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The grocery magnate, who died in 2021, was remembered as a brilliant businessman and philanthropist. Derek Power remembers him differently

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Derek Power, 51, was a 20-year-old university student in Halifax when grocery-store magnate Donald Sobey sexually assaulted him. Mr. Sobey, who died last year, was charged a $750 fine.Clay Stang/The Globe and Mail

One afternoon before an August long weekend in 1991, a criminal lawyer appeared in a Halifax courtroom on behalf of his client, grocery magnate Donald Sobey. A few months prior, Mr. Sobey had been charged with sexually assaulting a young man in a downtown hotel room. Mr. Sobey was a prominent figure in Atlantic Canada by then, serving as chairman of Empire Co. Ltd., his family’s sprawling holding company that included the Sobeys grocery chain. He was also a member of the board of governors at Dalhousie University, where the victim was a student.

Mr. Sobey did not appear in court that day when his lawyer entered a plea: guilty to a summary offence of sexual assault. The judge issued a $750 fine, according to a local news report that ran about 400 words. Afterward, his lawyer dismissed the charge as a minor matter that had been “handled appropriately and expeditiously,” while Mr. Sobey, then 56, put out his own statement. “I have learned that in Canadian law, sexual assault covers an extraordinarily broad range of activities ranging from extremely serious to comparatively minor. The summary charge indicates a minor offence,” he said. “I apologize for any offence which was taken and also for taking up the time of the justice system.” Mr. Sobey thanked his family for their support, adding he had learned how “a person can find new strength in difficult times.”

With that, the story ended.

By the time Mr. Sobey died in March, 2021 at the age of 86, it was not even a footnote in his biography. He was remembered as a brilliant businessman who helped expand the Sobeys grocery chain, and a philanthropist whose generosity would span generations. Newspaper obituaries tallied his accolades: the Order of Canada, the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, and eight honorary degrees, to name a few. Dalhousie University hailed his commitment to education, the World Wildlife Fund his commitment to ocean conservation, the National Gallery of Canada his commitment to the arts.

Derek Power, however, remembered Donald Sobey differently. He remembered Mr. Sobey as the man who unzipped his pants and touched him in a hotel room when he was 20 years old, and as the man who never apologized to him for it. Mr. Power only learned about the guilty plea when he read about it in a newspaper.

Now 51, Mr. Power has never spoken publicly about any of this. He tried at first, calling up local newspapers when charges were laid, but never heard back. Later, he wasn’t allowed to talk. In 1992, he reached a private settlement with Mr. Sobey that bound him to a non-disclosure agreement. If breached, he was to pay $20,000 to the man who assaulted him. The agreement meant he could not share widely that this was not some random encounter. He couldn’t share that he had been friends with the Sobey family, that he vacationed with them, that Mr. Sobey had fawned over him and promised him a future in the company. Few people knew there had been another unwanted encounter that occurred when Mr. Power was a teenager.

He was open with those close to him about what had happened, and told Joanne Klimaszewski, now his wife, not long after they met. Years later, he spoke with another media outlet, despite the NDA, but the story was dropped. After all, Mr. Sobey had been charged and admitted his guilt. What more was there to say? On the surface, one could argue the system worked, unlike the many instances in which powerful men have gotten away with predatory behaviour for years, only to be undone amid the #MeToo movement.

But it never felt like justice to him. Mr. Sobey was a powerful and well-regarded business man, who continued through life uninterrupted. He could put out a statement that presented the assault he committed as an ordeal for him, one that taught him about resilience. He remained on the boards of influential Canadian institutions, such as Toronto-Dominion Bank and Dalhousie University, and built goodwill through philanthropy. He had the power to shape his legacy, to influence what was remembered, forgotten, and never known at all.

That’s a privilege Mr. Power never had. He was surrounded by the Sobey name when living in Atlantic Canada: stores, shoppings bags, commercials, and reports on Mr. Sobey’s philanthropy. All were reminders of an assault that he wanted to forget, one that left him deeply angered. He had to leave the Maritimes entirely because of the omnipresence of the Sobey name. Later, when his first child was born, Mr. Power was scared to touch his son out of fear he may violate him. Then, in 2020, he learned that Mr. Sobey’s foundation had backed the creation of a lab at Dalhousie focused on restorative justice, which looks at alternate forms of resolution between victim and perpetrator.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Power says, who resolved then to speak out. He first contacted a reporter on this story last year, two months before Mr. Sobey died.

