Toronto Star stands strong with Heather McWilliam in her fight against workplace sexual harassment

Toronto Star stands strong with Heather McWilliam in her fight against workplace sexual harassment

Human rights ruling finds sexual harassment common among Toronto police - Toronto Star

By Alyshah Hasham, Courts Reporter, Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Const. Heather McWilliam was sexually harassed for years by her supervisors, including a sexual assault in the form of a forced kiss — part of a culture of sexual harassment that exists throughout the Toronto Police Service, a Human Rights Tribunal adjudicator has found.

“The temptation will be for some to treat the sergeants and staff sergeants who made and carried out the harassing comments and actions described below as ‘bad apples’ within 23 Division. However, there was evidence in this case that comments in the form of sexual innuendo and comments calling attention to women’s appearance and sexuality were not considered unusual in the applicant’s workplace,” wrote Jo-Anne Pickel in a 153-page ruling released Monday, six years after the complaint was first filed.

Pickel ordered the Toronto Police Services Board to pay McWilliam $85,000 as compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

The ruling describes in detail the sexual comments and harassment McWilliam experienced from male senior officers, including one officer telling her he’d “spank her later in private” and another officer telling her he wanted to “lick her.” A supervising officer showed other officers a Facebook vacation photo of her and two other women in a bikini at work, while another senior officer frequently commented on her appearance and wrote her a note saying “you’re smokin hot.”

Pickel mandated that the board order yearly in-person or video-conference training for all Toronto police officers specifically dealing with sexual harassment, human rights and poisoned work environments, with additional training for supervisors within 23 Division where McWilliam worked.

The board must also now ensure all internal complaints with a human rights component and all applications to the Human Rights Tribunal by employees are tracked and reported on in the Annual Professional Standards report.

“The year Heather came forward with her own internal complaint, the Toronto Police Services Board publicly stated they had zero complaints. So people like Heather and others in her position thought they were alone,” said Tyler Boggs, one of the lawyers who represented McWilliam. “So just the fact that these now have to be reported on and tracked, it’s going to help victims know that they are not alone and it’s going to provide the data that will back up the need for even more systemic change,”

Boggs said McWilliam’s experiences at work make clear that sexual harassment is a systemic problem in the Toronto police. “It really does show that this isn’t something limited to simply 23 Division,” he said, noting that two other human rights complaints alleging sexual harassment and ineffective accountability have been filed by female Toronto police officers in recent years.

In a statement, McWilliam said the decision by Pickel restored her integrity. “This decision is truly priceless for me and all those who have been affected by police abuse. This decision takes seriously the need to change the deeply troubled police culture and signals that perhaps there is hope.”

The Toronto Police Services Board strongly opposed McWilliam’s application, arguing that that “the entire case arose as a result of one comment made by one of the applicant’s staff sergeants,” Pickel wrote. The board’s lawyers said McWilliam then “reinterpreted interactions to make them seem inappropriate,” Pickel wrote. “According to the respondents, the applicant pursued a ‘scorched earth’ strategy in order to seek vengeance against the respondents and in order to win her case at all costs.”

The Toronto Police Services Board is reviewing the decision, according to a statement from board chair Jim Hart on Tuesday. The statement noted that an independant review of workplace policies and procedures, including for harassment claims, is ongoing. The board also approved an expansion of the Equity, Inclusion & Human Rights Unit last year including approving the hiring of eight experts in the areas of equity, anti-racism, and human rights, the statement said.

“Harassment and discrimination have no place in our organization,” Hart said.

The tribunal findings are “serious and concerning,” said Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders in a statement.

“When any member displays behaviour — either on or off the job — that is not in line with our Core Values, Standards or Conduct, or even common decency, I am disappointed,” he said. “We also know there is more work to do; changing the culture of any large organization does not happen overnight. We will take the time to carefully review the public interest remedies ordered by the (tribunal) and make the necessary adjustments to our efforts.”

In her ruling, Pickel found that most of the comments or actions directed at McWilliam were likely done in a “joking manner” and may not have been intended to harm her, but they still constituted harassment. The evidence shows how serious the cumulative effect were of the incidents over several years and involving people with “a significant degree of power over the applicant’s day-to-day work as well as her career prospects,” Pickel wrote.

“While some, or even many, of the actions made out in the evidence, other than the forced kiss, might not be considered egregious when viewed in isolation, these incidents became significant and harmful when they formed part of a pattern or series of similar incidents to which the applicant was subjected and which became a condition of her employment, “ Pickel wrote. “That is the essence of a poisoned work environment.”

McWilliam testified that she felt humiliated, degraded, and disgusted from the comments she experienced. The poisoned work environment significantly contributed to her post-traumatic stress disorder which has kept her off work for six years, Pickel found. McWilliam’s mother told the tribunal that her daughter “lost the will to live” after her experiences in the workplace and on many days she could barely get out of bed.

McWilliam, the daughter of a police officer who began her career at the RCMP, was a “superior, dependable, reliable and dedicated police officer who was expected to have a bright future in the Toronto Police Service,” said Pickel. She joined the force in 2005 and filed the human rights complaint almost ten years later, in September 2014.

The most serious incident she described occurred in 2012. While at a local bar with a number of supervisors McWilliam said now retired Sgt. Angelo Costa came up to her and “pushed his lips onto hers and tried to drive his tongue into her mouth,” Pickel wrote. McWilliam tried to push him off and kept her mouth closed, but he persisted for several seconds before stopping. Costa said he hugged McWilliam as a way of saying “welcome to the platoon” and denied kissing her.

After McWilliam’s human rights complaint was made, the SIU investigated the alleged sexual assault and found no reasonable grounds to believe a criminal offence was committed.

Pickel, however, found that, on a balance of probabilities, a sexual assault occured as described by McWilliam. Her evidence was “clear, forthright, detailed and very specific,” Pickel said.

Pickel said she had some concerns about Costa’s credibility, noting that he denied hearing any sexual jokes in the workplace and, contrary to the evidence of his colleagues, denied being a jokester.

“I find it more likely than not that the individual respondent intended the kiss as a joking way to welcome the applicant to his platoon,” Pickel said.

She also found that Costa made sexualized comments to McWilliam about oral sex and wanting to lick her, and made sexual innuendos and comments about women in the workplace.

However, she did not find McWilliam’s allegations of facing career reprisals for filing a formal complaint to be supported by the evidence.

McWilliam said that when she reported sexual comments made by a now-retired officer to Supt. Ron Taverner, who was in charge of 23 Division, he tried to dissaude her from filing a formal complaint and indicated a poster in his office that said “loose lips sink ships.”

Taverner did not testify at the hearing due to a concussion, which his doctor said made him medically unfit to testify.

Pickel said the evidence does not establish that Superintendent Taverner acted inappropriately and that his offer to resolve things internally was consistent with the informal resolution option in the procedure.