Toronto·CBC Investigates

Female firefighter in Toronto alleges years of abuse and harassment at Toronto Fire Services

A female firefighter in Toronto is coming forward with allegations of years of harassment and discrimination while she worked as a firefighter for Toronto Fire Services.

Jamie Wilson says she was harassed and bullied for years with no help from union

Jamie Wilson claims she was harassed and bullied by her male colleagues on numerous occasions since becoming a firefighter in 2006. When she complained in 2008, she says she was moved to another fire hall. (CBC)

A female firefighter in Toronto is coming forward with allegations of years of harassment and discrimination while she worked as a firefighter for Toronto Fire Services.

Jamie Wilson says she was punched at work by a male colleague on multiple occasions. And she says her platoon chief told her she better have "brought her birth control because [she] just got f--ked." 

History of abuse with Toronto Fire Services

Wilson became a firefighter in 2006. 

"Even when I passed the three-year mark, I kept thinking it would get better," Wilson told the fifth estate's Mark Kelley. "I made it up to seven years and it never really did."

She said the harassment went on for nearly 10 years. When she complained of harassment in 2008, she says she was moved to another fire hall.

Then, when her gear was tampered with, she says she was moved yet again to another fire hall.

By 2010, she arrived at one of the busiest stations in the City of Toronto, but she says she arrived with a reputation.  

Frank Ramagnano, president of the Toronto Professional Firefighters Association, said, "we haven't treated her [Wilson] any different than any other member."
"The platoon chief said to me when I got to that hall: 'I hope you brought your birth control because you just got f--ked,' meaning now you're here, and I hear you complained in the past," Wilson told the fifth estate.  

"The platoon chief said to me when I got to that hall: 'I hope you brought your birth control because you just got f--ked,' meaning now you're here, and I hear you complained in the past," Wilson told the fifth estate.  

It would all come to a head in 2013 when she says she was punched on several occasions by a male colleague.

She says she was so afraid of him and didn't feel that she had support from her co-workers that she slept on a mat in the female washroom on overnight shifts. 

"I was just so terrified to be near him," Wilson told the fifth estate.

By the fall of 2013, the City of Toronto hired an external lawyer to investigate the assault allegations relating to Wilson, as well as harassment complaints involving 24 other male firefighters.

The investigation took nine months to complete. It revealed inappropriate comments were made, and confirmed that Wilson was punched on one occasion.

The investigator downplayed Wilson's claims, and concluded that her colleagues were simply kidding around. 

However, the investigator added in her report that many of the firefighters she spoke to "were coached prior to their interviews with me."  

The investigator concluded many of the individuals "were not as honest and forthcoming as the investigation required."

Union troubles

Even after the investigation was complete, the union took six more months to file a grievance.

She eventually had to hire her own lawyer, who wrote to the union representing Toronto firefighters urging them to file a grievance on Wilson's behalf.

Niiti Simmonds says she wrote several letters and made numerous phone calls in an effort to put pressure on the union.

She says not everyone in the union was on Jamie's side. 

"Some of them think that the core job of the union is to protect firefighters from complaints and to stop firefighters from losing their jobs or pay or seniority, and don't really think that investigating or dealing with human rights issues is the core part of what the union is supposed to be doing," Simmonds told the fifth estate.

It would take almost two years for the union to file a grievance on Wilson's behalf.

Toronto Fire Services tweet

Wilson says that's in stark contrast to what happened in 2013 when the Toronto Professional Firefighters Association took up the cause of three men fired by the City of Toronto for breaches in the city's social media policy.

One of the men tweeted: "I'd never let a woman kick my ass. If she tried something I'd be like. 'Hey, you! Get your bitch ass back in the kitchen and make me some pie!"

"They fought for those members. They filed grievances immediately and they had multiple arbitration dates, and two of them were rehired. They fought for them all the way," says Wilson. 

"They fought for those members. They filed grievances immediately and they had multiple arbitration dates, and two of them were rehired. They fought for them all the way," says Wilson. 

Frank Ramagnano is the president of the Toronto Professional Firefighters Association.

"I was so proud of being a firefighter," Wilson said. "I do love the job, but there's just all the discrimination and retaliation … I just can't go back."

He says in terms of how the association has conducted itself, "we haven't treated her any different than any other member."

But Ramagnano minimized Wilson's claim that she was assaulted.

"I punch my son. No one would say that's abuse. It all depends on the type, so I think you have to be careful when you generalize saying that she was punched." 

Simmonds says this case should be a wakeup call for the union and the city.

"It's not just the union's role to prevent systemic discrimination. It's the employer's job," she says.  "And what we want is for Jamie and the union to be working together to get the employer to change the work environment because they're the one with the power to make fundamental changes in the workplace."

Toronto Fire Chief Jim Sales refused to comment for this story.

Problems across the country 

Wilson's struggle has played out in fire halls across Canada for decades.

Last fall, an investigation by the fifth estate uncovered dozens of complaints from female firefighters who said they were harassed, bullied, and physically and sexually assaulted by their male colleagues.

Jennifer Pernfuss is a coach and consultant on respect in the workplace. She's been hired by fire services across Canada, and says there is a "beast within the fire service" that is harming both women and men.

"In its extreme form, it's violence against women," Pernfuss told the fifth estate. "There is violence against men as well."

"In its less extreme form … [it's] harassment, bullying, discrimination that is causing psychological and physical harm to firefighters."

Jennifer Pernfuss says female fighters can't count on their male colleagues to support them in cases of discrimination.

"It's not unusual," she says. "Bystanders to this kind of conduct don't speak up because they themselves fear reprisal, and again that is justified because they will pay a price for taking on the perpetrators."

She says it creates a culture of silence.

Jamie Wilson now

In September, the City of Toronto offered Wilson a job with fire prevention. But Wilson said that after all she's been through, she doesn't want anything to do with the fire service.

She says she just wants another job working for the City of Toronto.

"I was so proud of being a firefighter," Wilson said. "I do love the job, but there's just all the discrimination and retaliation … I just can't go back."

Wilson has moved back in with her parents. And she has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

"I became more and more isolated and I became afraid to go outside, so I was agoraphobic basically," she said.

"I kept working with my therapist, and just kept exposing myself to crowds and going out and riding the subway, but it just felt like somebody was going to physically assault me," she says.

Despite all that's happened, she feels it's important to speak out. 

"I am optimistic that speaking about this. Even if it inspires one other person to come out of that horrible place where I was at where I felt so alone and unable to speak up, if it helps somebody else come out of their misery, then it's worth it," she said.

"I don't want anyone else to experience what I experienced."

now