Through a public-relations agency, the three adult children of Mr. Sobey provided a statement to the Globe. “We believe there is much we all can learn from the voices of victims. The family of Donald R. Sobey regrets this matter. Mr. Sobey pleaded guilty before the Courts of Nova Scotia in 1991 and this has been a matter of public record ever since,” the statement reads.

Mr. Power’s own account has never been part of the public record, and speaking out so many years later is simply a way to create one, providing a more complete picture of Mr. Sobey’s legacy.

At one point, he discussed with Ms. Klimaszewski whether he should tell his story. She was fully supportive. “Instead of just letting it eat away at you forever,” she told him, “let’s just get it out.”

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Since his youth, Mr. Power has expressed himself through painting. Art was also a passion of Mr. Sobey's, and a focus of his philanthropic work.Clay Stang/The Globe and Mail

Today, Mr. Power lives in Toronto with Ms. Klimaszewski and their two children. He’s a gregarious storyteller prone to winding digressions, with an equally winding career path. He runs a company that installs solar panels, while also working as a set decorator for film productions. Before that, he started a line of vegan mayonnaise. A local Sobeys store approached him once about stocking his wares; it was a thrill to decline. He made an unsuccessful bid for Toronto city council a few years ago, not because municipal politics was in his blood, but as an example for his kids. He wanted to show them that trying to change things is better than complaining.

Ever since he was young, Mr. Power has turned to painting as a creative outlet, something that has seen him through dark times. His style leans abstract – splashes of colour, a suggestion of form, where what you see can be open to interpretation.

Art is a passion he shared with Donald Sobey. His own family and the Sobeys are worlds apart today, but go back far enough, and Mr. Power’s roots extend to important figures in Canadian business and political history. One of his great-grandfathers is William Farrell, whose consolidation of British Columbia telephone companies in the 1890s laid the foundation for Telus.

By the time he was born in 1970, only vestiges of that history remained. His parents divorced when he was a year old, and he and his two brothers lived with their mom – a hippie, as Mr. Power describes her. They led a peripatetic life, wandering Europe before returning to Vancouver and eventually driving across the country in a Ford Econoline van to Montague, Prince Edward Island, where his mother became a high-school art teacher.

At 12, Mr. Power won a full-ride scholarship to Ridley College, a boarding school in St. Catharines, Ont., that opened in 1889, where previous generations of his family had attended. One of his fellow students was Irene Sobey, the daughter of Donald Sobey. They bonded over being two of the few Maritime students there, Mr. Power says, and he became part of the family’s social scene.

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The Sobey dynasty in 1981, from right: brothers David, Donald and William, and father Frank, with director James Gogan at left.Wamboldt-Waterfield

The Sobeys were an increasingly influential clan in Atlantic Canada by then. Their fortunes started with Frank Sobey, the scrappy entrepreneur who turned his father’s grocery store in Stellarton, N.S., into a Maritime fiefdom. In 1971, he handed the reins to his three sons: William, David and Donald. They were not flashy about their wealth. Donald in particular was uncomfortable in the spotlight, preferring to deflect attention and credit to others.

The summer when Mr. Power was 15, Irene invited him to spend a few days at the Sobey family cottage in Pictou County, a short ferry ride across the Northumberland Strait. It was the first time he met Mr. Sobey, who was not the type to turn heads when he walked into a room, Mr. Power recalled. He had been around wealthy people before, and it was unusual to see someone so understated. He himself stood somewhat apart from that world: the rich folks wore tennis shorts, but the Power family stuck with denim cutoffs.

Mr. Sobey took an interest in him – he gleaned that Mr. Power’s parents were divorced and that his father was not a fixture in his life – and praised his looks, intelligence and athleticism. “Everything a kid would want to hear,” Mr. Power recalls.

One night, he offered alcohol to Mr. Power and some of the other young people at the cottage. He was underage and didn’t drink (his mother was a recovering alcoholic) but he accepted. “If you’re the Sobeys and you’re offering me a drink, I’ve got to have a drink, don’t I?”

He remembers waking up that night in the bedroom with a jolt. His pants were around his ankles, and his crotch was wet. At first, he thought he’d passed out and urinated on himself, he recalls. But Mr. Sobey was over top of him, and he began yelling at the older man to get off. Mr. Sobey did so, saying that he thought he’d heard an intruder.

The next morning, Mr. Sobey acted as though nothing had happened.

Mr. Power believes Mr. Sobey attempted to perform oral sex on him while he slept. “I didn’t get it then,” he says. “I’m so mad at myself for that. But I was 15, so I’m forgiving myself, too.”

