Toronto police officer tells tribunal she was subjected to constant sexual harassment

By Alyshah Hasham, Staff Reporter, Toronto Star

Wed., Nov. 16, 2016

Const. Heather McWilliam says she heard sexual or sexist comments every single shift during her seven years in the Toronto Police Service.

McWilliam, 33, is at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to argue she was sexually harassed by supervising officers and that the Toronto Police Service is a “poisoned environment” for all female police officers.

In her first day of testimony, she described the kinds of comments and conversations she routinely heard from her mostly male colleagues and supervisors.

“What colour underwear were you wearing?” she said she was asked. One supervisor would begin all their phone calls by suggestively asking: “What are you wearing?” she said.

Male officers would assess the physical appearance and attractiveness of women, both police employees and members of the public, and discuss the sex lives of female police officers, she said. Female porn stars were sometimes used as screen savers or desktop wall paper, she said.

Various terms were used to describe female officers in addition to “dykes, c—ts and sluts,” she said. Terms such as “metro mattress” which she said referred to female officers who had worked in the metro division and liked to have sex.

“There were so many times it happened, so many words that were used, my brain sometimes blocks them out,” she said, her voice suddenly choking up. “That was the norm.”

She said no one ever objected to the comments or referred to a workplace harassment policy.

She also said that she did not see posters about workplace harassment that the tribunal has heard were supposed to be posted at every division. Her way of dealing with it was to walk away or remain silent, she said, though inwardly “I was humiliated. I was degraded. I had no voice. I was being objectified sexually over and over and over again.” McWilliam said she didn’t speak up about what she experienced until much later because she was focusing on her job and was aware how complaints of sexual harassment would impact her career. A female civilian employee who made a complaint about some male officers was dismissed as “crazy,” she said. One of her supervisors, Staff Sgt. Joe Dawson, told her he liked female officers who “work hard, party hard and can take a joke,” she said. She took that to mean that he wanted her to be someone who would put up with their sexual harassment on duty and off duty, she testified.

Another of her supervisors, Sgt. Angelo Costa, who is named in her human rights complaint, boasted about how he told a senior female officer that he could see her thong through her pants and nothing happened to him, she said. It lead her to believe there were no repercussions for sexual harassment in the workplace, even when it involved a senior officer, she said.

After she was told an officer was showing a Facebook photo of her in a bikini around the division, she said she wanted to deal with it herself because she didn’t want to seem weak.

But she was also intimidated because of the close relationships that officer, Sgt. Howard Payton, had with senior officers who could make or break her career, she said.

“I had no hope,” she said. “Is this really the world I’m working in? Is this really what I have to go through every day to go to work?”

McWilliam finally did formally complain about comments made by Staff Sgt. Chris Nolan in 2012, including that he told her in front of male officers that he’d spank her later in private.

When he did that, she thought about “all the times I have been threatened and bullied and intimidated. Now I was in front of my peers who had respect for me, I felt…and he took that away.” However, she says she remained concerned about making a complaint and whether it would be taken seriously by her unit commander Supt. Ron Taverner given what had been going on at the division he was in charge of.

McWilliam claims Taverner tried to dissuade her from making a formal complaint against Nolan. He suggested she needed tougher skin and pointed to a poster in his office that said: “loose lips sink ships,” McWilliam’s lawyer Kate Hughes said in her opening address at the tribunal. Nolan has admitted making two inappropriate comments and pleaded guilty to a Police Services Act charge of discreditable conduct. McWilliam claims that as a result of that complaint, she was denied advancement opportunities because she was no longer seen as a “team player,” Hughes said.

The Toronto Police Services Board has denied McWilliam’s allegations on behalf of the officers named, and argued the hearing should not consider whether there is a systemic sexual harassment problem at the Toronto Police Service, since the allegations are being made by only one female officer.

The Board is also arguing that McWilliam’s allegations were properly investigated and dealt with by management, including Taverner, Professional Standards and the Special Investigations Unit. McWilliam has been on sick leave since early 2014, after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of persistent workplace harassment, she said.

The hearing continues Friday.