A police officer shares her story of surviving workplace sexual harassment
Saba: From The Toronto Star, I'm Saba Eitizaz and 'This Matters'. There's been a dark shadow on policing in his country. A profession with a mandate to serve and protect the public might have failed some of its own. While many officers who endure sexual harassment walk away quietly from their job, often silenced by non-disclosure agreements or the work culture, what happens when some woman decide silence isn't an option anymore? Constable Heather McWilliam spoke up, and it took six years for her voice to be heard. Six years since she filed a complaint about years of sexual harassment by her superiors, Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal has ruled in her favor and found it to be part of a culture of sexual assault that exists throughout the Toronto Police Service. Former Chief of Police Mark Sanders said at the time of the decision, the findings by the Human Rights Tribunal are serious and concerning to me as Police Chief. Annie said that the Department would be looking at the necessary public interest remedies and adjustments ordered by the tribunal to address. To read his full response, do take a look at the show notes for this episode. Today, constable Heather McWilliam shares her story for the first time with The Toronto Star, and we find out what happens when a woman decides to fight back.
Saba: Hi, Heather, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast.
Heather: Thank you so much for having me.
Saba: So first of all, let's talk about your job. Tell me why you were drawn to policing. What does wearing that uniform mean to you?
Heather: I was drawn to policing at a very young age. My father was a police officer and my life was surrounded with the policing values that they had, which was integrity, honesty, accountability to serve and protect others. So in growing up, that was just a way of life for myself and my family. And I truly looked up to my father and that role that he had as a police officer and even as young as grade one, I was looking through an album the other day. It said that I wanted to be a police officer. So I knew at a young age that that role in society, of wanting to be the person that someone can rely on and feel safe around in times of need really spoke to me.
Saba: It must have meant a lot to you and to your father when you joined the Forest in 2005, I believe.
Heather: Yeah. So I joined policing in 2004 with the RCMP and I was quite young, about 21, 22 years old. I was posted to Coquitlam, British Columbia, at the time, and within a year and a half I was then wondering what it would be like to be closer to my family and still be able to be a police officer. So I inquired with the Toronto Police Service to work for them and if that was a possibility. And within about a month time, they had hired me basically, and I had moved across the country to be closer with my family, but also still be doing the job that I was trained for and I was enjoying at the time out west in Coquitlam.
Saba: Can you talk to me about some of your experiences that sort of opened your eyes to being in what the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has found was a poisoned work environment? Could you share a little bit of that?
Heather: So my experience with the Human Rights Tribunal was a very difficult one. It was very lengthy when I first was looking into what choices I had to stand up for myself from the abuse that had occurred in my workplace. I wanted the results to be a change within my workplace. And so the inter human rights tribunal did offer remedy. And also on their web page, it said that most cases will be heard within a year's time. And so I didn't want this to be a long John process, and I wanted to have remedy so that change could occur within the service instead of it just being a monetary settlement.
Saba: And this might be painful and you can stop me at any time, but could you share some of what you experienced during your years at the police?
Heather: Sure. No problem. So I joined Toronto Police Service in October 2005, and when I joined, there was only a few officers at the time on the ship that were senior to me that were making sexual comments to myself and other female officers on the shift. And they were mostly the senior officers. The junior male officers were not involved in this behavior, but they were sort of the senior officers were setting the tone to which they were. They felt that they wouldn't be held accountable to their behavior. And so some of the comments early on. I remember specifically one of the senior officers I had to work with him one evening, and he had advised me that there was female officers who were leans in the change room who were their allies and would be telling them what we look like naked. And so they were looking for reactions to see how much female officers would tolerate their comments. And some female officers responded with sexual comments back to deflect the comments being made to them. They would also tell them to get lost, but in a more aggressive way or like me, I would remain quiet. If I could, I would walk away or I would find something else to talk about. To change the subject.I tried to focus on the good officers that I did work with and the work that I was doing. I found it necessary, since that was my duty. And I did not want anything to affect the work that I was doing to serve and protect others is what I was there for. So, early on, there was this environment that was toxic, but it wasn't everyone at first or it wasn't so sorry. I just find it difficult because I can picture the people and the situations, even back to all the way in 2005 from when they were occurring. And there's been so many incidents since then that they just fill my mind. And I have difficulty speaking about one when there's so many that start flooding my mind with all of the traumatic experiences collectively.
Saba: Right. It's hard to process all of that. And you're talking about some ways in which you and your other female colleagues reacted to that as well. What happened, Heather, when you tried to speak out, or did you feel there was anyone that you could go to for support?