In the following years, Mr. Power travelled with the Sobeys twice to Vail, Colorado, for skiing. One evening after dinner, Mr. Sobey invited him to stay for drinks, just the two of them. He praised Mr. Power’s intelligence, and even offered to pay his tuition at Ridley. The attention was, in a way, flattering. Mr. Power was an ambitious teenager with aspirations in business, and it would be helpful to have someone like Donald Sobey in his corner. “I truly thought that if I ever wanted to do anything at Sobeys, I’d be more than welcome to try it out,” he says. He wasn’t looking for a father figure (he had two older brothers) but the praise shored up his confidence. “It was just reassurance to me that I’m on the right direction,” he says.

At the dinner, Mr. Sobey placed his hand on Mr. Power’s thigh, which made him uncomfortable. Later that evening, Mr. Sobey’s wife, Beth, exploded at Mr. Power. “You’re supposed to be spending time with my daughter, not my husband,” he recalls her shouting. He phoned his mother to ask her to arrange a ticket so he could fly home, but Mr. Sobey took the receiver to reassure her, and he stayed.

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The Dalhousie University campus in Halifax. Mr. Sobey was a member of the school's board of governors when Mr. Power was a student here.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

In December, 1990, Mr. Sobey called out of the blue. Mr. Power was then attending Dalhousie University, enrolled in a program that encouraged students to combine academics with community service. He was so involved in volunteering at Hope Cottage, a soup kitchen for the homeless, that he considered dropping out to accept a full-time position.

Mr. Sobey had somehow heard and called to dissuade him, even volunteering to underwrite his tuition to stay in school, which Mr. Power agreed to. It wasn’t the first time Mr. Sobey had provided financial assistance. The previous summer, Mr. Power asked for help with tuition, and Mr. Sobey gave him $1,000.

Soon after, Mr. Sobey called again to say he would be in Halifax in February to attend the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party leadership convention, and asked to meet for a drink at his hotel. Mr. Power said yes, hoping the conversation might be about his future.

He picked out a dress shirt to look professional and arrived at Mr. Sobey’s room at the Sheraton Hotel. Immediately, Mr. Sobey offered him a Scotch. He sat down on the couch while Mr. Sobey took the bed, again flattering the younger man before asking about his personal life and family. Mr. Sobey soon moved to sit next to him, putting an arm on the back of the sofa and touching his leg. Mr. Power froze, mortified. Mr. Sobey then undid his belt, slipped his hand in, and touched Mr. Power’s penis.

Something switched in Mr. Power then, and he remembers squeezing the liquor glass in his hand so hard that it cracked. He pushed Mr. Sobey away from him.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mr. Sobey said. “I shouldn’t have.”

Mr. Power recalls shouting at him, saying he was crazy and needed help, and fled the hotel room. As he was doing so, Mr. Sobey stuffed a wad of cash in his pocket, ten $100 bills.

“My whole world just fucking crumbled,” Mr. Power says. “I thought I was going to be the president of Sobeys. I thought I was going to have this wonderful support to be a big businessperson, and then he does this to me.”

Later that night, Mr. Power called a friend and they met at a bar. He was panicked, the friend recalled. “I remember him being like I’d never seen him before. [He] wasn’t making sense. It was kind of hard [for him] to explain what went on with words, but I knew what he was talking about,” said the friend, who requested anonymity from The Globe because she had a falling out with Mr. Power and they are no longer in touch.

They tried calling the sexual assault line at Dalhousie, but only got an answering machine. In the one-minute-and-three-second message he left, which The Globe has reviewed, Mr. Power does not mention Mr. Sobey directly, but repeats several times that he’s scared “beyond belief.”

He told others, too, including a fellow student named Alex Burton, now a Crown attorney in British Columbia. His friend seemed deeply shaken, Mr. Burton said. “There was no doubt in my mind that something very traumatic had happened,” he said. “I still think about this event all these years later, and I carry a significant amount of guilt because I feel like I didn’t do enough to help Derek.”

That night at the bar, he still had the bills Mr. Sobey put into his pocket. When he and his friend left, he gave it all to a busker playing guitar on the street. Mr. Power, the friend recalled, said it was “dirty money.”

He told at least one other person around that time: Nancy Hunter, a friend and fellow employee at Hope Cottage, the soup kitchen where he volunteered. “Derek at that time was a young guy who had the world by the tail,” she says. “Good looking, popular, charming, fun. When this happened to him, he was shaken and mad.”

She had experience as a volunteer crisis intervenor at an organization for sexual assault victims, and arranged for Mr. Power to meet a female police officer, who took his account and promised it would be investigated. When he heard nothing after a month, he followed up, but couldn’t get any answers.

