Nova Scotia

Firefighter asked about oral sex wants inquiry, but government says no

A firefighter who says her 18-year career was plagued by sexual harassment is demanding that Halifax Regional Municipality step up to resolve discrimination cases that drag out for years.

Kathy Symington says male firefighters harassed her for years and union, human rights commission did nothing

Kathy Symington says lawyer fees alone can ruin someone trying to fight harassment at work. (CBC)
A firefighter who says her 18-year career was plagued by sexual harassment is demanding that Halifax Regional Municipality step up to resolve discrimination cases like hers that drag on for years.

Kathy Symington has collected 1,400 pages documenting her sexual harassment case against Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency. She said the harassment began in 2000.

"Lots of rude comments, derogatory comments," she told CBC News. "Do you like oral sex? What's your favourite sexual position? Things that are very inappropriate."

Car vandalized 3 times

Her car was vandalized three times. She suspects the man who asked her about sex also damaged her car.

Kathy Symington began her 18-year firefighting career in 1997. (Submitted by Kathy Symington)

Symington said once she spoke up, rumours started circulating that she was "crazy" and lying. On one occasion, she says her managers told her she was booked for a physical. She arrived to find out it was an appointment with a psychologist, one of many "traps" she says her male colleagues set for her.

She went to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, but says they minimized her complaint and ultimately did nothing.

"I don't know what constitutes discrimination [for them]," she said. "These are discriminatory actions and need to be dealt with immediately."

Union wouldn't help her

She said she spoke to her union, the Halifax Professional Firefighters Association (International Association of Firefighters Local 268), but they would not help her. She said they worked with her accuser, but not her.

Symington was a firefighter beginning in 1997 for 18 years.

Kathy Symington has accumulated hundreds of documents about the harassment she says she faced as a firefighter. (CBC)

In December, Halifax fire Chief Ken Stuebing admitted women were discriminated against at work, but said no men would face discipline and did not apologize to Symington.

"Halifax Fire admitted to systemic gender discrimination. I don't see how it doesn't include me but, up until now, apparently it doesn't," she said.

Government dismisses inquiry calls

She said cases like the Metro Transit (now Halifax Transit) supervisor who abused an employee with racist slurs, washroom graffiti and an assault show the problem is widespread in municipal organizations. In May, a group of HRM workers protested anti-black racism they said was common.

"The ignoring, not dealing with it, letting it fester, letting it get to the point where things get really bad," Symington said. "They have no concern with that behaviour going on in the workforce."

Ken Stuebing, fire chief for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency, sits next to former firefighter Liane Tessier during the December apology. He said none of the men would face any punishment. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Symington is part of Equity Watch, a group demanding an inquiry into discrimination against city workers and the lengthy wait for complaints to be resolved.

Mark Furey, the minister responsible for the human rights commission, said he won't order an inquiry.

"I don't believe it's necessary. The transformation of the human rights commission is a significant piece of work going forward," he said.
Kathy Symington has a ring to mark her 18-years as a city firefighter, but says years of sexual harassment on the job have taken an emotional toll on her. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

He said it used to take 700 days to resolve a complaint, but that's down to 180 days. Furey said "a couple of topical matters" from the past were in the news lately, but he thinks the commission is doing good work today.

HRM spokesperson Nick Ritcey said the municipality didn't want to talk about the call for an inquiry.

Blacks employed by Halifax say they deal with racial discrimination on the job and are consistently passed over for promotions. (Steve Berry/CBC)