Toronto officer who alleges sexual harassment ‘wants change’ on the force, lawyer says at close of human rights case

By Wendy Gillis, Staff Reporter, Toronto Star

Fri., May 8, 2020

Toronto police Const. Heather McWilliam was a promising officer who excelled while investigating drug cases, major crimes and homicides. When she was hired by the service in 2005, McWilliam believed she was heading into a great job, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario heard Thursday.

Instead, she became the victim of a “pattern of harassment” and humiliation by supervising officers inside north Etobicoke’s 23 Division, her lawyer Kate Hughes told the tribunal in closing arguments held by teleconference Thursday due to COVID-19 closures.

When she raised the alarm about her treatment — allegedly including daily sexual comments directed at her and other women, such as inquiries about underwear and pubic hair — she was shunned and denied career opportunities, Hughes said.

McWilliam, who alleges Toronto police failed to adequately address or investigate her complaints, had no motivation to lie because she had nothing to gain from crossing “the thin blue line” of police loyalty; her once-promising career has been destroyed, Hughes said.

“She did it because she wants change,” Hughes said. “She doesn’t want other women to go through what she went through at the Toronto Police Service.”

The closing arguments come six years after McWilliam, 37, filed her complaint alleging harassment spanning 2008 until 2014. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, McWilliam has been off work since 2014.

None of the claims have been proven at the tribunal.

Amandi Esonwanne, a lawyer for the Toronto Police Services Board, and Sgt. Angelo Costa, one of McWilliam’s superiors who is named in the claim, said McWilliam was not a credible witness, that she failed to prove that the board violated her rights under Ontario Human Rights Code, and the tribunal should dismiss her allegations.

Addressing adjudicator Jo-Ann Pickel, Esonwanne said her decision will be influential and asked her to carefully review the evidence.

“We urge you to look at the facts,” Esonwanne said.

“We respectfully submit that when you look at the totality of the evidence in this proceeding, (McWilliam) was the least credible of all the witnesses,” Esonwanne said in written closing submissions.

“We submit that her evidence should not be accepted if it was not corroborated by other evidence.”

McWilliam’s complaint alleges Costa, a supervising officer who allegedly often spoke about sexual acts at work, forcibly kissed her while they were off duty at a bar.

“He pushed his lips onto my lips and he tried to drive his tongue into my mouth ... I tried as hard as I could to forcefully push him off me,” McWilliam testified, according to a summary of her evidence in her written closing arguments.

On the stand, Costa denied kissing McWilliam, saying he gave her a partial hug. The incident was investigated by Toronto police professional standards and Ontario’s Special Investigation Unit and no charges were laid.

“It is Costa’s position that (McWilliam) has failed to establish any of her allegations against him; in particular, the allegation that he kissed her at a bar, in front of witnesses, is unsupported by probative evidence of any kind,” read Esonwanne’s written submissions.

During the case, the tribunal heard from an expert called by McWilliam who described policing as having an ingrained code of secrecy — “anyone who rocks the boat, challenges police culture, is seen as the other,” Hughes said Thursday.

Complaining about sexual harassment and discrimination is difficult for any woman, “but raising it in this context and culture ... is a clear transgression of the unwritten code,” Hughes wrote in her submission, alongside co-counsel Nadia Lambek and Tyler Boggs.

Esonwanne said some of the issues raised by McWilliam fell outside the tribunal’s jurisdiction.

He also took issue with claims about a systemic culture of harassment within the police service, saying the case centres only on whether McWilliam was sexually harassed.

The tribunal was supposed to hear from Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner, a close friend of Ontario premier Doug Ford. Taverner, unit commander at the division where McWilliam worked, is not named in her complaint, but she alleges that he dissuaded her from speaking out about sexual harassment.

After he suffered a concussion that prevented him from testifying last July, the tribunal opted to close the case without Taverner’s testimony. Esonwanne asked Pickel to consider instead the document outlining what Taverner was expected to say on the stand; the board requested that the tribunal “declare Taverner innocent of the specific allegations against him,” Esonwanne wrote.

According to Esonwanne’s written submission, Taverner says he made a comment to McWilliam about not being careless with words in relation to an ongoing wiretap investigation — not in connection any sexual harassment complaint. Esonwanne says Taverner also offered to deal with a complaint from McWilliam at the divisional level and, after she “rejected” that, he asked her to file a written report as required by procedure.

“Based on the totality of evidence before the tribunal, he acted with concern and compassion towards (McWilliam),” Esonwanne wrote.

McWilliam is asking for damages, lost wages and public interest remedies. Among the remedies sought is mandatory annual training by an independent expert in policing culture and human rights.

Esonwanne said many of the proposed public interest remedies have already been implemented by the board. Citing evidence given by Toronto police deputy chief Shawna Coxon, Esonwanne said it’s clear steps have been taken “to ensure that officers know about their rights and responsibilities ... including sexual harassment and gender discrimination.”

McWilliam argued Coxon’s evidence supported her request for further training.

“There is no evidence in the record to suggest that any marked improvement has taken place,” read McWilliam’s closing arguments.

Pickel is expected to issue her decision within a month.

Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis