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'It's been hell': Indigenous DND employee says harassment policy failed him

Steve Morrisey devoted years of his career toward making the Canadian military a more friendly place for Indigenous members. Now, he's warning them to avoid it at all costs — at a time when the Department of National Defence is trying to recruit more Indigenous people.

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Steve Morrisey, 48, is currently on sick leave from his job as a computer support technician at DND over depression and anxiety tied to his treatment at work, he said. (Michel Aspirot/CBC )

Steve Morrisey devoted years of his career toward making the Canadian military a more friendly place for Indigenous members. Now, he's warning them to avoid it at all costs — at a time when the Department of National Defence is trying to recruit more Indigenous people.

The civilian employee at the DND filed a harassment complaint in 2015, alleging his military superior at Canadian Forces Base Halifax used racist terms. A DND investigation found there were two instances of harassment.

Years later, Morrisey wishes he never filed the complaint, saying he's still dealing with the fallout that he says took a toll on his health and "broke him."

"It's been hell," Morrisey told CBC News. "It's been just one complete disaster. The harassment policies and everything are supposed to be there to protect you. And there was no protection. I was hung out to dry because I'm a civilian, and he's a military chief. They protect their own."

Morrisey, 48, alleges the Old Boys club is still alive at a time when Canada's military is falling short of its target to recruit Indigenous members. DND and the Canadian Armed Forces are trying to change that, including through outreach in communities across the country and training programs for Indigenous youth.

For its part, DND said it has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harassment and takes these cases seriously.

"The Old Boys club disappeared 20 years ago," said Capt. Guillaume Lafrance, chief of staff of Maritime Forces Atlantic. 

'Playing the Indian card'

Before the complaint, Morrisey said he was "on top of the world." 

He spent a decade of his 17-year career involved with the Defence Aboriginal Advisory Group — three of those years as its national co-chair and had access to senior officials to talk about Indigenous issues.

When Morrisey's term as co-chair ended, he returned to his position as a computer support technician at CFB Halifax. That's when his troubles began, he claims.

In 2015, Morrisey submitted a complaint alleging his superior used "racist phrases," including asking him to have a "powwow" and accusing him of "playing the Indian card," according to the complaint from Oct. 23, 2015. 
Rear Admiral David Gardam, left, presents Morrisey with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal during an honours and awards ceremony at CFB Halifax. (Submitted by Cpl. Anthony Chand)

'It cuts deep'

Morrisey is from Keeseekoose First Nation and was adopted into a non-Indigenous family during the Sixties Scoop. This incident was the first time in his life he experienced that kind of hurtful language, he said.

"It cuts deep," he said. "It makes you question, 'Why are you even here?'"

During the investigation, Morrisey said there were months where he had to work in the same office as the person he complained about. He described feeling ostracized and labelled as the office troublemaker.

I felt like I was abandoned. I had no support. I had nobody to turn to.- Steve Morrisey

"I felt like I was abandoned," he said. "I had no support. I had nobody to turn to."

"It was just too much for me. Everything was just pushing in, and I didn't have it in me to push back. I wanted it all to end."

Military worker denies utterances

The military employee accused in the case denied uttering the derogatory phrases, according to DND's final report from May 17, 2016, into the complaint. He claimed Morrisey wanted special treatment and used his role with the advisory group to try and "buck the system." He told the investigator he treats everyone the same. He told CBC News he had "no comment" on the case now. 

DND used witnesses and email evidence in its investigation. The final report states "using the balance of probabilities" that "more likely than not," there were two instances where improper conduct occurred that "meets the definition of harassment." A third allegation was deemed "not founded."

The military employee should have known the terms "powwow" and "so you're playing the Indian card" would cause offence, the report said.  

The base commander issued a series of remedial measures including professional development training for staff and let the military employee know his conduct violated DND's policies. 

Leanne Morrisey, right, says her brother was always the 'fixer' in the family who was full of life and the centre of family functions. She said he's become increasingly disengaged and depressed, worrying the family. (Michel Aspirot/CBC )

Shell of a person

But Morrisey said his problems didn't end there.

He claims his health took a toll including suffering migraines regularly. He visited the hospital several times for an infection on his face connected to stress, he said. In April, he went on sick leave for depression and anxiety and has applied for long-term disability. 

Morrisey's family said he went from being a joyful father of three boys who coached lacrosse and was the cornerstone of strength in their family to a shell of that person. 

"He went from being this huge presence to pretty much disappearing," said his sister, Leanne Morrisey. "It's still frightening."

"I'm afraid for him because he's so depleted … a person that we barely recognized anymore." 
Morrisey is pictured with his 17-year-old son. Family members rallied around Morrisey in his darkest moments. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

DND 'embracing diversity'

Last month, National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan asked the military's ombudsman to investigate if there is a problem with racism in Canada's military. The request was made after several high-profile incidents and concerns there could be hate groups recruiting service members.

DND wouldn't comment on Morrisey's case citing privacy concerns. But it said the department has a very clear policy on harassment that's compliant with the Canadian Human Rights Act. 

Some mentalities need to be changed. This takes time. We don't have the perfect 100-percent solution yet but we are working at it- Capt. Guillaume Lafrance

"We fully understand that the Canadian society is changing," said Capt. Lafrance. "The workforce is evolving. We are embracing diversity as much as we can."

He said that more training will be required moving forward. 

"Some mentalities need to be changed. This takes time. We don't have the perfect 100-percent solution yet but we are working at it." 

About the Author

Ashley Burke

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Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca