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Halifax fundraiser suing Clearwater Seafoods co-founder, alleging sexual misconduct

A professional fundraiser in Halifax is suing one of the co-founders of Clearwater Seafoods for more than $300,000, alleging he made repeated, unwelcome sexual comments toward her that made her fearful he would assault her during a work trip in 2014.

Colin MacDonald has not yet filed statement of defence in response to Liz LeClair's lawsuit

A woman sits in a black chair in a large room that has windows in the background.

A professional fundraiser in Halifax is suing one of the co-founders of Clearwater Seafoods for $300,000, alleging he made repeated, unwelcome sexual comments toward her that made her fearful he would assault her during a work trip in 2014.

In a notice of action filed at the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia on Sept. 28, Liz LeClair alleges Colin MacDonald made inappropriate sexual comments toward her over a period of five years after meeting him through her fundraising work at the IWK Foundation in 2013.

LeClair's role at the foundation required her to meet and communicate with major donors, including MacDonald, who was 31 years her senior and married at the time, the court documents allege.

MacDonald has not yet been served with the statement of claim and has not filed a statement of defence. None of the allegations have been tested in court.

CBC News requested an interview with MacDonald but did not hear back in time for publication.

The CBC previously reported on LeClair's allegations but did not name MacDonald because LeClair was not pursuing legal action and the allegations would not be tested in a legal setting.

In an op-ed published by the CBC in 2019, LeClair wrote about harassment in the non-profit fundraising sector without naming any alleged perpetrators. The incident described at the beginning of the op-ed did not involve MacDonald, she previously told CBC.

The civil suit filed last month alleges MacDonald made the comments toward LeClair during in-person meetings, phone calls and in text messages and emails.

LeClair told CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia that she has decided to take legal action and speak out about what she says happened during the road trip and how it left her traumatized, which is the basis of the civil court action.

LeClair previously filed several complaints to various organizations about MacDonald.

"This has been a long process. I have exhausted every possible reasonable avenue and have tried every possible way that I've been instructed to hold people accountable for the conduct that's taken place," she said in an interview that aired Wednesday.

"And this is basically, at this point, the last possible recourse that I have available to me, and so that's why this has been filed."

Became fearful during work trip

LeClair's lawsuit says she did her best to deflect MacDonald's advances. But it alleges his comments escalated when he joined her on a business trip to Antigonish, N.S., to visit another donor in April 2014.

"During the two-and-a-half-hour drive, MacDonald made increasingly inappropriate comments," the statement of claim states.

"He asked Liz questions about her sexual history, including how many people she had slept with and whether she had ever had a threesome. MacDonald also asked if she ever thought about having sex with him or what it would be like to have sex with him," the court documents state.

LeClair was "horrified" by the questions, but "feared angering" MacDonald during the drive, and "felt unable to express her disgust."

The documents allege that once the meeting with the donor was done, MacDonald said they could now "get down to business," adding that there were a number of motels and hotels on the way home that they could go to.

"He implied that the trip was just a ruse for me to get him alone," LeClair told CBC News.

The documents says LeClair told MacDonald she would not have sex with him, but he was "sullen and angry" and she feared he would force himself on her sexually.

After that trip, the documents say LeClair avoided MacDonald, but the sexual comments continued even after she switched jobs.

Torts in common law

The statement of claim alleges sexual assault during the road trip even though there is no allegation of physical contact between LeClair and MacDonald.

While sexual assault has specific connotations in criminal law, it has a different meaning under civil case law.

Under civil law, LeClair is arguing the tort of sexual assault and the tort of intentional infliction of mental distress.

Torts are used when there could be a civil wrong but it is not criminal in nature, according to Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law.

"[A common law tort] really allows the judges to fill gaps where they feel it would be an injustice if the victim does not get some compensation, even though the legislature doesn't have any particular statute that provides compensation for them," MacKay said.

It's sort of the moment before the actual touching… there is this space before any actual physical sexual conduct occurs.

– Gillian Hnatiw, LeClair's lawyer

Tort of sexual assault may be used when there is a threat of physical harm, but no touching, MacKay said.

"The claim alleges that she rebuffed his proposition and had to go on this lengthy drive home with someone who she was, we allege, afraid of an imminent sexual battery," LeClair's lawyer, Gillian Hnatiw, told Information Morning.

Hnatiw said to prove the tort of assault, you must first prove that there is intentional conduct by the defendant that created imminent harm.

"It's sort of the moment before the actual touching … there is this space before any actual physical sexual conduct occurs," Hnatiw said.

"We all know that feeling — where the hair stands up on the back of your neck, where you're in a confined space with someone and your mental security is disrupted by that sense of apprehension and deep risk."

The court documents say MacDonald's alleged sexual advances toward LeClair weren't consensual, and the lack of consent should've been obvious given the age difference and "power differential."

This, the documents allege, also constitutes the tort of intentional mental distress by MacDonald.

"MacDonald knew his sexual misconduct towards Liz was certain to, or would in all likelihood, cause her lasting psychological damage that would manifest in various harmful ways throughout her life," the lawsuit states.

Suing for damages

The statement of claim says as a result of MacDonald's conduct, LeClair has suffered, and may continue to suffer from psychological distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, among other problems.

It says she has also suffered economic losses, including the loss of income.

LeClair is seeking $200,000 for general and aggravated damages for sexual assault and the intentional infliction of mental distress, $100,000 in punitive damages as well as unspecified amounts tied to past and future economic loss, the cost of therapy and other expenses.

"MacDonald behaved with impunity knowing that his status as a major donor at the organizations that employed Liz would allow him to avoid any consequences for his years-long sexual misconduct," the documents say.

Op-ed published in newspaper

MacDonald wrote an op-ed for The Chronicle Herald last month, after LeClair wrote about her alleged experience with him on X, formerly Twitter, in August.

"I didn't realize it had become uncomfortable for the fundraiser I was working with," MacDonald wrote.

"We may not both recall events the same way, but that's completely irrelevant because the power imbalance always existed. For that, and how it made my fundraising colleague feel, I sincerely apologize."

LeClair told CBC News she doesn't consider MacDonald's op-ed an apology because it didn't acknowledge the harm done or the work that has been, or must be done, to correct his alleged behaviour.

"I think there just has been a continual hope that I will go away and disappear and get tired," she said.

"And I can't do that for the sake of many of the people out there watching … it has been very traumatic and I don't feel that I've had the closure that I need to be able to move on."

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With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning Halifax

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