Fighting harassment and discrimination in the workplace

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Fighting harassment and discrimination in the workplace

Liane Tessier is a former firefighter who fought a landmark human rights case related to workplace harassment and gender discrimination in Halifax. Judy Haiven is a retired professor from the business school at Saint Mary's University who taught industrial relations. They are co-founders of Equity Watch, a grassroot group that aims to fight bullying, harassment, and discrimination in workplaces by supporting individuals and pushing for systemic change. Scott Neigh interviews them about the details of Tessier's case and about the work of Equity Watch.

In 1998, Liane Tessier became a volunteer firefighter with the Halifax Regional Municipality's Fire and Emergency Services. She loved the work and described herself in those years as a "go-getter." She competed nationally and internationally as part of their combat challenge team, had several advanced certifications related to the work, taught within the fire service, and reached the rank of Captain.

Starting in 2004, her experience of working in the fire service began to change significantly. She began to be the target of sexist workplace harassment and gender discrimination. A job she had loved became a source of stress and misery. Despite how invested she was in the work, the anxiety and depression caused by these experiences resulted in her going on leave in early 2007, and she never had the opportunity to go back.

In 2006, she had filed an internal complaint with the fire service regarding the discrimination and harassment. That began a gruelling twelve-year odyssey to find justice. After her internal complaint went nowhere, she filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in 2007. Her file was passed from hand to hand multiple times within the commission, and long stretches passed with little evidence that it was being dealt with. A decision to dismiss the complaint was finally issued by the commission in 2012.

She filed for a judicial review of that decision in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. In 2013, the court ruled in her favour, and ordered the Human Rights Commission to re-open her case. Another long and difficult process ensued, and it was only in late 2017 that she reached a mediated settlement with Halifax and the fire service that included financial compensation, a formal apology and admission of gender discrimination, and a commitment to policy changes.

For Tessier, this was often a difficult and lonely journey. But along the way, she met an important source of support: Judy Haiven. Around the time Tessier's settlement was announced, they decided to launch Equity Watch. The group supports individuals who are seeking justice in the face of bullying, harassment, and discrimination in workplaces, and they push for changes in law and policy.

Many of their active members are themselves embroiled in such struggles. Having a place to go where other people understand the experience is itself an important source of support, according to Tessier. There are also lawyers who participate in the group – these lawyers are not in a position to go to court for group members, but they can provide certain kinds of advice and support. They have law students doing pro bono work with the group. They have also become quite good at strategically using media events to put pressure on employers and regulators to behave more justly in specific cases.

Judging by the many cases that they have heard about in the last two years, Tessier and Haiven say that discriminatory harassment and bullying, particularly of women of all racial backgrounds, remains rampant in workplaces across Nova Scotia. Along with supporting individuals, they want to see major employers make policy changes that show that they are taking racism, sexism, and harassment seriously -- including major public sector employers. They are not shying away from demanding a change in how unions deal with harassment and bullying, particularly in situations where both the perpetrators and the target are union members. They are demanding politicians speak out about the issue. And they are working to build support for strengthening Nova Scotia's human rights legislation.

Image: Used with the permission of Equity Watch.

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