Officer’s sexual harassment case to end without ‘key’ testimony from Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner

By Wendy Gillis, Staff Reporter, Toronto Star

Thu., April 30, 2020

Nearly 10 months since Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner suffered a concussion that prevented him taking the witness stand, the high-profile sexual harassment case of his colleague is now scheduled to begin closing submissions next week — without ever hearing from the high-ranking officer.

Taverner, a close friend of Premier Doug Ford, was the final witness in the much-delayed Ontario Human Rights Tribunal case of Const. Heather McWilliam, who alleges she was for years the subject of sexual harassment and humiliation by supervising officers at 23 Division, the north Etobicoke detachment led by Taverner.

Taverner “was going to be a key witness,” said Kate Hughes, McWilliam’s lawyer. Although he is not named in McWilliam’s 2014 complaint, Hughes alleged in her opening address that Taverner tried to dissuade McWilliam from sounding the alarm about a supervisor who made sexually suggestive comments, pointing to a poster in his office that said: “loose lips sink ships.”

The allegations have not been proven at the tribunal.

But the long-running case has been stalled since Taverner suffered what his doctor called a “moderate to severe” concussion one week before he was due to testify last July.

Following months of further delays — including tribunal-ordered medical updates and a report from his doctor in late 2019 stating Taverner was still not capable of testifying — the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has opted to move directly towards closing arguments, according to Hughes.

“We are disappointed that we will not hear from Supt. Taverner who was directly involved on the facts of the case,” Hughes said in an email this week. “But we respect the tribunal’s ruling to finish this case without further delay.”

A spokesperson for the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal did not directly answer questions from the Star about why the case is now proceeding to closing submissions without Taverner’s testimony. But she provided two written decisions from case adjudicator Jo-Anne Pickel, sent to all parties earlier this year, detailing attempts to schedule Taverner’s testimony and accommodate any special needs.

In a Feb. 5 letter, Pickel said that if Taverner was still unfit to testify after dates had been set for his evidence, “those dates will be cancelled and the tribunal will proceed to receive written submissions and to hear closing arguments from the parties.”

Taverner has been back at work since at least January, participating in what Toronto police called “a gradual return-to-work plan.” Spokesperson Allison Sparkes said Wednesday that Taverner is still on a graduated back-to-work plan that has been prescribed by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

Amandi Esonwanne, a lawyer for Toronto Police Services Board, who are named in McWilliam’s case and were calling Taverner as a witness, said he could not comment because his clients have not authorized him to speak to the media. Taverner did not respond to an email seeking comment.

It’s not clear what Taverner, who is in his 70s, was doing immediately before he was injured on July 9, though his doctor testified that the incident was not sports related. He later went to Humber River Hospital, where he underwent a CT scan of his brain and was released.

Taverner became the subject of intense controversy in 2018 after he was tapped to lead the Ontario Provincial Police before he bowed out of consideration in March 2019 over his ties to Ford. He is still the unit commander of Toronto’s 23 Division, the Etobicoke detachment where McWilliam worked.

McWilliam, 37, is off work on a medical leave. Hughes has said her client was once “a bright, promising officer” who has put her life on hold since filing her complaint.

The claim alleges that the Toronto Police Service is a “poisoned” environment for female officers. During her seven years on the job, McWilliam alleges she heard sexual or sexist comments every single shift; one supervisor would ask her what she was wearing during phone calls, she told the tribunal.

Since McWilliam filed her claim, another female Toronto police officer filed a complaint with the human rights tribunal. Const. Firouzeh (Effy) Zarabi-Majd, an officer at downtown’s 51 division, alleges she endured “demeaning, sexist, racist and Islamophobic comments” while working for the Toronto police service.

Hughes said this week that McWilliam is looking forward to having a final decision in the case, saying it has been an especially difficult experience because of it has been “litigated over so many years.”

“This has been an exceptionally long and arduous process for her,” Hughes said.

Closing submissions are scheduled to be held by telephone conference on May 7 starting at 9:30 a.m. Members of the public can listen to the proceeding by dialing 416-212-8012 or 1-866-633-0848 and entering Conference number: 2495018.