A former fundraiser with the IWK Foundation is suing the co-founder and former chairman of Clearwater Seafoods alleging sexual assault and “intention infliction of mental distress.”
Elizabeth (Liz) LeClair’s lawyers, Gillian Hnatiw and Kelsey Gordon, filed notice of action in Nova Scotia Supreme Court on Sept. 27, naming Colin MacDonald as the defendent.
Hnatiw and Gordon wrote that LeClair starting working as the manager of annual giving at the IWK Foundation in 2013. MacDonald is a major donor to the foundation, where he serves as an honourary trustee. Part of LeClair’s job involved meeting with regular donors, including MacDonald.
None of LeClair’s claims have been tested in court, and MacDonald hasn’t yet filed a defence.
In May 2021, LeClair spoke with Frances Willick at CBC about the sexual harassment she said she experienced from a wealthy donor, and her complaints to her former employers to investigate her claims and hold the donor to account. That article doesn’t name the donor.
On Aug. 10, 2023 LeClair posted a public statement on Twitter that details her allegations of sexual assault by MacDonald.
More than a month later, on Sept. 21, SaltWire published a response by MacDonald to that statement.
Alleged sexual misconduct started in 2013
According to the statement of claim filed with the court, LeClair first met MacDonald in July 2013 regarding a $1,000,000 donation a donor from Antigonish was making to the IWK’s NICU redevelopment project. Hnatiw and Gordon wrote that MacDonald was closely connected with that project, and was also responsible for helping to secure the donation.
As alleged by the statement of claim, MacDonald, who is married and 31 years older than LeClair, started making sexual comments to her.
“These comments were unwelcome, unprofessional and made Liz acutely uncomfortable, however, given MacDonald’s importance to the IWK Foundation, she tried to brush them off and focus on her work,” Hnatiw and Gordon wrote.
LeClair alleges that over the following months, MacDonald continued to make inappropriate sexual remarks to her, including in phone calls, emails, texts, and meetings. “Liz did her best to avoid, deflect and deescalate his advances as she feared upsetting one of the IWK Foundations most significant donors,” the statement of claim said.
Hnatiw and Gordon wrote that in February 2014, LeClair and MacDonald met in a coffee shop where they were discussing a large donation for the foundation that MacDonald helped secure. LeClair mentioned she’d be driving to Antigonish that spring to deliver a thank you to a donor.
“MacDonald announced he would join her on that trip and then suggested she would ‘owe him,'” Hnatiw and Gordon wrote. “Afterwards, MacDonald sent Liz an email containing sexual innuendos about what might happen on this drive to Antigonish. Liz tried to deescalate and deflect his comments with jokes.”
The Antigonish incident
According to the statement of claim, LeClair and MacDonald did go to Antigonish on April 8, 2014, leaving from Clearwater Seafood’s head office in Bedford.
“At MacDonald’s insistence, he drove them in his car,” Hnatiw and Gordon wrote.
“Although she was deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of driving to Antigonish with MacDonald, she did not feel she could prevent him from joining her at the meeting given his importance to the IWK Foundation and his connection to the Antigonish donor.”
During the drive to Antigonish, Hnatiw and Gordon wrote that MacDonald continued to make sexual comments to LeClair:
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 of having sex with him or what it would be like to have sex with him. Although horrified by these questions, Liz feared angering MacDonald and felt unable to express her disgust while confined to her car.
After arriving in Antigonish and meeting with the donor, MacDonald announced that they could finally “get down to business” and said there were a number of motels and hotels where they could stop on the way home. Liz asked him what he meant by this. MacDonald replied that it was clear the trip had been a ploy by Liz to have sex with him.
At this point, as MacDonald was clearly not joking, Liz explicitly told him that she would not have sex with him and expected to go directly home. MacDonald become sullen and angry. Trapped in his car during for the long drive home, Liz feared MacDonald would force himself on her sexually.
When LeClair and MacDonald arrived in Bedford, Hnatiw and Gordon wrote, LeClair got into her own car and started to cry.
“She was relieved to have escaped Macdonald [sic] but traumatized by what he had forced her to endure. Her hands were shaking as she drove herself home,” the statement of claim said.
LeClair leaves job at IWK Foundation
LeClair left her job at the IWK Foundation in 2017, and took a role as senior development officer with the Faculty of Engineering at Dalhousie University. “She hoped her move to bring to an end to MacDonald’s sexual misconduct,” the statement of claim said.
But, Hnatiw and Gordon wrote, LeClair learned MacDonald was a major donor with the faculty’s ideaHUB incubator.
Liz tried to avoid having any direct contact with MacDonald. However, in the fall of 2018, she learned the Faculty was having trouble getting in touch with MacDonald in connection with his ongoing donations. For the sake of her job, Liz agreed to help make contact with MacDonald.
Hnatiw and Gordon wrote that LeClair and MacDonald met at a coffee shop on Dec. 20, 2018, when LeClair gave MacDonald a thank-you gift for his donations to the ideaHUB:
After she delivered the gift, MacDonald asked why she had really wanted to meet with him, saying it could not just be for business reasons and they she had always like flirting with him. Liz began to cry, and she told MacDonald she could no longer cope with his continued harassment. MacDonald mocked her crying and told her to get over it. Liz stood up to leave. MacDonald grabbed her arm and asked her where she thought she was going. Liz pulled away and told MacDonald that she never wanted to see him again. Thereafter, Liz refused to have any further contact with MacDonald. [emphasis in original]
According to the statement of claim, in March 2019, LeClair learned that MacDonald was supposed to attend an event for the ideaHUB that LeClair was scheduled to attend for work.