Sometime in March, two police officers showed up at the student flat where he was living. They insinuated he didn’t know Mr. Sobey and accused him of attempting to extort the businessman, even calling him a “cokehead and a faggot,” according to Mr. Power. He picked up the phone to call Mr. Sobey in front of them, hanging up when a secretary offered to put him through.

Soon after, he learned from a news report that charges had been filed against Mr. Sobey. He had already dropped out of university, and friends noticed a dramatic shift in his personality. Doug Moore, a close family friend from PEI, found his outgoing friend had become withdrawn, and couldn’t talk about what happened. “He was really distant. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me,” Mr. Moore said.

Mr. Power’s older brother, Rob, said his sibling was the kind of guy who everyone loved to be around. “He was like sunshine,” he said. But he had become consumed with frustration, spiralling downward.

Sometime after the assault, Mr. Power learned from a friend that he could apply to the provincial Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, which offered financial support to crime victims. Since he had lost a year of university, and turned down a summer tree-planting job to be available for the court case, he submitted an application in the fall of 1991 for what he believed the ordeal had cost him: $13,500.

He never heard from the board, he says. Instead, on April 23, 1992, he received a letter delivered by a courier to the youth hostel where he was living. It was signed by Robert Dexter, a lawyer with prominent Maritime law firm Stewart McKelvey, which he described as “general counsel for the Sobey Group.” He was writing on behalf of Mr. Sobey, he explained.

“I understand you have made an application to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and that your application is to be heard on May 22, 1992,” Mr. Dexter wrote. “I would like to arrange a meeting with you for the purposes of determining whether your requirements could be satisfied on an informal basis without the necessity of a hearing.”

Mr. Power took his mother along to meet with the lawyer at his downtown office. Mr. Dexter, he said, told him that the compensation board had “reached out to us for us to compensate you.”

For the board to turn over that information to the perpetrator would not have been appropriate, according to Wayne MacKay, a professor emeritus at Dalhousie’s School of Law. “The value to the perpetrator of keeping things as quiet as possible would be high. This would be particularly so for someone with the high profile of a Sobey,” he said.

Indeed, their stature had only grown over the past few years. As chair of Empire, the family holding company, Mr. Sobey oversaw the largest food distributor in the region, which had started to expand westward. The family owned the biggest drugstore chain in Atlantic Canada, a wide swath of commercial real estate, movie theatres and even bowling alleys. All told, Empire employed some 14,000 people around the time.

Mr. Dexter, who would become an important figure in Empire and serve as chairman from 2004 to 2016, declined to comment on a list of questions from The Globe. A spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s Justice Department said the compensation board no longer exists, and that it cannot comment on policies that “may have been in place at the time.”

Mr. Dexter eventually negotiated a deal with a lawyer Mr. Power hired to represent him. Under the terms of a September, 1992, settlement, which Mr. Power provided to The Globe, Mr. Sobey agreed to pay $65,000 for “general damages.” The deal included a provision that each of its terms, along with the existence of the agreement, “shall be kept strictly confidential.” Otherwise, the party who breached the agreement would have to pay $20,000 in damages to other.

On Sept. 9, Mr. Dexter’s law firm issued a cheque for the full $65,000. Mr. Power’s friend, Doug Moore, drove him to the lawyer’s office to pick it up. “It was the only time he ever talked to me about what happened,” Mr. Moore says. “He’d thought of Sobey like a father, so he really felt violated by what had happened.”

After paying his lawyer and a therapist, Mr. Power gave much of the money away – to his mother, his brother, and to co-workers at Hope Cottage. He kept $13,500, the amount he had originally asked for.

None of that was harder for him than having to cut ties with Irene Sobey earlier that year. They had been friends for a few years, and he enjoyed being around her, appreciating that she was so unpretentious despite her background. But he knew he could not have the Sobeys in his life. Sometime after the assault and before charges were laid, Mr. Power arranged to pick up a ring he had left at her apartment, one from Ridley College that belonged to his grandfather. He doesn’t remember exactly what he told her, only that he was sorry for what was about to happen, but it was something he had to do. He quickly left, and never saw her again.

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Donald Sobey stands in 2002 beside an Ivan Eyre painting he donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. That year, he debuted the Sobey Art Award, now overseen by the National Gallery of Canada.Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail

When he was first charged, Donald Sobey entered a not-guilty plea, according to a local news article at the time. He later changed his plea and avoided the public spectacle of a trial, while the non-disclosure agreement ensured that Mr. Power would not talk. Not even a year later, it had become a minor detail in Mr. Sobey’s life, an obscure episode with no face or name behind it. “Nova Scotians admire their ‘royal family’ even when its members appear to stumble – such as last year when Donald pleaded guilty to sexual assault on an adult male,” noted a March, 1992 profile in the Financial Post. Mr. Sobey told the paper he considered the matter closed, and the article called him a “highly cerebral” executive.

