Halifax woman firefighter loses her discrimination case — let’s see what’s really going on

 

Last week a NS Human Rights Commission Board of Inquiry decided that former firefighter Kathy Symington did not suffer discrimination while working at the Halifax Fire Service.  HRM had fought Symington for years about the discrimination she encountered, while she was a Halifax firefighter. kathy-2

Symington started her career at the Halifax Fire Service in 1997, one of a handful of  women. As a full time firefighter, she was also a member of Local 268 of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).

Symington’s case needs to be seen in light of the case of former firefighter Liane Tessier.  That case was resolved in Dec. 2017 — 12 years after it began. Tessier had to take the Commission to the NS Supreme Court, which ordered the Human Rights Commission to re-consider her case.

Tessier and the Fire Service settled the case in advance of a public Board of Inquiry. Tessier not only demanded and received a public apology from the Fire Service, she also received a public apology from the Human Rights Commission for its original denial and delay of her case.liane-chief

left:  Fire Chief Stuebing, and Liane Tessier

Tessier forced the Fire Service and Halifax Regional Municipality to agree to numerous changes inside the Fire Service to promote women’s equality and eliminate sex discrimination.

However, by far the most important victory won in the Tessier case was the Fire Service’s and HRM’s admission that there was systemic gender discrimination in the Fire Service.

Systemic means the discrimination runs through the whole system. Given this admission, why was the systemic discrimination never addressed in Symington’s human rights case? Why was systemic discrimination — a pattern of behaviour, policies or practices in the Fire Service which created serious disadvantage for women–. NOT also applied to the Symington case?

In 2002, Symington launched her first human rights complaint at the NS Human Rights Commission against the Halifax Fire Service and the union.  kathy-3She said they discriminated against her on the grounds of her sex.  Throughout her time in the Fire Service, she says she faced taunting, bullying, harassment, retaliation and limits on her career because she was a woman in a “man’s job.” She was verbally and physically attacked on the job.  Among the incidents she described were these:

  • In 2002, her vehicle was vandalized three times.  Management knew the culprit (another firefighter) and refused to take any action
  • A high ranking member of the Fire Service sexually harassed her.
  • She did not get paid for 8 weeks when she was off sick due to an “oversight.”
  • She worried about how safe she was on the job because of these and other incidents.

The Human Rights Commission dismissed all of these accusations at the administrative stage and did not refer her first complaint to a Board of Inquiry.

Ten years later, after Tessier had forced the Commission to re-consider her case, Symington filed another complaint. It was only after Equity Watch held a demonstration in April 2018 in front of the Commission’s office and a media conference in September to demand a public Board of Inquiry, that the Commission finally agreed to it.liane-judy-kathySept. 2018 Media Conference, at NS Legislature: Left: Kathy Symington, centre: Liane Tessier, right: Judy Haiven

At the Board of Inquiry into the second complaint, Symington’s case hinged on disability discrimination.  Years before, Symington had suffered a serious injury in a car crash and, after surgery and sick leave, required accommodation by her employer.  In 2012, a functional ability test revealed she could no longer work as a firefighter.  However HRM took more than three years to accommodate her with a job she could do either within the Fire Service or in HRM.

HRM’s failures in accommodating female firefighter Symington are in stark contrast to HRM’s accommodation of the ex-police officer Chris Mosher.  Over nearly a decade, Mosher had been charged with sexual assault, administering a “noxious thing” to a woman, sex without consent (rape?), impaired driving and more than 9 counts of breaching conditions.  Halifax Police finally fired him in 2017, but within a year, a settlement was reached with the police union and HRM. In addition to a cash payout, HRM found him a new job either in the city’s Parks and Recreation Dept., or in the Transportation and Public Works Dept.

But somehow for Symington – who broke no laws – HRM took its own sweet time to find her an alternative position.  By that time, her condition had deteriorated and she could not do that job.  She claimed the delay in accommodating her was due in part to retaliation because of her first complaint to the Commission; she also gave evidence that gender was a factor.kathyKathy Symington

The real issue is this: here we have a career firefighter, a woman who spent nearly 20 years in faithful service to the Halifax Fire Service.  Because she spoke out, because she is a woman, she faced taunts, ridicule and harassment. The Human Rights Commission dismissed her initial complaint in 2006.

Now too, her second complaint has been dismissed.

