of hiring, “It was brutally clear on who should be hired, but P. Jones was insisting on the less-qualified person,” Smith wrote, adding: “He laughingly pointed out, candidate B would be well-liked by the study volunteers because she was very pretty and, ‘(T)hey would like to look at her.’”
On one occasion, Smith wrote she witnessed Jones laughing about giving an employee a poor job reference to another U of M department, apparently in an effort to prevent her from obtaining employment elsewhere.
Smith described routines where Jones would leave early to go sailing in Gimli, taking select employees with him for paid time away. He would invite staff to leave early Fridays to go for drinks with him, Smith said; outings that were also paid.
Smith wrote about a July 2008 incident where an employee approached her to pay an invoice for $30,000 at Jones’ advice, which was outside of her job’s scope. The amount was above $5,000 and needed to be filed through the university’s purchasing department, she said.
Smith said she explained she wasn’t able to help, but Jones allegedly pressured her until the cheque was cut.
During her medical leave from October 2008 to January 2009, Smith wrote, Jones got another employee to hack into her emails (who later admitted as much to her) within days of her departure. Jones had allegedly told the employee Smith would not be returning to work, though she was only on leave at the time.
Jones also allegedly disseminated Smith’s doctor’s note to other staff, she said, violating the Personal Health Information Act.
“Placed in the identical situation, I would have outright refused to have knowledge of someone else’s passwords… and I would have fought ‘tooth and nail’ against anyone forcing me to obtain this information,” she wrote in her complaint.
Smith said she took multiple concerns to the U of M human resources department, but wasn’t satisfied with its responses. She also alerted the U of M ombudsman, as well as associate vice-president of research Digvir Jayas.
Smith left her job at RCFFN in January 2009, shortly after returning from medical leave.
“It has taken many months for me to get to a point where I could file this complaint, where I have been able to write down all of the events that cause me such great distress and to be able to relive these on paper,” she wrote in her conclusion. “I respectfully ask the University of Manitoba to consider all matters contained in this letter with due seriousness and due diligence, and to act upon them accordingly.”
Smith was later told a U of M lawyer believed her complaint “would not really go anywhere.”
It doesn’t appear the U of M followed up on Smith’s concerns.
Julia Rempel doesn’t believe her encounters with Peter Jones were the most egregious she’s heard about her former boss, but said they bear repeating to prevent future misconduct.
“If the university had looked into the complaints at any point, or had a better system for victims to make formal complaints, that could have prevented the gross misuse of power, sexist treatment of women, and harassment in the past,” she said.
Jones allegedly propositioned Rempel when she was working as his subordinate in 2013.
Rempel said Jones asked her to accompany him on a work outing to a Hutterite colony one evening, and she agreed thinking others would be along for the ride. It was just the two of them.
Jones drove them approximately a half-hour outside Winnipeg and during their meeting at the colony, Rempel said he pulled out a bottle of scotch.
Rempel alleged he drank, then drove them back into the city. She said he then asked her to go for dinner at a restaurant.
“The more he drinks, the more he gets inappropriate,” Rempel said. “He starts to comment on my looks, my job, telling me I’m very pretty, very smart.”
Rempel, who was in her early 20s at the time, said she was getting uncomfortable and believed Jones “was quite drunk at this point.”
Jones allegedly suggested they could become a “nutrition power couple,” something she had heard he had told other women.
Rempel said she tried to get Jones to call a taxi and go home, but he refused. She did not want him driving drunk, so she took his car, drove to her place, and planned to find him a cab from there.
“I never invited him inside, because I didn’t want him to (be there), and that’s when he starts saying more mention of things such as, ‘He doesn’t believe in monogamy.’ That’s when he tried to lean forward to kiss me,” she said.
Rempel said she told Jones to leave, went inside and left him on the porch. She began grouptexting her friends who also worked at RCFFN and called one of them for help.
Jones passed out on her front porch, Rempel said, and her friend’s husband came to get him.
The next day at work, Rempel alerted human resources about Jones’ behaviour, then later met with them for more discussion.
Rempel ultimately didn’t file a formal complaint because she was worried about losing her job. She lamented Jones was so well-connected in the nutrition community that complaining about him could hurt her career.
“I was put in a very difficult situation because at that time… I had recently purchased a house, I was single and by myself. (Jones) is known for laying people off or firing (people). You don’t have job security at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods,” she said.
A U of M human resources representative suggested Rempel speak with the school’s human rights and equity adviser.
“Even if no official complaint is made, it would be useful for her to speak with you; it might help prevent any future incidents from happening,” the representative wrote to Rempel in an email provided to the Free Press.
Rempel said she didn’t meet with the adviser and it appears her informal complaint didn’t have any ripple effect.
In the weeks following, Jones appears to have kept emailing Rempel, asking to follow-up on their discussion from that night.
“We discussed such a vast array of issues over the duration of the conversation (some of which were sensitive and kind of emotional), that I thought it not unreasonable to consolidate some of the outcomes and conclusions drawn from that discourse,” Jones allegedly wrote in an email dated Aug. 9, 2013.
Rempel had told him she felt his behaviour was inappropriate.
“I guess it is fair to deem that inappropriate, but I wanted to let you know that the suggestion was made only with very best of intentions. Particularly in enabling you to meet the career goals you have set if I can assist in any way,” Jones allegedly wrote, concluding with: “Hoping you have… a really great weekend without any encountering strangers passing out on your front porch.”
That winter, Rempel took a medical leave due to work-related stress. She was laid off in 2015.
By December 2013, a university HR representative had emailed Rempel again, encouraging her to speak to the human rights office, as the school had “received information from another complainant about Jones and they would really like to be able to have this information confirmed by someone else.”
After Peter Eck told his superiors his co-worker, Peter Jones, was sleeping with students, Eck was demoted.
“I was not very happy with students having sexual relationships with Peter Jones, being directly supervised by him, and then evaluated and graded,” said Eck, now an assistant professor in genetics at the U of M.
Eck alleged Jones was not disclosing his relationships to the university’s higher-ups.
During a work conference in 2010, Eck said Jones invited him to have a threesome with one of his graduate students. He declined.
“Sleeping with students is not just frowned upon. In many U.S. institutions, they’ve got laws restricting it. People can get fired,” Eck said, referring to Harvard University as an example. “I was shocked I had raised all these issues (with U of M) and it went nowhere.”
Eck said he brought up Jones’ behaviour with multiple managers from 2010 to 2013, including his department head, Jim House, head of human ecology Gustaaf Sevenhuisen, dean of graduate studies Jay Doering (who is now the associate vice-president of partnerships), and vice-president of research and international Digvir Jayas.
After speaking out, he lost his role as Canada Research Chair in nutrigenomics. Though he can’t trace a direct line from losing that job to his disputes with Jones, Eck said he suspects his complaints to management affected his job.
Eck believes weak workplace policies at the U of M about relationships between staff and students helped shield Jones.
“Everything (Jones) did, he can do. It’s so vague in our institutions at the University of Manitoba that he can do it,” Eck said. “Everybody knows what’s happening, but nobody talks about it.”
Eck moved his lab and office out of the RCFFN in early 2014.
Since his departure, Eck said RCFFN students have been approaching him with more stories about run-ins with Jones. Some of those students began seeking legal advice.
Eck insisted the university should hire an external investigator or ombudsman to handle the many complaints because investigating internally has so far produced no results.
U of M Prof. Peter Eck says he complained about Peter Jones multiple times from 2010 to 2013. He says Jones was having relationships with his students.