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2 women who complained about harassment at UPEI permanently released from silencing deals

Two women who signed non-disclosure agreements with the University of Prince Edward Island a decade ago have been permanently released from the threat of lawsuit for speaking out about their experiences, with the university's board of governors issuing an unequivocal apology.

‘We’ve reclaimed our voices. We’re optimistic about using them to continue this conversation': statement

UPEI main building with welcome flag out front.

Two women who signed non-disclosure agreements with the University of Prince Edward Island a decade ago have been permanently released from the threat of lawsuit for speaking out about their experiences, with the university's board of governors issuing an unequivocal apology.

Wendy Carroll and Erin Casey, who have asked that their names now be made public, filed complaints of sexual harassment in 2012 against the university's former president, Alaa Abd-El-Aziz. Eventually they took those complaints to the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission before being offered settlements and signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with the university in 2013.

"After 11 years of silence, we feel heard," Carroll and Casey said in a written statement Thursday following the news that UPEI had permanently released them from the terms of their NDAs.

"We acknowledge UPEI's apology for the personal, professional, and reputational harms we've suffered in the past decade."

In early 2022, the university hired Rubin Thomlinson LLP — the same Toronto-based law firm that conducted a workplace investigation at CBC News after the firing of radio host Jian Ghomeshi — to conduct a review of harassment, discrimination and fair treatment processes at UPEI.

That was shortly after a fresh allegation of misconduct was brought forward against the former president in late 2021. Abd-El-Aziz announced his retirement that December, and the university says it no longer has any affiliation with him.

The two women were offered temporary releases from their NDAs to take part in the Rubin Thomlinson review, but Abd-El-Aziz was also a signatory to those agreements. In June, UPEI told CBC News that Abd-El-Aziz had not agreed to release the women from the requirement for confidentiality.

Casey and Carroll asked the university to offer indemnification to provide legal protection if Abd-El-Aziz chose to sue them. However, UPEI would not offer to indemnify the women on a permanent basis, only long enough to allow them to participate in the Rubin Thomlinson review.

As a result, neither Casey or Carroll participated in the review.

CBC News has repeatedly tried to reach Abd-El-Aziz for comment on the report and its aftermath, without success.

Later Thursday morning, the UPEI Faculty Association reiterated its request for an unredacted copy of the report, and requested an independent third-party review of redactions that were made before its release in June. The association suggested the cost be shared by the board of governors and the campus unions.

'We've reclaimed our voices'

In Thursday's statement, the women say they've finally been able to reclaim their voices thanks to the permanent release.

"Our goal has always been, and remains, to ensure that what happened to us never happens to anyone else," the statement reads.

"We also want to affirm our leadership roles on the issue of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and the harms they can cause in cases of harassment and discrimination.

"We've reclaimed our voices. We're optimistic about using them to continue this conversation."

Casey was a graduate student in UPEI's Faculty of Education and a full-time staff person in the office of UPEI's president at the time she and Carroll brought forward their complaints. Carroll was a professor with UPEI's School of Business. Both women moved away from P.E.I. after filing their complaints.

'A process of reconciliation'

Shannon MacDonald was appointed as UPEI Board of Governors chair earlier this summer after previous chair Pat Sinnott resigned. In Thursday's statement, she said the board is committed to following "every single recommendation" contained in the Rubin Thomlinson report.

"One of the ways that the university has accepted accountability since the release of the Rubin Thomlinson report has been by making amends to those who have been harmed," the statement reads.

"The university will not prevent them [Casey and Carroll] from having their voices heard and from sharing their stories, should they so choose."

MacDonald thanked the women for agreeing to meet with her and sharing their experiences over the last decade.

"Together, we have begun a process of reconciliation. We hope that this is a restorative path for them, and for the university community, as we work towards healing."

Earning back trust

MacDonald also offered an apology for the university's handling of the complaints.

"We are truly sorry that the university and the board failed to live up to our values when it comes to harassment and equality," reads the statement.

"We apologize for our past failures to meet the expectations of the UPEI community. We must do better, and we will. We will continue to work hard to create a safe, respectful, and positive environment for all members of the UPEI community."

MacDonald pointed to changes in the board's leadership, as well as the creation of a new vice-president responsible for people and culture at the university, as first steps.

We have much trust to earn, and we are at the beginning of that process. We want to take the time and do this right.

— Shannon MacDonald, chair of UPEI board of directors

She added that an action plan based on the report's recommendations is being developed.

"We have much trust to earn, and we are at the beginning of that process. We want to take the time and do this right," MacDonald said in the statement.

"We know we can learn and improve through this restorative process, and we believe that they [Casey and Carroll], along with others, can provide guidance so that something like this cannot easily, if ever, happen again to anyone at UPEI."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Devon Goodsell

Digital senior producer, CBC P.E.I.

Devon Goodsell is a producer with CBC Prince Edward Island. She previously worked as a producer at the national CBCNews.ca desk in Toronto, and as a reporter at CBC Vancouver. The CBC P.E.I. team most recently took home two east region Radio Television Digital News Association Canada awards, including overall excellence in digital.

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    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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