Female constable’s case forces Toronto Police to address sexual harassment



A human-rights tribunal has ordered mandatory sexual-harassment training at a Toronto Police division to counter the career-ending effects of a “poisoned work environment” on a female officer.

The order is part of an $85,000 settlement awarded this week to Constable Heather McWilliam after her six-year legal battle with her own police force.

Constable McWilliam, who has been on leave with post-traumatic stress disorder for years, launched a formal complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). Starting in 2014, she alleged she faced debilitating harassment from male colleagues who worked alongside her at 23 Division in the city’s northwest corner.

In her filings and testimony, Constable McWilliam alleged that one Toronto Police supervisor forcibly kissed her, and that another made a comment about spanking her. Other co-workers made sexually charged jokes about her riding horses or wearing long boots because she had once worked for the RCMP. Another colleague dredged up a photo of her in a bikini that someone else had posted to Facebook and used it as the wallpaper on his workplace computer.

In tribunal testimony, other officers either denied these and other incidents or tried to explain them away as jests that Constable McWilliam took the wrong way. But in her June 29 ruling, tribunal vice-chair Jo-Anne Pickel sided with Constable McWilliam. The ruling said that the constable was often a lot more credible than many other Toronto Police officers who testified – and that a poisoned work environment cut short her promising career.

“Taken together, these comments and actions delivered a message to the applicant that, as a woman, she was seen as a sexual object,” Ms. Pickel wrote. She added that the constable was put “in a position of having to engage in various coping practices such as deflecting the comments or playing along for fear of suffering consequences due to the degree of power her sergeants and staff-sergeants held over her.”

Nadia Lambeck, a lawyer for Constable McWilliam, said the legal victory was like a David-versus-Goliath battle. “We had just her from the workplace as our witness and they [the Toronto Police Service] had 30-some-odd witnesses – every single one of them contradicting her. That’s the challenge that a woman who wants to make a claim like this faces.”


The lawyer added that the $85,000 awarded in damages to her client is significant by the standards of human-rights tribunals. What’s more significant, she added, is that the ruling will force several systemic changes.

The tribunal has ordered Toronto Police to develop a human-rights strategy and to better track human-rights complaints within the force.


The police chief and the service’s civilian board released statements on Tuesday vowing to follow through on the directives. “We will take the time to carefully review the public-interest remedies ordered by the HRTO and make the necessary adjustments to our efforts,” Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said.


The ruling directs that 23 Division immediately hire an outside expert to train supervisors “on their obligations to proactively provide a workplace free of sexual harassment.” The ruling further orders that in-person training for all officers in the precinct take place each year.

The ruling says that such measures should probably be rolled out across the Toronto Police, but Ms. Pickel was limited to looking at the one division in this regard. “I have no reason to believe that the officers at 23 Division are simply ‘bad apples’ who conduct themselves any differently from officers in the rest of the Toronto Police Service,” she wrote.

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