Mass resignations amid harassment scandal cripple Spaniard's Bay fire department
Brenda Seymour says her gender, advanced training to blame for 'orchestrated' campaign
Longtime fire Chief Victor Hiscock is among at least 20 members of the volunteer fire department in Spaniard's Bay, N.L., who resigned en masse last night during an emotionally charged council meeting.
The resignations came amid a controversy involving Brenda Seymour, a town councillor and also the lone female member of the entirely volunteer brigade.
In the interim, with some 10 members of the Conception Bay North community's fire department remaining, neighbouring towns have agreed to help respond to emergencies.
Hiscock would only say "no comment" when reached by phone Wednesday morning, and then hung up.
Seymour alleges her gender and dedication are to blame for harassment at the hands of her male counterparts and their wives.
She says she has been threatened, intimidated, undermined, overlooked for promotion and exposed to sexually inappropriate behaviour and comments.
The matter came to a head during the council meeting, with Coun. Sheri Collins — the liaison with the fire department — also tendering her resignation.
Spaniard's Bay Mayor Tony Menchions said he was "very concerned" about the resignations.
"Shocked to say the least, but not surprised," he said.
"There's not a lot I can say right now, but we're going to try to work through it, and see what happens over the next few days."
Menchions said personalities contributed to the resignations, but when asked if they involved a gender issue, he replied: "Absolutely not."
Seymour shared her story with CBC News during an interview on Monday that was set to publish Wednesday morning.
"It's been an extreme battle. It has affected my life personally. Some portions of it have been devastating," Seymour said.
She said her worst day as a firefighter occurred in April 2014 when a guest instructor played a pornographic film at the end of a classroom session on vehicle rescue.
She was the only woman in a room filled with male firefighters.
"I was flabbergasted. I was frozen. It was a hardcore porn film," said Seymour.
CBC News has learned Fire and Emergency Services, the agency that oversees firefighter training in the province, has removed the trainer from its list of recognized instructors for "displaying inappropriate material" during the session.
Seymour said she decided to speak out following a "pivotal point for me" at the fire hall in October.
She noticed her balaclava was missing from her locker and went to the chief for a replacement.
As he handed it to her, she said another firefighter commented, "You might want to go home and wash that, we jerked all over it."
The simmering tension and division came to a head in November when Seymour brought her concerns to council.
She painted a picture of a fire department that fails to enforce minimum training standards, allows occupational hazards to go unchecked and favours popularity and "mob mentality" over qualifications and dedication.
She said her treatment deteriorated further following the meeting.
Seymour said she was struck by a coffee cup thrown from a passing vehicle while out walking recently and has been the subject of some heated comments, both verbal and online.
In December, she received an envelope anonymously which contained a photocopy of the transcript of an online chat between five females.
The inflammatory language suggests "Brenda" should be burned at the stake and describes her as a "conniving witch."
One contributor refers to a "slimy bitch" and suggests "we should hire a hitman."
No confidence in the chief
She directly blamed Hiscock and a few of his closest supporters.
"I've got severe concerns trusting anything this fire chief does now," Seymour said, adding, "I don't think the fire chief is doing his job."
Some of her council colleagues have also failed to take action, she added.
Three people on the seven-member council, including Seymour, voted in support of a motion to dismiss Hiscock, but it was defeated 4-3 after Menchions voted in favour of the chief.
The town has agreed to hire an independent firm to review the situation, said Menchions.
A man who identified himself as a firefighter approached CBC News outside the fire hall on Monday. He declined an interview, saying there is a "chain of command," but described the department as "perfect."
Punished for being female, ambitious
Seymour, a Level II certified firefighter, one of only two on the brigade, said she has repeatedly been overlooked for executive positions.
The controversy has attracted the attention of the province's fire commissioner, who met with council in recent weeks.
A spokesperson for the Department of Municipal Affairs said an official with the department will also meet with council "to discuss issues, roles and responsibilities, and council and staff relations."
Seymour hopes that by speaking out, she can change attitudes and pave the way for more females in male-dominated workplaces and organizations.
"This is just mind blowing. It has to be exposed and bled out, and it has to be stopped."