A controversial comment made during a tourism conference in March made national Canadian headlines. After asking all the women in the room to stand in honour of International Women’s Day, a man said ‘Now go clean rooms and do dishes’ — a bad joke, bad enough to turn heads and land him in the spotlight. For the reporting team at Sun Peaks Independent News (SPIN), however, this was more than a poorly chosen joke: it was a red flag.
That man was former general manager of Sun Peaks Grand Hotel & Conference Centre, Vivek Sharma. Aware of the role Sharma had once held within the community, the SPIN team decided to dig a bit deeper. Sadly, as their research eventually found, it’s never “just a joke.”
Looking into Sharma’s history at Sun Peaks Resort (SPR), a new, even more troubling remark came to light. A former resort employee shared the story with SPIN: While trying to “motivate the staff” at a meeting in 2016, Sharma said “Sometimes you get raped. You just have to lay down, take it and enjoy it.” This particular comment was then made public by CBC, following the 2022 comment. And yet, the SPIN team knew that’s not where the story ended. In fact, it raised an even bigger red flag: why had Sharma continued to work at the resort for three more years after that comment?
Indeed, as Sharma’s comments became part of the national news cycle, former and current SPR employees started reaching out to SPIN. They had stories to tell. Not only had there been no reprimand for Sharma’s comment in 2016: this was just one of the many instances of discrimination and harassment that were swept under the rug by the resort’s management. Eager to open an important discussion about harassment and power in their community’s tourism industry, the SPIN team got to work.
Indie Publisher reached out to Kayla Empey, community reporter at Sun Peaks Independent News who led this coverage, for the story behind the story.
How did you first learn about this issue?
Empey: The story began with a post we saw on LinkedIn explaining how Vivek Sharma told women at the B.C. Tourism and Hospitality Conference to ‘clean rooms and do dishes’ while speaking at the podium.
When SPIN’s publisher Brandi Schier saw the post, it caught her attention because Sharma used to work at the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel & Conference Centre, and there were allegations of other offensive comments he made at the time.
I began investigating the story, but CBC ended up breaking the news before us. However, once Sharma’s name made national headlines, more sources began reaching out to SPIN wanting to share their experiences.
Through my interviews, our team realized the big ‘issue’ might not be Sharma’s behaviour, but the fact he continued to work at the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel for years after formal complaints were put in against him, and staff said he didn’t seem to be reprimanded.
The issue then became more clear when I spoke to other employees who said it wasn’t just Sharma who has gotten away with harassment at SPR.
Why was it important for the Sun Peaks Independent News team to cover this story?
Empey: It was important for SPIN to cover this story because we wanted to begin valuable conversations about how SPR and the tourism industry as a whole can move forward towards change. We wanted to give a voice to those who have felt like they weren’t able to speak up.
Covering this story also helped show the community we are truly independent. SPR has a lot of influence in Sun Peaks and some residents might have thought we wouldn’t publish a story like this. However, what matters most to SPIN is telling stories that impact the community.
What made you decide to go deeper after Sharma’s comments made national news, considering he no longer worked at the resort?
Empey: We wanted to dig deeper into the story because even though Sharma no longer worked at SPR, it’s still relevant to current and former employees because of the lasting impact his comments had on them. Also, it highlighted the overarching issue of how it was addressed by resort leadership and how staff said issues continued to be brushed aside after he left.
In addition, we heard directly from our readers and the community that the story was much larger than Sharma’s actions, and that many people felt the issue deserved a closer look in the community.
When covering difficult topics, how do you establish trust with your sources so they feel safe to speak openly?
Empey: I think since this issue had not been publicly spoken about for so long, the sources trusted SPIN because we were the ones finally bringing it to light. Most of our sources reached out to us wanting to tell their stories, and I was ready to listen.
I also made sure to communicate with the sources frequently throughout the process to ensure they were comfortable with what we were publishing and that nothing identified current employees who wanted to remain anonymous to protect their jobs.
What lesson could other journalists gain from this coverage?
Empey: A lesson journalists could gain from this coverage is to not be afraid to speak up against those with strong influence and use your platform to give others a voice. The positive feedback I received was overwhelming and showed how long the community was waiting for this story to be told properly.
Another takeaway is how important community-based independent journalism is. This story wouldn’t have been possible without a local reporter who was dedicated to digging deep into the wider management issues, and a great team for support.
Strong journalism inspires strong journalism. Through the Behind the story series, we intend to give you a peek behind the scenes of quality journalism: what makes great stories? How are they built? What impact do they have? We will try to answer these and more questions about the work and the processes that go behind strong journalism.