Halifax fire department admits to systemic gender discrimination
Liane Tessier says she was harassed for years by male co-workers
Female firefighters in Halifax have faced systemic historic gender discrimination at work, according to a settlement involving the city, the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service and former firefighter Liane Tessier.
CBC News has learned the city plans to publicly apologise to Tessier during a media conference at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission on Monday.
The resolution signals the end of a 12-year legal battle by 53-year old Tessier, whose case was initially dismissed by the commission in 2012. She took the commission to court for mishandling her claim.
The settlement coincided with a slew of sexual harassment allegations in Hollywood that sparked a broader conversation about women's treatment in the workplace.
"Violence against women is becoming front page news now and it's been going on for decades and finally women are starting to speak out," said Tessier.
For years, Tessier and other female firefighters in Halifax have complained about demeaning and abusive behaviour from their male co-workers and superiors.
In her claim before the commission, Tessier said when she reported the behaviour, she faced retaliation and the harassment only got worse.
"Every woman who's ever spoken out, who's ever dared to tell the truth, has been destroyed," Tessier told CBC.
"You're attacked. You're hated."
According to the settlement agreement, Tessier will receive an undisclosed amount of money and the city will make policy changes to ensure women can report discrimination without fear of retaliation. The city also promised to implement equitable hiring practices. Many of those changes have already been made.
While the city doesn't acknowledge the specifics in Tessier's claim, it does admit there is a systemic issue within the fire service concerning the treatment of female firefighters.
A spokesperson for the city refused to comment on this case because the commission's work was not yet completed.
A lost career
Tessier was 34 years old when she began working as a volunteer firefighter in 1998 with station 60 in Herring Cove, on the outskirts of Halifax. A few years later, she began picking up paid 24-hour shifts with the goal of becoming a professional firefighter.
She rose to captain and devoted herself to instructing new recruits and skills competitions, eventually winning third place at the World Firefighter Championships in Nevada in 2007.
In her claim, Tessier said she began to be bullied, ostracized and regularly had her equipment tampered with. She wasn't given a new uniform when they were ordered and then disciplined for not having appropriate clothing at work. She was gossiped about and alienated.
It was "death by a thousand cuts," she told CBC.
"For some reason I started blaming myself, I worked harder, and the more I worked harder the more it seemed to be a threat to these guys."
She said she feared for her safety on the job.
"All the time, you were watching your back."
Tessier began hearing allegations from other women at the fire department who said they were experiencing similar discrimination.
"One woman had used condoms put in her bunker gear, another one had threatening letters put on her locker gear saying: 'Shut up bitch or else.' One was thrown down a set of stairs. One was left alone at a fire."
These allegations are not specifically part of the settlement and have not been proven in court.
'They did nothing'
In her claim, Tessier said when she reported the discrimination to her superiors, it got worse. She said she faced retaliation from colleagues, stopped getting called for shifts and was eventually denied a full-time job.
Tessier said she was passed over for jobs while less experienced men climbed the ranks and her complaints were minimized and dismissed by the system that was supposed to help.
Tessier said when she reported the discrimination, she was blamed.
"They did nothing except dismiss everything," she told CBC.
Tessier stopped taking shifts as a firefighter in 2007 and eventually moved to another career.
She filed a human rights complaint about her treatment as a firefighter, which was dismissed four years later due to insufficient evidence in 2012. She took the commission itself to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and in May 2014, the court ordered the commission to re-examine her case. When it did, she was granted a public hearing.
Just as the hearing was to take place in the fall of 2017, a slew of harassment allegations in Hollywood sparked a broader conversation. The city offered to settle, and Tessier said she reluctantly agreed after the city met her demands, which include being free to tell her story.
"It's too bad that a movie star has to start the conversation and suddenly we pay attention when ordinary women for decades have been speaking out and no one's listening," said Tessier.
"It's about time."
Tessier said she believes the city counted on her eventually giving up the fight.
The battle consumed Tessier for years, and its enormity is on full display inside her art studio perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean just outside Halifax.
Once a place of inspiration for her sketches, the studio has been overtaken by her human rights case. Instead of art supplies, mountains of paperwork are piled on tables.
Tessier is looking forward to packing up the paperwork. But she said moving on won't be easy. The fight pushed her to the brink of suicide and left her with depression and a lingering feeling of mistrust.
"You become more isolated, you stick to yourself more, you don't trust people," she said.
"I lost my sense of joy for things. I lost a big part of myself. I was so obsessed with justice and having my voice be heard."
Tessier's lawyer, Melissa MacAdam of Blackburn Law in Halifax, described the settlement as a victory that will inspire more women to speak out.
"I think it's huge," said MacAdam.
"I think anytime you're able to stand up and say, 'I fought the Goliath and I was the victor,' that's a huge accomplishment."
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