New Brunswick

Complaints of toxic, sexualized workplace at Saint John armoury to be heard by tribunal

A former reservist who complained of a toxic, sexualized workplace at the Barrack Green Armoury in Saint John was described by military doctors as hypersensitive, paranoid and possibly unfit for service because of her "out of proportion" response to childish behaviour.

Paula MacDonald says emails show how she was treated when she complained

Paula MacDonald says her complaints were dismissed by her superior officers. ( Brian Chisholm/CBC)

A former reservist who complained of a toxic, sexualized workplace at the Barrack Green Armoury in Saint John was described by military doctors who never met her as hypersensitive, paranoid and possibly unfit for service because of her "out of proportion" response to childish behaviour.

Paula MacDonald, now 35, trained as a medical technician with 35 Field Ambulance, Saint John, from October 2014 to April 2015.

Later, she obtained copies of emails written about her by doctors who had never seen her as a patient.

MacDonald obtained internal memos about her case and treatment from the Department of National Defence after extensive effort. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

"As discussed with you, the strange behaviour of hypersensitivity to words and deeds, and the paranoia, make me suspect that there is something amiss with Pte. MacDonald," says an email from Dr. Craig Stone, then-commanding officer of Saint John's medical unit, to a military physician in Halifax. 

MacDonald had complained to her superiors at Barrack Green Armoury about a range of offensive behaviour in what she called the "teen boys clubhouse," including vulgar gestures and comments, a rape joke, and laughter at the naval term "seaman."

Support from commission

Her complaints were ultimately dismissed within the Canadian Armed Forces, although a doctor who examined her soon after — the only doctor who did —  found no problems with her mental health, no ulterior motives for her complaints, and no reason to doubt her account.

MacDonald made a discrimination complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and is now feeling validated by what it decided. A commission investigator recommended her case move on to the next step, which would be a hearing by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, she said.

The commission would not confirm for CBC News that it completed an investigation into complaints. The Department of National Defence said it could not comment on a case before the commission.

MacDonald grew up in Souris, P.E.I., and after serving as a reservist in Saint John, left the city. She later served in the regular Armed Forces in Quebec before her voluntary release in January 2016.

Looking back on the culture at the armoury, she said it was so sexist and degrading, it had a negative impact on her ability to do her job.

And because she complained, she believes it had a negative impact on her salary and rank and affected her overall career progression. She is seeking compensation for lost wages.

MacDonald, who now lives in Winnipeg, said she believes there are other women in the military who suffered in silence, gave up or missed out on important career opportunities.

She said she was leered at, had her hair sniffed by a male recruit, and was forced to listen to male reservists tell sexual jokes and talk about their sexual exploits.

Abuse from colleagues

During one training exercise, when the discussion turned to siphoning gas, a sergeant made a reference to fellatio, MacDonald said.

On another occasion, when she was training with medical equipment and a tool for draining fluid from a human airway, she had to listen to jokes about her manual stimulation, she said.

One soldier kept using the phrase "fun zone" to describe the female reproductive system in a group presentation, she said.

MacDonald said she repeatedly complained to senior staff, but they responded by questioning her mental competence.

'Army attacked me'

In March 2015, MacDonald said, she was informed verbally that her complaints were considered unfounded and as a result, she would have to go for a medical assessment at Base Gagetown.

If she did not go for the assessment, she was told, she would be labelled medically unfit for service.

Paula MacDonald says her time as a reservist at the Barrack Green Armoury in Saint John was marred by a toxic, sexualized workplace. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

MacDonald said it took an extensive effort to track down some of the correspondence about her, written prior to the assessment.

Documents eventually released to her by the Defence Department under the Privacy Act include email correspondence among some doctors, which she then provided to the CBC.

Among the emails is the one Stone wrote to a doctor in Halifax, identified as Cmdr. David Wilcox, regional surgeon.

"I have not been convinced that the problem resides with the Detachment in Saint John; thus, I believe that MacDonald needs to be seen by a medical professional to assure that there are no problems of a medical nature," Stone's email says. "My interest here is to protect both Private MacDonald and the CF."

MacDonald said she never met or spoke with Stone.

She also provided an email dated Feb. 18, 2015, from Willem Noppers, the base surgeon at 5th Canadian Support Base Gagetown, to Dr. Randy Russell, also at Gagetown.

"Randy, strange case for you," Noppers says in the opening salutation.

The email goes on to describe MacDonald's reaction to some "childish behaviour" as "completely out of proportion."

"We've been asked to have an MO [medical officer] assess her, and maybe refer to MH for full assessment. 

"If there is a pathology there ... we can save the [private] and the system a lot of time and heartache by placing restrictions on her. She is actively trying to enrol in reg. Force. 

"With the reaction she has had to minor incidents at her unit, it doesn't sound like she would have the resiliency to last through basic training."

Found fit for service

On March 13, 2015, MacDonald was booked for a an appointment with Russell at the 42 Health Services Clinic on the base in Oromocto.

That day, she was declared fit for service in a document signed by Russell and approved by Noppers and Wilcox.

The assessment says there are no mental health issues and goes on to describe MacDonald.

"Confident. Articulate. Thoughtful. Good insight. … No evidence of any mania or psychosis: and no evidence of what might be seen as a dysfunctional thinking/personality pattern."

If you can't stand up for basic human rights in terms of stopping someone from being sexually abused and you're supposed to be defending your country, then what can you do?- Paul MacDonald, former member of the military

"I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the pt's numerous stories about young male soldiers making offensive sexist comments/jokes around female soldiers."

The document says no ulterior motives could be ascribed to MacDonald, who did not want to get anyone in trouble and hoped for a career in the Armed Forces.

She also has "a long track record of a high level of success in a demanding academic and work environment," Russell says in the report.

Couldn't let go

MacDonald said she has no complaint with how she was treated by Russell.

But the manner in which she felt forced to undergo that exam was a human rights violation, she said.

"They tried to bully me and intimidate me," she said in an interview with the CBC. "They attacked me so much in terms of trying to harm me as a person and harm my career. 

She didn't feel she could stop pressing on with her complaints.

"If you can't stand up for basic human rights in terms of stopping someone from being sexually abused and you're supposed to be defending your country, then what can you do? 

"I just couldn't let it go."

National study

MacDonald said she is not looking to have anyone disciplined or fired. She just wants the "stupidity" to stop and improvements made.

That's why she has volunteered to be interviewed for a national study on sexual harassment and sexual violence in the military. An Armed Forces team is asking to hear from military members or veterans.

MacDonald said the Human Rights Act process can stretch out for years, beginning with the complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

By law, the commission must screen all discrimination complaints involving federally regulated employers, including the military.

Sought reaction

After considering evidence from the complainant and respondent, the commission recommends whether a case should move on to the independent tribunal, which decides whether the discrimination did, in fact, occur.

The commission can also recommend dismissal or conciliation, which it didn't do in MacDonald's case. 

CBC News tried to contact the physicians identified in the correspondence.

Stone declined to comment, and messages left for Wilcox, Russell and Noppers were not returned. Russell is still at Gagetown, but Wilcox has retired from the Armed Forces. The Defence Department could not immediately provide the status of Stone or Noppers.


Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.