Nova Scotia

Human Rights Commission finds no discrimination in N.S. firefighter's case

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has dismissed Kathy Symington's allegation of gender discrimination and found that Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency did not retaliate against her following an earlier complaint of discrimination.

Kathy Symington alleged her employer failed to accommodate her disability, discriminated based on gender

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

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has dismissed a former firefighter's allegation of gender discrimination and found that Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency did not retaliate against her following an earlier complaint.

The board of inquiry's decision also determined there was no discrimination based on Kathy Symington's disabilities in the year before she retired.

Symington, who was one of eight of women at her station when she started working as a firefighter in 1997, has said she was the target of inappropriate comments and sexual harassment from her colleagues. Among her 2004 allegations was that a male co-worker from her station smashed the windows in her car three times within a year while it was parked outside the station.

Symington filed a complaint in the spring of 2016 alleging discrimination and that Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency held earlier complaints in which she alleged sexist treatment and workplace harassment against her.

At the time of her second complaint, Symington had been off work on long-term disability for five years due to physical injuries she suffered in a 2004 car crash.

The human rights board of inquiry examined whether Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency had met its obligations to accommodate her disabilities and looked at the circumstances around Symington being offered a position managing firefighting equipment and inventory in 2015.

It also looked at whether her previous allegations of discrimination factored into the process, but it didn't revisit the issue of systemic discrimination, saying it was dealt with in a 2017 settlement between the commission and Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency. At that time, Halifax's fire chief apologized to female firefighters who had faced discrimination in the service, but said no men had been disciplined for any of the harassment.

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)

Symington was alleging it took Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency too long to accommodate her and breached its duties by doing so, but the board disagreed.

It found there were delays — including waiting nine months to see a surgeon — but that neither Symington or Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency contributed to that wait for an appointment. Another issue was a hiring freeze that may have slowed down efforts to find a suitable position for Symington in the municipality by a few months.

Long wait for offer of new position

Lawyer Dennis James, who chaired the board of inquiry, wrote in his decision that Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency should have informed Symington and her union about the potential of the store position in the year before it was officially presented as an option. He characterized the failure to do so as "misguided and paternalistic."

However, he wrote in his decision that he was "convinced that there was a fully engaged effort to have Ms. Symington return to work."

"There is no evidence at all to support the suggestion that anyone involved in the accommodation process was motivated by the 2004 Complaints in any of their decisions," the decision said.

James characterized Symington's allegation of retaliation as "hyper-exaggerated" and said the presence of letters related to the earlier complaint on her file didn't mean they factored into her treatment.

Hearing held last May

James chaired a hearing in Halifax over seven days in May that heard from witnesses, including Symington, who had been part of meetings convened to discuss whether she could return to work given the ongoing physical limitations caused by her past injuries.

Doctor's notes and health records presented also showed that Symington was dealing with mental-health issues, which she attributed, in part, to an ongoing dispute with her health insurance company as well as anxieties about her workplace. The decision said Halifax Reigonal Fire and Emergency did not contest that she had a mental-health disability.

The hearing also looked at the conduct of human resources staff who were working with Symington to see what her skills and experience were.

"The evidence does not support a finding that Ms. Symington was uncooperative but she seemed unreasonably critical and skeptical of every request made of her. It was clear from the evidence that she lacked any belief that the accommodation process was valid," the decision found.

When Symington was eventually offered the position managing the equipment, she declined saying she was not able to work in any capacity, which her doctor supported.

'I still stand by what I said'

On Tuesday night, Symington had yet to read the full decision, but said was not surprised by the ruling.

"Disappointed, yes. But not surprised," she said, adding that she stands by her position that she experienced discrimination and workplace harassment.

"The whole process has been horrible, the whole system has been horrible and I still stand by what I said. I know what I went through," she said. "They were straight up saying there is nothing here for you, there's nothing at all in [Halifax Regional] Fire [and Emergency]."

Symington said she hopes things have indeed changed since her time working as a firefighter.

"When it says in the workplace rights policy that you have a right to put in a complaint without being retaliated against and having all those things affect you, that that's what actually happens, it's dealt with fairly, from the get-go, instead of leaving someone in it and blaming them," she said. 

Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency said in a statement it was pleased with the ruling. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

City spokesperson Brendan Elliott said Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency is "pleased with the decision of the board chair."

"We feel the findings were appropriate based on the evidence presented," he said in a statement. 

Elliott went on to say that the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency is looking at its hiring process and acknowledges women are underrepresented. He pointed to the recent promotions of two women to the role of acting assistant chief and assistant chief, and said the force will "lean heavily on their knowledge, experience, and passion to help guide us in achieving our vision of a diverse and inclusive fire service." 

"We are constantly working to make the fire service welcoming and inclusive for everyone," he said.