That same month, Hnatiw and Gordon wrote, LeClair submitted a complaint under Dalhousie’s Sexualized Violence Policy. In that complaint, LeClair detailed the history of sexual harassment she alleged she suffered from MacDonald, and she asked the university that they rescind his invitation to the ideaHUB event.
The university reviewed LeClair’s complaint, but LeClair was asked by a senior leader at Dalhousie to reconsider that complaint because making allegations against a major donor was a risk for the school.
“It was clear he was prioritizing monetary donations over the safety, dignity and autonomy of staff. She maintained her complaint nonetheless,” Hnatiw and Gordon wrote.
The next month, the statement of claim said, Dalhousie told LeClair MacDonald wouldn’t be attending the event and that she would not be required to have any more contact with him.
“However, on the day of the event, Liz learned that not only would MacDonald be in attendance, he would also be giving a speech. Blindsided, Liz became extremely upset and had to leave the building, forcing her to miss an event she had worked on for months,” Hnatiw and Gordon wrote.
According to the statement of claim, LeClair left her job at Dalhousie in September 2019, and took a job as director of major gifts with the QEII Health Sciences Foundation.
Complaint to IWK Foundation
LeClair filed a complaint with the IWK Foundation on April 1, 2019, Hnatiw and Gordon wrote, in connect to the sexual misconduct she allegedly suffered by MacDonald while she was an employee with that organization. The foundation hired an investigator to look into LeClair’s allegations, although LeClair said she never learned the outcome of that investigation or received a final report, even though she fully cooperated with the investigation, the claim said.
“Instead, she was told by a board member that the Foundation had a fiduciary duty to the women and children who receive care at the IWK and, therefore, the Foundation planned to continue working with MacDonald. The board member also suggested the good done by MacDonald’s donations outweighed any harm he caused her personally,” Hnatiw and Gordon wrote.
According to the statement of claim, LeClair called Clearwater Seafood’s ethics hotline on April 23, 2019 to make a complaint about the sexual misconduct by MacDonald she alleges she suffered. However, the company didn’t take any steps forward in the complaint, telling LeClair the “alleged misconduct related to MacDonald in his personal capacity,” Hnatiw and Gordon wrote.
LeClair filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission on Sept. 27, 2019, Hnatiw and Gordon wrote, in relation to the allegations of sexual misconduct by MacDonald. The commission hired an investigator, who on Dec. 14, 2020, recommended the complaint be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
“The investigator’s report made clear that the recommendation was unconnected to the merits of Liz’s complaint, which the report did not consider or address,” Hnatiw and Gordon wrote.
The commission dismissed LeClair’s complaint on Feb. 21, 2021 for lack of jurisdiction.
Client ‘terrified and traumatized by this incident’
Hnatiw and Gordon wrote that MacDonald is liable for sexual assault for the Antigonish incident and MacDonald’s sexual advances toward LeClair were not consenual on her part. They also claim “MacDonald’s entire course of sexual misconduct toward Liz from 2013 to 2018 constitutes the tort of intentional infliction of mental distress” on LeClair.
Regarding the Antigonish incident, Hnatiw and Gordon wrote:
MacDonald caused Liz to fear immediate harm of sexual nature. MacDonald explicitly propositioned Liz and talked about stopping at a hotel to have sex. MacDonald was angry after Liz refused his sexual advances, and Liz reasonably feared his conduct would escalate to sexual battery. Liz was terrified and traumatized by this incident.
MacDonald’s sexual advances towards Liz were not consenual on her part. Her lack of consent was or should have been obvious to MacDonald given Liz’s words and conduct in response to his advances. In addition, her lack of consent should have been given the age and power differential between them. In the alternative, any apparent consent by Liz was not geunine or legally valid consent in that it involved an improper exercise of his power as a key donor to the IWK Foundation.
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. MacDonald’s sexual misconduct was flagrant, outrageous, and deliberate. MacDonald intended to cause Liz harm, and harm resulted from his conduct.
Client suffers from PTSD, anxiety, depression, lawyers say
Hnatiw and Gordon wrote that LeClair suffered and continues to suffer from emotional and psychological distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and frequent triggers causing emotional distress because of MacDonald’s wrongful conduct.
LeClair is seeking $200,000 in general and aggravated damages for sexual assault and intentional infliction of mental distress; damages for “past and future economic loss, including loss of economic opportunity”; special damages, including therapy expenses; $100,000 in punitive damages; “an amount to be specified by the Ministry of Health & Wellness in relation to costs borne by the Medical Services Insurance Plan (MSI); if any, arising from the negligience or wrongful act(s) of the defendent”; “pre- and post-judgment interest in accordance with the Judicature Act; costs for the action of notice; and any damages the court deems just.”
Hnatiw and Gordon wrote that according to statements from LeClair’s colleagues at the IWK Foundation, other women “suffered this kind of sexual misconduct by MacDonald.”
“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,” they wrote.
“His conduct merits denunication, punishment and deterrance.”