Heather: No, I didn't feel there was anyone that I could go to. I mean, a few of the officers had stated to me that they had observed that I had to manage a lot of this behavior, and I could see that they were noticing it, but they were still not having the courage to be able to stand up to it for me. And so the officers that I thought that I would be able to go to even the female officers when they were being sexually harassed or had confided in me that they had been they also did not have the ability or courage to be able to manage it as well. So I felt that the supervisors should be the ones that would be able to deal with it, but then they were the ones also being victimized by it. And the male officers after I had switched shifts after about five years on were more aggressive with their behavior. They had more power and control. And so it just kept escalating the severity of it and the fear within me to be able to trust anyone. Some of the comments that would be made about female officers that came forward with complaints at the station would be that the female officer was crazy and basically sending the message not to believe her and our supervisors or Superintendent would get rid of her, and she would no longer be a problem for them any longer. So the message again was, if you speak out, you will be removed from your position and nothing will happen to the officers that you complained about, and no one will be held accountable and replace will continue on as status quo.
Saba: And when you're speaking about how this inappropriate comments sort of escalated into harassment, does something come to mind? How are things escalating at that point?
Heather: So they were escalating on different levels. I suppose one instance that occurred was the thin blue line. And what that entails. One of the officers that I worked with early on was being investigated for sexual assault by the SIU. And there were comments being made around the station that someone would be his alibi. And I didn't know if he had actually worked with him or not been working with him. They were making it to be like, as if it was some sort of joke that this officer was being investigated for Sexual assault making comments that he had a rape kit inside his police car or inside his personal car, and they would laugh and make jokes about the fact that he was being investigated for it. And I had seen behaviors by him that I felt I wanted to speak to the SIU about. No one had approached me to speak about his behavior as an officer, as being another female officer that worked with him. And this was a victim that was not internal. It was a member of the community who had made the complaint. So it was showing to me that if I were ever to come forward with a complaint that it wouldn't be taken seriously, I would be called names. I will fear for my safety around them, about other officers I would speak with. And so you, as a female officer, figured out ways how to manage that fear. And the way that I did it was I directed my focus more into my work and try to.. not acknowledge the behaviors of what they were bringing to the workplace.
Saba: So from what you're talking about, Heather, it seems like there was almost a sense of being targeted or intimidated. When you did try to point out the things that were happening and that we're bothering you. Can you talk some more about what did that look like and how did it make you feel?
Heather: So when I first tried to speak about the sexual harassment that had happened, it was about a SAS Sergeant that had recently come to our station, and I was working at the time in the detective's office. And early on, he started making sexual comments about a member of the community who had come into the station to file a report. And he had made a comment about her physical appearance and how he felt about it. And then from there, he continued to make various comments to me that were sexual in nature. And so my question to myself was, I know that the culture that I was working in was toxic for women. And I was seeing other women that were new to policing and new to our division. And I could see how they were being preyed upon by the officers that had also been harassing me. And so I wondered all of a sudden why this new staff Sergeant who had been on the job quite some time felt so comfortable to be able to be making those comments to me unless someone else had said to him, she won't complain. So feel free to make those comments to her. And it's almost if there was a code between them, the ones that do behave this way, that they would speak about which officers female officers and how far they could go with their comments, and nothing would happen to them because those female officers were afraid and did feel that they had those sergeants and supervisors had power and control over their career. That they had been suppressed to the point where they were in a safe zone to behave. However they wanted to with no recourse.
Saba: And at what point did you decide you needed to file the human rights Fibin complained. What finally made you take that route?
