Politics·Exclusive

Civilian DND employee says she suffered retribution after reporting abuse

The stories of Department of National Defence civilians who've experienced misconduct at work have been largely overshadowed by the crisis within the military. CBC News has examined the case of one woman who claimed racial discrimination and sexual harassment — including an instance of her tugboat captain mooning the crew — and whose complaints were largely dismissed.

Military members aren't the only ones reporting misconduct

Krystina MacLean, a civilian employee at the Department of National Defence, fought an internal battle a decade ago over allegations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Warning: This story contains graphic and offensive language

As a woman and civilian working the naval docks along Canada's West Coast, Krystina MacLean has seen and endured a lot.

Of mixed South Asian descent, she was routinely referred to among colleagues as a "black bitch" by the captain of a Department of National Defence tugboat, who supervised her.

A workplace harassment investigation later acknowledged she was also called a "Paki" on the job, along with other racially and sexually-charged terms of abuse.

While sanding decks on her hands and knees, MacLean said, she was often asked by other male crew members to "service" them while she was down there.

"At the time I just felt ... I felt alone. I felt scared to work with these guys," MacLean told CBC News.

For years, the spotlight on sexual misconduct and racism in the Armed Forces has focused on the actions of military members — a belated social reckoning that has tended to eclipse well-documented instances of egregious abuse directed at civilian employees of the Department of National Defence (DND).

MacLean said she put up with the taunts for five years, from 2006 to 2011. Even as she tried to laugh off the abuse, she said, she felt guilty for not fighting back, for "letting my father and my mother down."

The tipping point came a decade ago when the captain of the tug she served on, Alex Marjanovich (also a civilian), dropped his drawers and exposed his backside to the crew of another tugboat in what was later described by an investigator, somewhat tamely, as a "mooning incident."

Canadian Forces auxiliary vessels (CFAV) Glendyne and Glendale alongside HMCS Regina in 2012 in Esquimalt, B.C. (CPL Alex. W. Croskery/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

According to one witness who spoke to the investigator, the sight of the captain's bare backside was a regular feature of life along the docks at the naval base in Esquimalt, B.C.

"There was always some sort of inappropriate situation going on all of the time and I just accepted it as the norm. That was until Krystina had a claim," said Malcolm Rodin, a now-retired marine engineer. He said Marjanovich's antics were sometimes cheered on by other dock workers.

"I think ninety per cent of the riggers saw him pull his pants down [on a regular basis] and gave him positive reinforcement," Rodin said. "And I would think everybody on the 250 crane barge, even the barge master, would have seen him pull his pants down."

Reached by phone late Friday, Marjanovich said military police investigated him over the 2011 "mooning incident" and he was cleared of wrongdoing. No charges were ever laid.

"I was pardoned. I have a letter," he said. Marjanovich also denied any wrongdoing involving MacLean's treatment before hanging up the phone.

Deputy Minister of National Defence Jody Thomas says the department has to "stop hiding behind words like 'harmful' and 'inappropriate' sexual behaviour." (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The case is a stark illustration of how inappropriate behaviour within the defence community is not limited to those in military uniform, despite the recent series of sordid allegations involving senior leaders.

The department's deputy minister, Jody Thomas, has made a point of saying repeatedly the department's response to the ongoing misconduct crisis must include the civilian workforce.

Interviewed on CBC Radio's The Current Tuesday morning, Thomas was not asked specifically about the MacLean case, but instead spoke more broadly about the culture and why misconduct has persisted.

Thomas said she believes that while women have been integrated into the military for over three decades, they haven't been truly included.

"I think there is a difference between integration and inclusion. There is still a very strong sense of who is entitled to this institution and who isn't," she said, adding that the department has to "stop hiding behind words like 'harmful' and 'inappropriate' sexual behaviour.

"It's inappropriate behaviour, period ... And we have to start calling things what they are because that changes the culture."

Asked specifically about the "mooning" incident and MacLean's struggle to be heard, DND said in a statement that misconduct is unacceptable because "these behaviours negatively impact our collective well-being, morale and [the] operational effectiveness" of the defence team.

"This situation was a serious and complex labour relations issue which required the combined efforts of the Department of National Defence team and the Royal Canadian Navy," said DND spokeperson Dan LeBouthillier.

"Management treated these allegations very seriously and, to ensure an unbiased review, took the appropriate steps to hire an independent external investigator to look into the allegations in order to ensure impartiality."

The department did not say whether it would take another look at MacLean's case now and cited privacy reasons in declining to say whether Marjanovich was ever disciplined for his actions.

"Based on the information that was available at the time, management took action in response to the independent investigation and on the advice of labour relations professionals," said LeBouthillier.

The way DND and the navy responded to MacLean's case, however, fits with what military and civilian women working for the department say they often have to confront when they report instances of abuse.

The April 2011 "mooning" incident prompted MacLean to file a written grievance — a formal challenge that mushroomed into a series of running labour battles and a human rights tribunal complaint which eventually dragged in three other supervisors.