That admiration, by some measure, was true. Mr. Sobey’s reputation in the corporate world was sterling. In 1991, at the time of the assault, he sat on the board of Toronto-Dominion Bank along with other heavyweights from the Canadian business world, such as billionaire Jimmy Pattison and Videotron founder Andre Chagnon. He remained there until his resignation in 2005. A spokesperson for Mr. Pattison said he had no recollection of Mr. Sobey’s sexual assault charge, nor whether there was any discussion about him stepping down from the board. Mr. Chagnon, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. TD also declined to comment.

He was also on the board of governors at Dalhousie University at the time, where Mr. Power was a student, and resigned in 1996. A spokesperson for the university said “it is very difficult for the university to determine what actions were taken or discussed over 30 years ago.”

In 1995, Mr. Sobey took another step that had the effect of pushing his conviction further into obscurity. That year, he applied and received a federal pardon, meaning police and court records from his case were sealed.

He later devoted more time to philanthropy, founding the Donald R. Sobey Family Foundation, which has since donated many millions of dollars to various causes, including scholarships at multiple universities. He parlayed his love of the arts into the Sobey Art Award starting in 2002, which is now administered by the National Gallery of Canada, where he sat on the foundation’s board for years. He also supported the World Wildlife Fund, helping to establish its Atlantic office. Some of those who interacted with Mr. Sobey in the philanthropic world told The Globe they were not aware he had been charged with sexual assault in the past. Another said that because so few details were publicly available, it was hard to know what to make of it.

In 2013, Mr. Sobey was appointed to the Order of Canada, which honours citizens who have made extraordinary contributions to the country. Members of the advisory council that makes appointment recommendations are not permitted to discuss deliberations publicly, and one member from that year told The Globe they could not recall the discussions around Mr. Sobey.

A spokesperson for the Governor-General’s office noted that Mr. Sobey had been pardoned for his offence and that membership in the Order ends when a person is deceased.

Mr. Power, meanwhile, was lost following the assault. He tried antidepressants to cope for a while, but eventually ditched them. “I’m not mentally ill. I’m pissed off,” he told himself. Shortly after the settlement, he left Canada entirely for a job with an international development agency in China. He had panic attacks, partly as the result of an illness he contracted while there, but also because he knew he would have to return home eventually, he believes. He later left the Maritimes for good because the Sobey name was inescapable.

It was in Toronto he met Joanne Klimaszewski, and they had their first child, a son, in 2011. It took him most of that first year to feel comfortable touching his son, fearing that his experience with Mr. Sobey would lead him to molest his child. “It was that mentality of, if it happens to you, you’re going to do it,” he says. He resolved that if he ever had those tendencies, he would kill himself. He later confided his fears to Ms. Klimaszewski. “He is an amazing father,” she says. “He didn’t have a dad, so I think he goes that extra mile.”

There were still many triggers. If dinner guests arrived at their home with food in a plastic bag from Sobeys, she would throw it away before Mr. Power could see. Any time he saw or read something hailing Mr. Sobey for his philanthropy, Ms. Klimaszewski would see his mood change. He would become withdrawn and usually disappear to the garage to paint or smoke cannabis. For years, he was a habitual user, doing so in part to dull his anger. It bubbled again in 2020, when he learned the Donald R. Sobey Foundation was funding the international restorative justice lab at Dalhousie University.

The idea of restorative justice is, in part, to provide a chance for victims and offenders to discuss the weight of a crime, and repair the harm done, something Mr. Power was never afforded. In a way, his account serves as his own version of restorative justice, something to stand as part of the legacy of Mr. Sobey. He has already found some redress and catharsis through telling friends about his experience over the years. Some have confided in him about trauma from their own pasts. The simple act of talking eases the burden. “If I hadn’t done that,” he says, “I would have eaten myself alive.”

He’s channelled his frustrations into art before, including a painting that references his experience with Mr. Sobey. He finds that one a little embarrassing, and prefers some of his other paintings, like one he completed last year called Duck on Pond. It seems chaotic at first, with a blue backdrop nearly defaced by thick slashes of black paint and swooping yellow trails. Mr. Power doesn’t see it that way at all. He calls it a work of “pure joy,” a painting about feeling comfort in solitude, like floating in the water, in peace.

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