Thunder Bay

Human rights case pits retired constable in Thunder Bay, Ont., against police chief and oversight board

A retired Thunder Bay officer's human rights complaint against the northwestern Ontario city’s police chief and its oversight board alleges his PTSD was triggered by discrimination and harassment that contributed to the end of his 33-year career.

Ex-officer claims he faced discrimination, harassment after he was found to have violated COVID-19 measures

Thunder Bay police Chief Sylvie Hauth, shown in a file photo, is among those named in a human rights complaint by Kelly Walsh, a retired constable. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

A retired Thunder Bay officer's human rights complaint against the northwestern Ontario city's police chief and its oversight board alleges his PTSD was triggered by discrimination and harassment that contributed to the end of his 33-year career.

Kelly Walsh, a former constable with the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS), filed the complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario last month. It names the Thunder Bay Police Services Board, Chief Sylvie Hauth, as well as an inspector, a staff sergeant and the police service's legal counsel.

Walsh's case is one of at least three tribunal complaints lodged by officers against the police service. All were filed by Thunder Bay lawyer Chantelle Bryson.

The allegations in the applications have not been tested in court.

Walsh's 33-year career comes to end

Walsh joined the police service in 1988. During his career, he received the 2008 Governor General's Police Exemplary Service Medal, which recognizes 20 years of exemplary service and good conduct. In 2019, he also received a followup award called a first bar for 10 more years of distinguished work. 

In his filing, Walsh said he began to suffer from PTSD in late 2017, and cited incidents including being first on the scene for the sudden death of a fellow officer and close friend, as well as the suicide of a young fellow officer.

Walsh alleges his PTSD was triggered following an incident in November 2020 where he and two other officers challenged the actions of a higher-ranking officer, who they said unlawfully entered a residence and violated an individual's rights while making an improper arrest.

He alleges the matter was brought forward to a police staff sergeant, but was closed without interviewing any of the other officers.

This January, Walsh was found to be in violation of COVID-19 public health measures against gatherings. In the human rights filing, he claimed the police service sought penalties including a six-month demotion through a Police Services Act hearing, along with a $15,000 fine under provincial legislation.

Walsh also alleges Hauth and the inspector named as a respondent in the application contacted the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to argue his benefits should be denied and he was lying about his disability.

The Thunder Bay Police Service was Walsh's employer for 33 years before his retirement earlier this year. (Christina Jung / CBC)

He says he was formally diagnosed with PTSD in early 2021, after he had his first appointment with his family doctor the previous December. In Ontario, a diagnosis of PTSD for police officers is covered under provincial legislation as a presumptive workplace injury. 

Walsh claims continued discrimination and harassment resulted in him going on workplace leave and then ended his policing career, when he formally retired as a police officer at the start of July, one year earlier than he had originally planned.

He claimed he also suffered mental distress from what he called attacks on his professional reputation and legacy.

Complaint seeks discipline, police service changes 

The filing seeks $250,000 from the police services board for income losses and an illegitimate prosecution fine, along with an additional $150,000 from the other named respondents, including Hauth.

It also requests discipline for all respondents up to termination, as well as discrimination and harassment training, policy review and oversight by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to ensure the safety of all officers experiencing mental health challenges.

Chris Adams, a spokesperson for the police service, said it has yet to receive the filing.

When asked about the November 2020 incident, Adams said it was the subject of a Police Services Act investigation, which involved "a thorough examination of all the facts and issues."

That investigation has concluded and is now an internal employment matter, and police cannot comment further, Adams said. 

Walsh launched his application just days before Thunder Bay Police Association president Colin Woods published an op-ed in which he said a survey showed front-line officers had become overwhelmingly dissatisfied with police leadership.

That survey indicated 64 per cent of responding officers disagreed, or strongly disagreed, that senior management prioritized mental health.

In a statement earlier this month, Hauth acknowledged the survey results and said she was committed to working with the service's members and the police services board.

"It is clear to me that there is great importance in listening to your concerns and aspirations for the Thunder Bay Police Service. I want you to have the resources, tools, and support you need to serve the community."