Former NWT premier denies claims in sexual harassment suit

Last modified: June 9, 2022 at 8:00pm


Former NWT premier Stephen Kakfwi has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit that alleges he sexually harassed his mentee in a scholarship program. Kakfwi denies the allegations. 

Cherry Smiley, a 38-year-old member of the Nlaka’pamux and Dine’ Nations and a PhD student researching violence against Indigenous women and girls, first filed a $1.25-million lawsuit in BC solely against the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation in May 2021.

The suit alleged that Kakfwi, who was Smiley’s mentor as part of the foundation’s scholarship program, sexually harassed her in 2018. The suit sought damages from the foundation, claiming it breached its duties to Smiley and her confidence in the way it handled those allegations. 

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In response, the foundation sought to dismiss or stay the case in December, arguing it was filed in the wrong province.

As first reported by the CBC, Smiley has now filed the suit with the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, added Kakfwi as a defendant and is claiming $2.25 million in damages. 

The suit alleges that when Smiley met Kakfwi at an event in St John’s, Newfoundland in March 2018, he invited her to visit him at his home in Yellowknife, which made her uncomfortable. When they were saying their goodbyes in a hotel lobby later that night, Smiley claims Kakfwi “grabbed her upper arm, close to her breast, and squeezed it” then proceeded to rub and massage it. She said the incident left her “shaken, distressed, and upset.”

The suit further alleges when Smiley told the foundation what had happened, staff did not believe her, pressured her to sign a non-disclosure agreement, prevented her from contacting an ombudsperson, and publicly attacked her. 

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Smiley is seeking $500,000 in damages for pain and suffering and $250,000 in punitive damages from both Kakfwi and the foundation. She is also seeking $500,000 in damages for breach of contractual duty of good faith and honesty and contractual performance, $500,000 in damages to her reputation and emotional distress, and $500,000 in damages for breach of confidence, solely from the foundation. 

In a statement of defence filed in response to the suit last month, Kakfwi, a 71-year-old Dene man who was the NWT’s premier from 2000 to 2003, denies grabbing Smiley’s arm and rubbing it for a prolonged period when they met in St John’s, nor any contact that “could be construed as being sexual in nature.” 

The statement of defence suggests Kakfwi invited Smiley and another foundation scholar to Yellowknife to “experience the richness of the northern Indigenous culture and broaden their horizons.” He claims he offered them an opportunity to stay at the home he and his wife share as travelling can be expensive and they had previously hosted foundation scholars. He said the other scholar was “immediately enthusiastic about the offer.” 

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The statement claims Kakfwi was “shocked” when he found out about the allegations against him in August 2018. He said his request to see a copy of the allegations was denied. 

Kakfwi claimed the foundation rejected his request to investigate the allegations or participate in a traditional healing exercise with Smiley to allow them to “reach an understanding in a culturally appropriate manner.”