Heather: So.. after I made the first complaint in 2000 and at the end of 2012, so that soft surgeon had been sexually harassing me on and off for about almost a year's time, maybe about nine months. And during that time I was also sexually assaulted by a Sergeant that worked for that same staff Sergeant. I was sexually harassing me, and I did not know how to manage all of it. It was taking the greatest toll on my mental health, and I was still trying to pull myself together and function as a police officer to do the job that I wanted to do, to have the career that I want to have and not be not have it taken away by these abusers. So I finally decided on one occasion, to leave for the night after the staff Sergeant had said in front of my entire ship that he was going to thank me later in private after getting the potential offense notice that I had filled out wrong, that I needed to correct, and I could see the look on my colleague spaces that had turned and disgust of what he had said and felt that they had finally possibly understood what it was like to be a female officer and that it wasn't okay, and that maybe I didn't have to fear working here anymore, that they would stand by me and I wouldn't have to put up with this anymore. And so at that point I went to leave work and that staff Sergeant decided that he wanted to fix me before I left the station, after being told by a supervisor to leave me alone and stay away from me, that I was going home for the night, he found me at the back of the police station as I was going to leave, standing in the doorway where I was to exit. So at that point I was very fearful of what was going to happen to me. He had previously threatened my career when I stood up to him about comments.. about them holding me back from career opportunities. And so I just felt like everything was escalating. And so they felt like they were facing possibly some sort of accountability if I left work that day, and he was determined to prevent me from leaving and possibly holding him accountable. So I was no longer in my police uniform. He was standing. It was midnight shift and he was standing in the back doors coming in from outside. So I'm glad that I did not have to be outside in the parking lot in the dark with him, but he was in the doorway, but I still couldn't leave. So I had to go and seek assistance to be able to leave the station. I was escorted from the police station, and he was escorted downstairs in the police station. And so at that point, I was scared for my life because I didn't know what he was going to do if I tried to defy his orders. And right after that, I had told my Superintendent that I was not going to return to work until he was removed from the station. They had wanted him to.. Or they asked me to move shift. And I advised them that I didn't want to leave the shift that I was working on. I didn't think that I should have to be the one that was removed from my place of work and the position that I was in. And so they had removed him from the station. Officers had said to me that.. their concerns were different from what my concerns were. Their concerns were that staff Sergeant allowed me to go and play hockey while working on ships, and my concerns were my safety and my protection. So there was a big difference, I was saying, from male officers to female officers as to what their supervisors needed to be. And so the following year, I was sent to work at another unit at Homicide to work on a wire project. And I was told by my.. my Superintendent in a meeting that loose lips sink ships. He also told me that I needed to have thick skin.
So the message is becoming more and more clear to me that they wanted me to put up with this behavior. I didn't have a choice. So when I went to work at the wire project, I was further discriminated against. I was introduced to this soft Sergeant, female so Sergeant, by my Superintendent. And it appeared as though that they had worked together before. They obviously knew one another. But I found it strange that, again, a soft surgeon was so comfortable in speaking to me the way that she was, that there was no accountability for them for how they treated female officers who didn't want to put up with sexual harassment. She had begun her introduction to the group of us working on the project. It was all male officers, and I was the only female officer. And she had said that she hated police women. And I thought that.. that the introduction she was giving was very harmful to me. But that was the intent was there to put me in my place, and that I was put there for a reason. And it was to show that, you know, it doesn't matter where I go in the police service, I don't have a voice. I will not have a voice, and that this culture.. this toxic culture is acceptable..
Saba: Talking a bit about the human rights tribunal process. It's been six years of that. Can you talk about what this time has been like for you, how it's impacted you emotionally, mentally, physically, and even financially? Could you have imagined it would take as long as it did?
Heather: No. I never could have imagined that it would take this much in my life. And so it took a toll in every aspect of my life, you know, the mental health aspect and the physical health was killing me. But at the same time, I knew that it had affected so many other officers as well. And I wanted it not to happen anymore. And so despite the continuous harm of pre traumatization and further abuse by the police, I continued on with the journey, despite all of the setbacks, financially, emotionally, and physically, because I didn't want this to happen anymore. I never imagined that policing would harm me in the way that it did, and has for so many other police, women and police officers, it's a profession that is supposed to be honorable and safe. And unfortunately, there's been decades of harm that have occurred, and we're only just scratching the surface. So I wanted that cycle of abuse to end. And if it meant that I was going to be further harmed along the way, then I had decided to take on that because I had already lost so much of my life that I felt like I didn't have any more to lose. And I didn't want anyone else to have to try to go through this because it was no way to live trying to stand up against the police who had so much resources to fight against you.
Saba: And talking about some developments at the Toronto Police in July in what Toronto Police said was the first time 50% of the police cadets were women. What do you think about these new female police officers going into this profession? Do you feel that that can lead to a shift in culture? And are you hopeful that change will come from your brave decision and your case?
Heather: Yeah. So I remain hopeful that change will occur. Unfortunately, the state that the culture is in right now, it concerns me deeply about how the female officers are going to be treated when they have not been able to address the problems that they currently have, and they have not been holding those officers accountable for their actions. So the message to me is still the same, that they are not holding male officers accountable for sexual crafting or sexual violence against women. And what the female officers don't know, going into the culture is putting them in vulnerable positions to be harmed. And the police are the people that you go to for help. And if they don't have the tools to be able to be effecting change, then it's only going to cause possibly more harm and more victims.
Saba: I know this is a difficult conversation for you, Heather, and I really appreciate you sharing your story with me.
Heather: Thank you so much for having me. There's so much to this journey, and I hope that this can help with change within the culture and a conversation that needs to be had.