Thunder Bay·CBC Investigates

9 human rights complaints allege Thunder Bay, Ont., police on leave called 'broken toys' in toxic workplace

Nine human rights complaints against the Thunder Bay Police Service in northwestern Ontario paint a picture of a force that alleges active discrimination against its members based on their mental health, race and gender.

3 more complaints to be filed this week, lawyer says. None of the allegations proven in court

There are currently nine complaints against Thunder Bay Police Service leadership that have been filed to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging a range of harassment and discrimination based on mental health, race and gender. (Marc Doucette / CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details of trauma and suicide.

The Thunder Bay Police Service faces allegations of a toxic work culture, detailed in nine complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that claim members of the force are discriminated against based on their mental health, race and gender. 

The complaints were filed by active and retired officers and civilian employees, as well as a member of the service's oversight board.

"We have an unsafe workplace. We have officers and civilians in deep mental distress with the threat of suicide, with the threat of other harms that come along with workplace mental health injuries and policing," said Chantelle Bryson, a Thunder Bay-based lawyer representing the nine complainants.

According to five of the complaints, a whiteboard at police headquarters lists officers on mental health leave. The complaints say senior officers are known to refer to these members as "broken toys" who've taken "sad leave."

In an interview with CBC News, Bryson said senior officers are "belittling and humiliating people in the workplace who experience mental health struggles that arise from the job."

None of the allegations have been tested or proven in court.

But taken together, experts and advocates in mental health for police say the complaints paint a picture of a workplace culture that is toxic for employees struggling with mental health issues. 

Thunder Bay, Ont., police Chief Sylvie Hauth is named as a respondent in all nine of the human rights complaints. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Thunder Bay police Chief Sylvie Hauth refused a request from CBC News for an interview.

But a written statement from Hauth said she would not comment on the human rights complaints.

Hauth pointed to a previously issued press release in which she said she "has never lost sight of the value and importance of each member of this police service."

The statement added the service respects the right of people to apply to outside tribunals and oversight agencies, and will "limit public remarks while these matters are being reviewed."

Officers on leave allege harassment

Many of the complaints describe traumatic experiences on the job, as officers respond to murder scenes, violent assaults, overdose deaths, fatal accidents and suicides, including involving their own colleagues.

At least six of the nine complainants have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and several also were diagnosed with anxiety and depression, according to the complaints.

Of the nine people who have filed complaints, seven have spent some time on mental health leave.

But while on leave, all seven have alleged or are worried senior members of the force wrote to the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) attempting to have their benefits denied. They also claim this is a routine practice.

They've taken the extraordinary step to try to get systemic remedies for themselves and all other officers and civilians to have a safe workplace.- Chantelle Bryson, lawyer, on Thunder Bay police complainants in human rights case

As of 2016 in Ontario, any PTSD diagnoses for first responders, including police officers, are presumed to be work related, and there's no need for proof of a causal link between the diagnosis and a workplace event.

While on leave, several people alleged continued harassment by the police force, with two people saying they or their family members were served at home with subpoenas to attend court, despite medical direction not to attend.

One person said that in their complaint, while on suspension with pay and later mental health leave, the police service "forced [them] to call in each day 'to report,'" allegedly for "no purpose but harassment." Despite being "in great distress" before calling in, the complaint says, the requirement was in effect for 539 days and only ended upon advocacy by the police association.

The complaints also allege the police force routinely challenges or refuses return-to-work accommodations, and threatens criminal charges against employees under the Police Services Act (PSA).

Chantelle Bryson, a human rights lawyer based in Thunder Bay, is representing 12 officers and civilians who have or will be filing human rights complaints against the police service. (Submitted by Chantelle Bryson)

One complaint alleges discrimination based on race and marital status, with a First Nations officer claiming they've been passed over 32 times for promotions, allegedly because of rumours of affairs and their Indigenous identity.

The complaints "seem to demonstrate abuse of authority, abusive use of PSA charges against officers and civilians, all kinds of abuse of authority for retaliation," Bryson told CBC News.

OPP investigating alleged misconduct

Three complaints, including one by board member Georjann Morriseau, relate to the alleged cover-up of an incident where a sergeant illegally entered and searched an apartment, leading to illegal seizure of drugs and two illegal arrests.

Bryson said she referred information to Ontario's attorney general to determine whether a criminal investigation should be conducted.

"It was referred from there to the Ontario Provincial Police for assessment of whether an investigation should take place," Bryson said.

A spokesperson with the OPP confirmed in an email that they are assessing "whether an investigation is warranted into allegations of misconduct involving member(s) of the Thunder Bay Police Service."

The OPP spokesperson said they would not be commenting further "to preserve the integrity of the outcome of that assessment."

In total, there have been nine complaints and three reprisals against 21 named respondents within the police service, including officers, civilians and individual members of the police services board. Reprisals are followup complaints, made after a complainant faced retaliatory actions or threats in response to their original complaints.

CBC News has requested interviews with the police service about this, since the first complaint was made public last year, but all the requests have been denied. 

Hauth is named in all 12 complaints and reprisals, while the police service's lawyer, Holly Walbourne, is named in eight of the filings.

The police service's deputy chief, Ryan Hughes, who was recently suspended by the police services board pending "an internal investigation," was named in three of the complaints.

None of the allegations have been proven in court, and a hearing date has not been set for any of the complaints or reprisals.

Complainants look for 'broad systemic remedies'

The 12 filings are asking for roughly $3.9 million in damages from personal losses and loss of human dignity.

But Bryson added most complainants are looking for "broad systemic remedies" to be imposed by the human rights tribunal. Those remedies could include extensive human rights training within the service and the board, and the implementation of policies to monitor the service and the board's handling of human rights complaints, Bryson said.

"They have no faith in the leadership. They have no faith in the association being able to obtain any meaningful remedies from the leadership and they have no faith in the board doing anything about it," she said about her clients.

"So they've taken the extraordinary step to try to get systemic remedies for themselves and all other officers and civilians to have a safe workplace."

Bryson added she plans to file three more human rights complaints, and had to turn away seven other officers and civilians because their claims were more than one year old, the limit for human rights tribunal complaints.

If you're struggling or know someone who is, here's some of the resources where you can get help:

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