Nfld. & Labrador

Spaniard's Bay mayor says town 'will move forward' after harassment ruckus

Councillors at the Newfoundland town that has been racked by allegations of sexual harassment at the local fire hall met Saturday behind closed doors, with the mayor distancing himself from behaviour that drew national attention.

Protest in solidarity with Brenda Seymour held outside weekend training session

Spaniard's Bay Mayor Tony Menchions, left, says the response to the firefighting controversy in his town has been blown out of proportion. (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

Just days after most of Spaniard's Bay's volunteer fire department quit after the lone female member came forward with harassment allegations, members of the eastern Newfoundland town's council gathered Saturday for a closed-door meeting that included a discussion about sexual harassment policies and training. 

Nothing, though, came out of the previously scheduled meeting that resolves a dispute that has drawn national attention over Brenda Seymour's allegations of sexual harassment at the fire hall, including the display of a pornographic video during a training session.

Mayor Tony Menchions said the nation-wide reaction to the mass resignation of 20 firefighters has been "blown out of proportion," although he would not clarify what he meant while speaking with reporters after the meeting. 

That said, Menchions indicated he is disturbed by what he has heard. 

"We certainly don't condone some of the statements and stuff that has been done," Menchions said. 

"It is 2016 and not 1940, but [at] the end of the day, we will move forward."

The dispute has divided the small town in Newfoundland's Conception Bay. On Thursday night, about 200 people attended a rally in support of the firefighters, with some children carrying signs that said "Support our men." 

Menchions described Saturday's meeting as routine, and said the meeting had been scheduled before Seymour, who also happens to be a town councillor in Spaniard's Bay, spoke publicly against what she described as harassment by firefighters and their wives. 

The meeting, which included Department of Municipal Affairs staff, included a discussion about sexual harassment policies and training for members of council, as well as the departments that report to them.

Protest held outside meeting

Members of SPAAT organized a protest on Saturday in support of Spaniard's Bay firefighter and councilor Brenda Seymour (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

After rumours spread on social media that the purpose of the meeting was to put forward a vote to oust Seymour from the fire department and town council, members of local activist group SPAAT (Smash Patriarchy: An Action Team) organized a counter-protest outside the meeting.

"I'm here to demonstrate how appalled I am at the situation, this woman, this councillor is going through," said Liam McKenna, adding that he and others came to stand in solidarity with Seymour. 

Most of the group drove to the Conception Bay North community to take part in the protest. 

According to McKenna, the absence of accountability and an effective sexual harassment policy in Spaniard's Bay is inexcusable.

"Every organization needs a policy specifically outlining the definition of sexual harassment and what will happen to employees that engage in that sort of behaviour," he said.

Town needs new sexual harassment policy

Brenda Seymour says she will continue to fight for the creation of an effective sexual harassment policy for Spaniard's Bay. (Meghan McCabe/CBC)

When Seymour exited the meeting on Saturday, she was greeted by around a dozen supporters waiting outside.

She said there was no discussion at the meeting about her future with town council and the fire department, although she referred to external calls for her to quit in order to resolve the dispute.

"Somebody in this town took it upon themselves to start a petition. The intent of the petition was to have me removed from council, and from possibly the fire department as well," she said. 

Seymour said she attended Saturday's meeting to ensure that it proceeded as planned. 

She believes there is no way that the council can remove her from council against her will.

"I know the Act and what council can and can't do," she said. 

Since CBC carried her story earlier this week, Seymour said she has received messages from all around the world.

An online petition in support of Brenda Seymour has more than 4,000 signatures.

Seymour maintained that Spaniard's Bay needs to make meaningful changes to its sexual harassment policies so that perpetrators can be held accountable in the future. 

"We have an antiquated sexual harassment policy in place, at least 15 to 16 years old — back to the time of the last administration," she said. 

"We need to make sure this is done right now, this time."

Cathy Bennett speaks out on issue

Meanwhile, senior provincial cabinet minister Cathy Bennett, who is responsible for the Status of Women portfolio, issued a statement Saturday that appeared to respond to the scandal. 

"Harassment in any form or at any time is not tolerated," said Bennett, who is also the finance minister in Dwight Ball's Liberal cabinet. 

"Regardless of issues in any work place, sexual harassment is unacceptable. No person should be made to feel threatened or harassed in the workplace and we should all stand together against that type of behaviour." 

Bennett's statement, though, did not refer specifically to Spaniard's Bay. She said the purpose of her statement was to reiterate the government's "commitment to harassment free environments." 

"Understanding and awareness of the serious issue of sexual harassment is all of our responsibility," Bennett said. 

With files from Meghan McCabe