Spaniard’s Bay fire department review finds little evidence of harassment
Report’s author says firefighters intentions misunderstood in media coverage of mass resignations
A review of harassment, bullying and intimidation allegations leveled against the Spaniard’s Bay Volunteer Fire Department calls for changes to the way the town interacts with its firefighters.
The report from retired RCMP Sgt. Cliff Yetman, released online last Tuesday, identified little in the way of evidence to support allegations presented at a council meeting in November of 2015 by councillors Tony Dominix and Brenda Seymour, the latter of whom is also a firefighter.
At the end of his conclusion to the 112-page report, Yetman writes, “both former and current members of the Fire Department are left to wonder what, if anything, they did to warrant the scathing level of criticism leveled against them. The answer, quite frankly, is nothing.”
At the Nov. 16, 2015 council meeting, Seymour read from a list of grievances concerning the department under the leadership of Victor Hiscock, the former chief who resigned the following January to support the resignation of their council liaison, Sheri Collins.
Seymour claimed town property was mismanaged and that the department failed to comply with government legislation, failed to enforce an order from council, failed to prepare monthly reports for council and mismanaged personnel. She also claimed to experience sexual harassment and harassment in general while serving under Hiscock’s term as the chief. A mo- tion to suspend Hiscock at that meeting was defeated.
Yetman interviewed 18 people in his review and also consulted media reports, council minutes and other documents. Seymour did not participate, telling CBC last month she had misgivings about selecting a former police officer for the review in light of the RCMP’s own mishandling of internal harassment complaints.
On the issue of harassment, Yetman found that while there were some heated discussions and aggressive debates within the department, “there is no evidence to satisfy a ‘course of vexatious comment or conduct’ directed towards any one individual or individuals within the Department.”
There were times when discussions became disrespectful and crossed the line, but he did not find evidence anyone was singled out. He also found evidence to suggest Seymour did not shy away from such behaviour.
“There is evidence of rising tensions as firefighters unsuccessfully sought answers as to why they were coming under such scrutiny in Council, why Fire Department business was finding its way back to Council without being brought through the Chain of Command at the Fire Department, why issues which should have come to them through official channels were coming to them from various sources both within and outside the community, and, most disturbing of all, why there was clearly an active campaign to remove their Fire Chief.
“Specific to (firefighter) Seymour’s allegations, there is no evidence in her relationship to her colleagues to suggest that she ever felt as being anything other than equal, and there is no evidence to suggest that in their behaviour towards her, other firefighters treated her other than as an equal.”
On the issue of sexual harassment, Yetman concluded two documented incidents in five years “falls far short of a ‘pattern of behaviour’ as media comment would have us believe, similarly falling short of being a systemic issue within the Department.”
Yetman noted too after Seymour brought to Hiscock’s attention her concerns about the screening of a short pornographic clip by a firefighting trainer from another brigade, it was “addressed promptly, her view was respected, she was issued and accepted an apology, and there was no indication other than that the matter had been appropriately resolved.”
On bullying and intimidation, Yetman found no evidence. He said if debate at a firefighter meeting crossed the line, Hiscock was known to halt proceedings and get things back on track.
Yetman also criticized media coverage of the firefighters’ resignations, stating “false assumptions” were made that the allegations of sexual harassment served as “the impetus for the resignations, with the resulting firestorm of media, both mainstream and social, and all the accompanying opinion and vitriol expressed.”
As for what to do next, Yetman complimented the current brigade for adopting a policy manual that addresses ethics, harassment and discipline. He does however see a need for further action.
Yetman calls for the return of a member of council to act as a liaison to keep the lines of communication open. He said this person should be “the only voice on Council authorized to speak to Fire Department business.” Coun. Eric Jewer gave a notice of motion to do just that during Monday’s public meeting, where council formally accepted the report.
Yetman also suggests council meet with current and former firefighters affected by last year’s events.
“There is still a significant deal of hurt in this great community; individuals who, quite frankly, did nothing to deserve the scorn and ridicule heaped on them in the wake of … ‘Repeated allegations of sexual harassment and harassment in general,’” he wrote. “Many of them desire nothing more than the recognition that they are not the people they have been portrayed to be. Many of them expressed the opinion that this whole debacle could have been avoided if someone had simply talked to them and listened seriously to what they had to say.
“So that is my recommendation. Meet with them on their terms, either as a group or individually, or both. Find out where they are now, fully a year later. Ascertain from them what would begin the healing process in their minds. It may be that nothing can mitigate the injustice at this point, but at least afford them the opportunity to say ‘thanks but no thanks,’ or any other comment of closure that they may wish to make.”
The third and final recommendation states any firefighter with a complaint regarding the department address it in writing to the chief. If the matter becomes an issue requiring council’s attention, council’s liaison to the department will handle that business in a privileged meeting and never a public one.
The full report can be accessed via the Town of Spaniard’s Bay website.
Members of the Spaniard’s Bay Volunteer Fire Department as they celebrated the local brigade’s 40th anniversary in 2014.