Toronto

Human rights tribunal cancels hearings in police officer's sex harassment case

The case involving a Toronto police officer who says she suffered "repeated and systematic" sexual harassment by her supervisors in a "poisoned work environment" has suffered a major setback with the abrupt cancellation of the final hearing dates.

There’s uncertainty about what happens next or when case will be heard, lawyer says

Heather McWilliam says she was subjected to repeated sexual harassment and humiliation over several years as a constable at Toronto Police 23 Division. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The case involving a Toronto police officer who says she suffered "repeated and systematic" sexual harassment by her supervisors in a "poisoned work environment" has suffered a major setback with the abrupt cancellation of the final hearing dates.

Const. Heather McWilliam — in a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario — alleges she was "humiliated and segregated" over nearly eight years as a constable at 23 Division.

But on Monday — two weeks before Toronto Police Supt. Ron Taverner was scheduled to testify at a hearing into McWilliam's case — she was told that the adjudicator will no longer be available to hear the remainder of the case.

Contacted on Wednesday, the Ministry of the Attorney General said there are currently 33 adjudicators (17 full-time and 16 part-time) at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Cancellation came as a shock

McWilliam's lawyer Kate Hughes told CBC Toronto that the March 4 letter came as a shock.

"This is a matter that's been going on for five years. We've completed 34 days of hearings. We've had over 30 witnesses. There were many decisions," Hughes said.

"We were at the last witness, Supt. Taverner and then final arguments. This case was about to be over for this young officer, and now we've found that the adjudicator is not able to complete it."

McWilliam, in her complaint, said a superior officer once made a sexual joke about wanting her to "ride his horse."

She also alleged being called "degrading names" such as "c--t, bitch and dyke."

There were other jokes about masturbation and oral sex, McWilliam alleges, and she says a superior officer once passed around photos, taken from Facebook, of her and other female officers in bikinis.

None of the allegations has been proven at the tribunal.

Kate Hughes, holding the letter she received on March 4 advising her that the adjudicator will no longer be available to hear the remainder of Const. Heather McWilliam's case.

Taverner was expected to be among the final witnesses called before closing arguments, which would wrap up a hearing that began in October 2016.

Hughes said there's uncertainty about what's going to happen next or when the case will be heard.

"There's no dates, no certainty. I assume the case will have to start from day one. This is more than an inconvenience. It's a lack of access to justice," Hughes said.

"It's outrageous. This woman's health has been affected, her career, this is just an indication that the human rights tribunal is a broken tribunal."

Since filing her complaint in 2014, McWilliam has been off the job on sick leave after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

McWilliam's case 'in limbo'

Barry Swadron, a lawyer representing two other women who have filed complaints with Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal alleging sexual harassment and discrimination within the Toronto Police Service, said it could take years for such cases to reach a conclusion.

He also said the cases are very costly.

"It's a very, very slow process. It's a difficult process for the complainant, particularly if it's a female complainant," Swadron told CBC Toronto.

"The complainant is not usually a millionaire. It is usually the case, if it's a contested hearing, that the complainant can't afford it. The lawyers that do take it on probably reduce their fees."

Barry Swadron represents two women who have filed complaints with Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal alleging sexual harassment and discrimination within the Toronto Police Service. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

While explaining that this week's development has put McWilliam's case "in limbo," Swadron also said "it's a very, very lonely situation" for the complainants.

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario declined CBC's request for an interview but a spokesperson said in an email that the parties will be contacted to schedule a case management conference call so the tribunal can hear from the parties to determine the next steps.

Meanwhile, when contacted by CBC, Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said given that the decision was just made by the tribunal, the Toronto Police Service is still gathering information and is not in a position to respond.

With files from Farrah Merali

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