The sorry history of discrimination in HRM did not begin yesterday and will not stop tomorrow.  In 2013, Black Firefighters in Halifax won their Human Rights complaint of racial discrimination. In May 2018, black HRM workers in Municipal Operations Programs (MOPS) picketed City Hall to demand action on a two-year-old confidential report that found anti-Black racism. That same month, mechanic YZ won his complaint of racial discrimination in Metro Transit and was awarded over $600,000 in damages the following year.

Amid all the forms of discrimination in HRM, discrimination against women may be the most intractable, due to the paucity of women in most “business units”.  According to an HRM report, in 2017-18, 92.9% of Halifax firefighters were men; women accounted for only 7%.

Looking at the bigger picture, in 2017-18 nearly 71% of all employees in HRM were men, and only 29% were women.  In 2013-14, men were 70.6% of the HRM workforce and women were 29.3%.  So HRM is going backward.

In fact the Tessier case shows that for a woman to complain about a male-dominated workplace, such as the Fire Service, the woman has to be willing to fight for more than a dozen years, has to have an airtight complaint, witnesses, and certainly not criticize her superiors.  Short of this, women are simply not believed. They are considered troublemakers and out of line.

Can we dare to expect fairness and an end to discrimination for women in non-traditional jobs in HRM or, for that matter, anywhere?  Somehow I doubt it.

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving – a day off with no pay

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In Nova Scotia, Thanksgiving is a retail closing day.  That means large supermarkets, big drug stores and many stores in malls have to be closed.

But that doesn’t mean retail staff get paid! No – it’s not a paid holiday, even though you can’t work as the store must be closed.

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If there is a silver lining it’s that if your boss wants you to work on Thanksgiving – perhaps stocking shelves — and the store or business is closed, you have the right to refuse to work that day—if you tell the boss 7 days ahead of the Thanksgiving.

However if the business is allowed to be open and this includes small grocery stores, gas bars, hotels, tourism venues, newspapers, theatres, buses and trains, laundromats,  used clothing stores, and confectionery stores—you cannot refuse to work, even though your family is having a big dinner or celebration.

If you are among the nearly 30% of Nova Scotians who is unionized, you most likely get the day off with pay.  Thank your union if you get a paid holiday.

 

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch.  See their Facebook page or contact Judy at equitywatchns@gmail.com.

Policing at Halifax bridge rally needlessly heavy handed

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – On Monday in Darmouth, it was the police who closed the MacDonald Bridge – not the protesters. Police also closed bike and pedestrian access to the bridge in both directions, which seemed needless and punitive. Especially since earlier the protesters had promised to allow this traffic. By contrast, in Toronto, the protesters and police allowed bike and pedestrian traffic over the blocked bridge.  Why couldn’t Halifax police do this?

About one hundred activists, many with signs that said Extinction Rebellion, marched from the parking lot at the Zatzman Sportsplex early this morning. Extinction Rebellion is an international organisation dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience for action on climate change,

Near the bridge, there was a phalanx of more than 40 police blocking entry, including a dozen cops who stood behind their bicycles to barricade the toll booths.

Photo Facebook

The police lined up in an aggressive manner, shoulder to shoulder right in front of the toll booths. This meant the protesters were sandwiched into an area about the size of a school gym. Protesters were stuck between the police in front of the toll booths and the other cops who milled about their cruisers parked across the intersection of Wyse Road and Nantucket Avenue. The intersection itself was deserted –with buses on detour and only one lane open to traffic on Wyse Road.

Police were everywhere, in uniform and in plain clothes. I overheard one, dressed in a trenchcoat, laughingly tell another cop to wear his ear-plugs if he couldn’t be bothered to listen to the activists’ chants.

It was a peaceful protest, with dozens sitting on blankets on the road in the designated space. In the crowd were young people, and about 20 seniors. Activists sang songs, and made speeches about the climate emergency.  With no sound system, they had to shout into a hand held megaphone. One woman threaded through the crowd with a loaf of homemade bread and a slab of butter; some protesters gladly took a slice or two. Other women offered apples, oranges and muffins to the crowd.

Extinction Rebellion called for protests world-wide. In Edmonton, nine protesters managed to block the Walterdale Bridge for an hour during the busy morning rush. In Toronto, dozens blocked the Bloor Street Viaduct – a main route for commuters. In Vancouver, nearly 200 activists poured onto both sides of the Burrard Street Bridge and are still holding it (as of Monday 7:00 pm Atlantic time).

