Edmonton

Female firefighters sue City of Leduc over alleged harassment, sexual assault, bullying

In a statement of claim two former firefighters allege nearly two decades of tolerated or ignored systemic harassment, bullying, abuse and sexual assault in the Leduc fire department. 

Two female employees hope to launch class action suit against the city

Christa Steele speaks to CBC after filing a civil suit against the city of Leduc. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Leduc firefighter and paramedic Christa Steele said she reached her breaking point when she saw a young female practicum student being bullied by her male co-workers.

"After watching the student get harassed, I was done," Steele said. "I knew at that point that girls in this field need to feel safer coming to work."

Steele and co-worker Mindy Smith have filed an application for a class action lawsuit against the City of Leduc.

In a 20-page statement of claim filed with Court of Queen's Bench, the women allege they endured nearly two decades of tolerated or ignored systemic harassment, bullying, discrimination, abuse and sexual assault. 

The 45-year-old mother of two joined the Leduc fire department in 2004.

In the document, Steele said when she was in training, a male co-worker asked about the colour of her panties before exposing himself to her in the back of an ambulance.

In 2005, Steele was in a relationship with a fellow firefighter and paramedic, referred to in the document as Male Firefighter #1. When the relationship ended, she was subjected to sexual harassment, bullying and name-calling, the statement said. 

"Her direct superiors were aware of this and required her to write apology letters to the spouses of her colleagues," the document states. 

Firefighter #1 was not asked to do the same thing. He was eventually promoted to captain. 

Christa Steele surrounded by male co-workers during an awards ceremony in 2018. (Leduc Fire Services/Facebook)

The document alleges, a deputy chief pinned Steele against the wall in December 2005 and tried to kiss her neck, demanding to know why she was willing to have a relationship with Firefighter #1, but not with him. 

In an interview with CBC News, Steele said she began to find it increasingly difficult to stay silent about the way she was being treated. 

"The boy's club is a factual thing," Steele said. "It's a very broken system that's full of favouritism, nepotism, abuse and narcissism." 

'Helpless, alone, unprotected'

The statement of claim goes into detail about an employee referred to as Male Firefighter #4. 

It's alleged that between 2014 and 2018, he would touch and smell Steele's hair, try to hold or touch her hand and whisper in her ear. 

She didn't report the incidents because, based on past reactions to her complaints, she didn't think they'd be taken seriously. 

"Ms. Steele was being sexually victimized on an ongoing basis and felt helpless, alone, unprotected, and unsupported," the court document states. 

It's alleged that Male Firefighter #4 sexually assaulted Steele in a bathroom stall, then later touched her inappropriately in the mess kitchen. 

Fellow paramedic Daniel Sundahl created this image of Christa Steele in the back of a Leduc ambulance. (DanSun Photo Art)

When a number of female firefighters complained about similar experiences, an investigation was launched and eventually Male Firefighter #4 was terminated and ordered to stay away from events and off Leduc city property. 

Yet in August 2020, Male Firefighter #4 showed up at a motorcycle rally involving the fire department. Captains refused to make him leave, even though his appearance sent Steele running to the bathroom in fear. 

The court document states the captains accused female firefighters of lying, claiming, "The girls made it up and railroaded him." 

Years later, when co-plaintiff Mindy Smith told the deputy chief she had also been sexually assaulted by Male Firefighter #4, she was taken off duty without pay for three months after the deputy chief told her she was emotionally unstable, the claim says.

"Ms. Smith has been diagnosed with severe mental health issues, including PTSD, which was caused by the harassment, discrimination, and sexual assaults at the fire department," the claim states. 

'I want there to be consequences to these actions'

Leduc city council is aware of the allegations made in the statement of claim, but declined interview requests as the matter is before the courts, says Mayor Bob Young. 

"The allegations that have been made are concerning and we take them very seriously," Young wrote in a text to CBC News. "We at the City of Leduc are committed to providing a safe and healthy work environment." 

An independent, third-party investigation was launched after Smith and Steele brought their concerns to management in the fire department and at city hall. The statement of claim indicates the investigation was completed earlier this year.

CBC has requested a copy of the investigator's report, but a Leduc spokesperson said the internal document contains personal information and would not be disclosed or made public. 

The lawyer representing Smith and Steele has also requested the document and expects it to released as the civil suit proceeds. 

Calgary lawyer Robert Martz anticipates that if the class action is certified, "dozens" of women who have worked for the Leduc fire department since 2000 will join the suit. 

Steele is still employed by the City of Leduc, but is currently collecting compensation as the WCB deemed her work environment unsafe after the complaints were filed. 

Christa Steele during a shift with Leduc fire department. (Christa Steele)

Steele said she is grieving the loss of her career and a job she loved. 

"I want the City of Leduc fire department to take responsibility and some ownership and I want there to be consequences to these actions," Steele told CBC. "I think a few of them need to be terminated and move on."

Steele also hopes going public and filing the civil suit will send a strong message to other female first responders. 

"I hope  it empowers them to know that abuse just isn't okay anywhere and that they don't have to put up with it," Steele said. 

"You have an option."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.

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