The Coast - - COVER STORY -

I t’s

been a year since Liane Tessier (pic­tured above) got her apol­ogy. A lot has changed since then, but not much is dif­fer­ent.

For 12 years, the for­mer fire­fighter bat­tled city hall look­ing for jus­tice. Her hu­man rights case was fi­nally set­tled last De­cem­ber with a mud­dled sorry-not-sorry from chief Ken Stue­bing. Tessier ex­pe­ri­enced sys­temic gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the fire chief be­lieves she be­lieves that. It’s from the “I feel bad you were of­fended” school of non-apolo­gies, but par the course for HRM.

Hal­i­fax has spent the past 12 months ex­plain­ing away case af­ter case of racism, dis­crim­i­na­tion and sex­ism in its work­force, al­ways promis­ing change. We’re mak­ing im­prove­ments. Next time will be dif­fer­ent.

Tessier and other vic­tims are tired of those words.

“There were so many op­por­tu­ni­ties for them to hear me and other women’s sto­ries,” she says. “I didn’t need to suf­fer for so long.”

Even re­ceiv­ing af­ter her apol­ogy, Tessier wasn’t fin­ished hold­ing the mu­nic­i­pal­ity and the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion ac­count­able. She co-founded Eq­uity Watch, a cit­i­zen ad­vo­cacy group that acts as both ad­vo­cate and re­source cen­tre for other em­ploy­ees deal­ing with a hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment.

“A lot of peo­ple from HRM are not happy with what’s go­ing on in terms of how they’re be­ing treated,” says Tessier. Ev­i­dently so. Ear­lier this year mu­nic­i­pal work­ers held a protest in front of City Hall over the lack of progress in im­ple­ment­ing rec­om­men­da­tions from a 2016 em­ploy­ment sys­tems re­view that called out HRM for its cul­ture of in­tol­er­ance and lack of di­ver­sity.

The third-party anal­y­sis de­scribed an over­whelm­ing cul­ture of ha­rass­ment in the mu­nic­i­pal op­er­a­tions work­force, with em­ploy­ees sub­jected to racist, sex­ist and ho­mo­pho­bic lan­guage and be­hav­iour. The mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s man­agers, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, failed to ef­fec­tively ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion.

In the spring came a board of in­quiry rul­ing that Hal­i­fax Tran­sit em­ploy­ees had suf­fered tar­geted racial ha­rass­ment and abuse over a pe­riod of sev­eral years. The city was li­able for the toxic work­place be­cause mul­ti­ple com­plaints had been made through­out that time, par­tic­u­larly about one em­ployee.

Arthur Mad­dox would reg­u­larly hurl racial ep­i­thets to­wards his co­work­ers, in­clud­ing African-Nova Sco­tian stores­man Randy Sy­monds.

Sim­mons is the only one who ac­tu­ally made like a tree and left in 2018. Speak­ing of Dal, the univer­sity ended its 200th cel­e­bra­tion with the open­ing of its Briefly fired in 2001 af­ter try­ing to as­sault Sy­monds at work, Mad­dox was re­hired when the union filed a griev­ance on his be­half. He was fi­nally ter­mi­nated this year, just a week be­fore the board of in­quiry’s rul­ing was re­leased.

“These prob­lems are spread across city de­part­ments and have been ob­vi­ous for years to any­one who cared to look, and yet with each new rev­e­la­tion of abuse, city of­fi­cials al­ways act as if they were sur­prised,” Jackie Bark­house told The Coast ear­lier this year, one of three for­mer city coun­cil­lors who came for­ward with Eq­uity Watch, talk­ing about dis­crim­i­na­tion is­sues they wit­nessed that went un­ad­dressed by se­nior man­agers.

Faced with protests, scathing re­ports and an­gry coun­cil­lors, chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer Jac­ques Dubé and staff have been at­tempt­ing to rec­tify some of those past mis­takes. Di­ver­sity train­ing is now manda­tory for su­per­vi­sors. Work­place ha­rass­ment poli­cies have been re­vised. A con­fi­den­tial hot­line has been set up for em­ploy­ees to re­port abuse and an ex­ter­nal con­sul­tant was tasked with re­view­ing HRM’s HR prac­tices. The rec­om­men­da­tions from the em­ploy­ment sys­tems re­view are all in process or pend­ing. City coun­cil also passed a mo­tion re­quir­ing quar­terly pub­lic progress re­ports on racism, sex­ism and ha­rass­ment com­plaints.

“There’s no doubt there’s been racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, racial ha­rass­ment within HRM,” says Dubé. “I would say there’s much less of that now be­cause of the ac­tions we’ve taken.” Others would dis­agree. Kathy Syming­ton, an­other for­mer fire­fighter, lost her job and her pen­sion fight­ing HRM over com­plaints about sex­ism on the job. De­spite the city ac­knowl­edg­ing in its apol­ogy to Tessier that sys­temic gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion ex­ists within Hal­i­fax Fire and Emer­gency, the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion de­cided ear­lier this year not to move for­ward with Syming­ton’s com­plaint on those grounds.

Just 24 hours af­ter Eq­uity Watch held a press con­fer­ence call­ing out the HRC for its lack of re­sponse, the Com­mis­sion sent an email an­nounc­ing Syming­ton’s case will now be heard, in full, by a board of in­quiry next June.

It’s a start, but there’s still an un­will­ing­ness from city hall to be trans­par­ent and com­mit to a safer work­place for their em­ploy­ees, says Tessier.

“They’re still sort of drag­ging their feet about do­ing the right thing.”

Maybe next year will be dif­fer­ent.

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