'Disgusting' and 'deeply flawed'

The day after her grievance was filed, however, it was MacLean who was hit with disciplinary action for allegedly having a "lewd" encounter with her then-husband, who worked on another boat — a complaint that ended up going nowhere.

MacLean was suspended temporarily after some aspects of her grievance prompted two separate military police investigations; she was accused of exaggerating her claims and of harassing co-workers and making malicious statements about them. Both of those investigations concluded with no charges against her.

MacLean subsequently lost her position on the tugboats following a scathing 2012 investigation report which discounted many of her claims.

Her union leadership later described the report as "disgusting" and "deeply flawed."

WATCH | Civilian DND employee says she suffered retribution for speaking up about harassment:

Civilian DND employee says she was punished for speaking up about harassment

12 months ago
Duration 2:02
While the military is under intense scrutiny for sexual misconduct, a former civilian Department of National Defence employee says she was punished for speaking up about her experience with racism and sexual harassment years ago.

The investigation, according to her union, acknowledged the captain had "mooned" the other crews and had used racial slurs, but said he had not directed them at MacLean.

It discounted the suggestion of sexual harassment but acknowledged that she had faced "personal" harassment.

In the end, MacLean was the one taken to task by investigators, who described the way she presented herself as overly-dramatic and hyperbolic. They questioned her character and — at one point — even the state of her mental health.

The investigation report eventually came to the attention of June Winger, president of the Union of National Defence Employees. When she read it, she said, she could not believe what she was seeing.

"It seemed like a mob mentality," said Winger. "Everybody was just jumping on top of it and re-victimizing her over and over again. And every opportunity that the department had to correct it, every time they went the wrong way and made things worse for her."

June Winger, president of the Union of National Defence Employees, says the investigation into Krystina MacLean, who complained about a toxic environment along the naval docks in Esquimalt, BC, was "deeply flawed." (CBC News)

After the investigation into her complaint wrapped up, MacLean was accused of harassing the supervisors she complained about and of filing vexatious and frivolous complaints. She was subsequently suspended.

Later, for a period of time following the investigation, she was tasked with cleaning out military septic tanks.

The naval officer who authorized her suspension was the base commander at the time, Capt. (Navy) Bob Auchterlonie, now a commodore and soon to be a vice-admiral. He's set to take over as head of the military's joint operations command.

"As this matter was managed with the advice of the labour relations team and has since been settled, it would be inappropriate to comment further," said Auchterlonie in a written statement.

'I was targeted'

MacLean was reassigned within the naval base in 2013. At the time, she said, a senior naval commander (not Auchterlonie) told her that the coarse, sometimes obscene culture in the docks is something you just have to accept if you want to fit in.

Three years went by before DND partly vindicated her and agreed to a settlement, the terms of which remain confidential.

Few of MacLean's colleagues, with the exception of Rodin, stuck up for her and the investigation took pains to underscore how ostracized she had become.

Others, including another tugboat captain who is a visible minority, refused to take part in the investigation, said Rodin.

Although she had complained verbally about her treatment prior to 2011, she said it was the act of filing a formal complaint that brought the full weight of the department down on her.

"I definitely feel I was targeted," MacLean said. "The worst part of it was that I really believe if the senior management and the employer had done a better job in the beginning of really just setting the tone and setting things straight, that there would have been an entirely different outcome."

MacLean said she felt totally abandoned, especially by the civilian leadership at the docks — including Doug Kimmett, the auxiliary fleet manager, whom she later subjected to a now-discontinued human rights complaint.

Asked for comment late Friday, Kimmett said he was reluctant to become involved in the case again but defended his decisions at the time as appropriate and unbiased. 

"I took all complaints at face value and brought in the appropriate authorities to do those investigations," he said. "We followed the process. It was duly investigated under the guidelines of the federal government."

What MacLean experienced was unacceptable in any work environment, said Rodin, who added he was not surprised she faced retribution for speaking up.

'Everyone was aware of what was going on'

Rodin said he was not at all startled to see their colleagues on the waterfront "throw her under the bus" because she had upset the status quo.

"She was going against the culture, so you're calling everybody out and that calls out the office staff for letting it happen and they don't want the spotlight on them," he said. "There were so many things that went on with her, so many inappropriate things that were said to her." 

Rodin said that, after vouching for MacLean, he faced his own form of censure and retribution, including harassment while on sick leave — events that prompted him to retire early.

He said he felt like he had a target on his back from the moment he spoke to the investigator.

"It's a bit dicey. How do you live with yourself if you don't tell the truth?" Rodin said. 

"Everyone was aware of what was going on and they did nothing."

Winger said figures released to the union by the federal government show that 52 harassment complaints were filed by civilian employees at DND in the first three months of this year. That is a fraction of the 420 people who acknowledged harassment in some form or another in last year's anonymous department workplace survey.

Winger said the numbers tell her that civilian defence employees are afraid to step forward.

"It's a crisis of leadership," said Winger. "Only the leaders can stop this."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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