Nova Scotia

Halifax fire department sorry for discrimination against women, but no men punished

Halifax’s fire chief apologize to female firefighters who have faced discrimination in the service, but says no men had been disciplined for any of the harassment.

After 12 years, Liane Tessier gets apology but says she's 'disgusted' harassers got 'promoted and protected'

Former firefighter Liane Tessier, right, and Ken Stuebing, fire chief for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency, attend a news conference in Halifax on Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Halifax's fire chief apologized Monday to female firefighters who had faced discrimination in the service, but said no men had been disciplined for any of the harassment.

Ken Stuebing, chief of Halifax Fire and Emergency, read the apology to Lianne Tessier at a press conference in Halifax, 12 years after she first spoke out.

Tessier and other women firefighters said male firefighters harassed them, abused them and demeaned them over decades, and that when they complained, superiors did nothing to help, but instead made the problem worse. The men who harassed them were often protected and promoted, they said.

"It's hard to believe that it took 12 years to have my claims of harassment be taken seriously by the city and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission," Tessier said Monday.

'Complete lack of respect' 

Her concerns included having her firefighting gear tampered with several times and being passed over for jobs while less experienced men climbed the ranks. Instead of being supported, Tessier said, she was ostracized and labelled a troublemaker.

She said there was a "complete lack of respect" for women's claims of harassment and no effort to investigate discrimination and harassment against women.

Liane Tessier began working as a volunteer firefighter in 1998. Tessier, 53, first spoke out about what she described as demeaning and abusive behaviour from co-workers more than a decade ago. (Liane Tessier)

"There are still many fire departments throughout the country that are downplaying the violence and abuse that has happened and is still happening by denying and dismissing women's reality of harassment," she said.

"When women exercise their power and speak out as I did, the world changes overnight for the worse. You are considered a traitor and treated like a pariah, intentionally ignored and ostracized by the men in question, other male co-workers, management and women who are afraid to side with you out of fear they will be subjected to retaliation."

After the municipal fire service dismissed her original complaints, she took them to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in 2007. It dismissed her case, citing lack of evidence. She took the commission to court. 

A judge found investigators with the commission failed to interview the main two people Tessier named in her complaint. The judge also found an investigator gave Tessier incorrect information about her case. The second time, the commission decided Tessier deserved a public hearing. Though it was scheduled for this fall, it never went ahead because the city agreed to settle.

Fire chief praises 'tremendous progress' 

Stuebing said men had long dominated firefighting careers and that led to "systemic discrimination based on gender." He praised Halifax fire for making "tremendous progress" on gender discrimination and complaints.

"I commit to continuing the good work started by my predecessor, and by the leadership and members of this great organization, to continue building a culture of respect and inclusion for all," he said.

None of the harassers were disciplined. Many have since retired, he said. Others remain at work. Halifax Fire has hired a conflict resolution specialist to handle such complaints. There's now mandatory training on diversity and inclusion, as well as workplace harassment. 

"I believe wholeheartedly that Ms. Tessier believes everything she says," Stuebing said, adding that a formal tribunal process was not launched. The fire department is not investigating any of her complaints, he said.

Tessier told reporters afterward that the "culture of misogyny" at Halifax fire obstructed her at every turn. "Top to bottom, there is a whole structure of abuse that happens and it's just helping perpetuate the gender discrimination. Everywhere you go, there was a dead end."

She said members of the fire department spread lies that she was an alcoholic, mentally unstable and a liar. "Nothing happened to them. A lot of them got promoted and protected. I'm disgusted with it."

She lost a career she loved, she said, but still encouraged women to enter male-dominated fields. "If something happens to you, speak out about it."

Seeking help led to increased attacks

Kathy Symington said she faced sexist harassment from male firefighters through her 17 years as a firefighter. (CBC)

Kathy Symington joined Tessier at the press conference. She worked with Halifax fire from 1997 to 2014. "I was harassed on the job and when I went to get help, I found out the more I went to get help, the less I was getting and the more I was getting attacked," she said Monday.

The more isolated she got, the worse the attacks got, she said. Men made vulgar sexual comments to her, and her car was vandalized three times at work. She said she would be set up to fail and "look crazy."

"The people who were terrorizing me were never held accountable for anything."

She got suspended twice for complaining, she said, and the men who harassed her were never punished. It continued right up until she left, she said. She thought she was alone until she saw Tessier on the news.

"That's how they keep it going, by isolating you and segregating you and leaving you out on your own, and continuing to attack," Symington said.

Male firefighters and female chiefs

Barbara Sawatsky said other fire chiefs told her lies about Tessier. She faced intense sexist discrimination herself in her 18 years as a firefighter. (CBC)

Barbara Sawatsky worked for 18 years as a volunteer firefighter, including eight years as a chief. She said in 2003, she worked as a district chief and other chiefs falsely told her Tessier was an alcoholic, a drug addict and a troublemaker. 

"Career staff really do not like volunteers and they especially do not like to be given directives on the scene by a woman. I've had men turn to me and say, 'I've already got a wife at home. I don't need you telling me what to do,'" she told reporters.

In retaliation, male firefighters created complaints against her, Sawatsky said. "They destroyed me. They terminated me, they destroyed my life. They took away something that I loved dearly."

She said she witnessed one occasion when male firefighters put a female firefighter into the attic of a burning building and left her there. "She had to jump down in full gear to save herself."

She said any change will only come from women speaking out. "I don't know who a female firefighter can go to in the fire service."

Human rights commission

Christine Hansen, director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, said they were facing a big backlog of cases when Tessier's was initially dismissed. 

"I'm not going to make any excuses for it," said Hansen. "At the time in 2012, it was taking on average 570 days from the time a complaint was filed until the time a file was closed."

Hansen said the commission has worked to reduce the number of days it takes to close a file and its average is now under 200 days.

Under the settlement, Tessier will receive an undisclosed amount of money. The city has also pledged to make policy changes, some of them already completed, to ensure women can report discrimination without fear of retaliation. 

In the settlement, the city doesn't acknowledge the specifics of Tessier's claim, but agrees female firefighters in Halifax have faced systemic historic gender discrimination at work. 

With files from Shaina Luck and CBC News