As recently as last Friday, Dan Kinsella Halifax’s new police chief wrote in the StarMetro, “At the core of good police work is an integrated response approach which uses… respectful interactions and community co-operation and goodwill.” Little to none of that goodwill was evident at the Dartmouth demonstration today. He also wrote about “our officers [using] empathy, concern and kindness,” and the necessary “shift from a …command and control policing model to a community-focused, people oriented approach.”

Halifax police not only prevented cyclists and pedestrians from using the bridge, but police also arrested 18 activists– probably more than 30% of protesters.  Why did the police decide to criminalize peaceful protest after three hours? The police action was punitive and even provocative. Clearly in using a command and control method to contain and punish activists – it seems the chief has some explaining to do.

In Toronto and other cities in Canada, the police seemed to do more to consider the communities’ needs to peacefully protest; there were few to no arrests.

The attitude of Chief Kinsella is more ominous when we recall that he said little about the harm that police street checks have done to racialized citizens of HRM.

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Both the RCMP and the Halifax Regional Police still refuse to apologise for street checks against African-Nova Scotians. The 2019 Wortley Report shows that African Nova Scotians are stopped by police six times more often than white people.

Chief Kinsella, though, does not want to jump to any conclusions. He has said that before making any decisions on street checks, he wants to speak with members of the African-Nova Scotian community. Let us hope – unlike with the climate protesters — he uses some of the “empathy, concern and kindness” he wrote about.

First published in NSAdvocate.org                  8 Oct. 2019

What Podcast to Listen to; What to Read

I’ll be reviewing podcasts from time to time.  This one, from APTN (Aboriginal People’s Television Network) is brilliant. WEB-HEADER-NATASHA In 5 episodes, a young woman Natasha Reimer describes her life in care of Manitoba child services.  She was part of  the Millennial Scoop—which took place 30 years after the notorious Sixties Scoop.  You must listen to this outstanding podcast. Natasha, born Natasha Lynn Starr, was taken from her birth mother in Winnipeg before she was two years old  She was in several foster homes and finally adopted at age 5 or 6.  Her adoptive parents were a white Mennonite couple who lived in Winkler, Manitoba; they pressured her to go to church, Bible camp and fully accept their faith.  She suffered racist attacks, both physical and psychological, at public school, yet her parents rarely complained to  the school authorities about it. When Natasha was 14, the adoption broke down irrevocably —a frequent problem with all adoptions, racialised or not.   Her story, told by her in a strong and insistent voice, reminds whites that Natasha lived through a lot of horrors and loneliness in her still-young life.  If anyone doesn’t understand life in social care, with social workers, school principals, teachers and ministers all taking turns as gatekeepers and rules-enforcers — you need to listen to this brilliant podcast. Here is a short interview with her by APTN News. Listen to the podcast here.

Hunting Season:  Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town (2013)  is an excellent read.  First, it’s well-written and fascinating.  Author journalist Mirta Ojito, is herself a Cuban immigrant to the US.  In the book, she paints a picture of a small “safe” town barely 70 miles from New York City that has attracted thousands of Ecuadorians over the last 40 plus years. huntingSingle Ecuadorian men came to the US from a country whose  the main industry used to be making and exporting “Panama” straw hats.  Today hats are long gone as a mainstay of the economy, so émigrés decided to make the long and dangerous trip north to Patchogue, NY.  Many work in fast food restaurants, in cleaning jobs or at dry cleaners.  As an identifiable group of brown immigrants, with broken English and few places that welcome them, they try to evade of the white burgers.  In 2008, seven young men still in high school killed 37-year-old dry-cleaning employee Marcelo Lucero.  They killed him, on an empty street near the commuter railway station after 11 pm.  The youth admitted that they  were “hopping beaners” that night – attacking whom they believed were Mexican “illegals”– something the youth did several times a week for something to do.  Hunting Season  is a fascinating exposé about the social structure of Patchogue, the ignorant white middle class, the police and the political makeup of the town.  The mayor, who is second generation Italian American, understands little – and compares today to the “good old days” when immigrants worked hard and knew their place.  When, several years after Lucero’s murder, a play critical of the town and its racism opened, the mayor refused to attend. The CEO of the town and the police also tried to dissociate themselves from any blame.  They believed the Ecuadorians started the problem.  Before the murder, two women librarians, who spoke Spanish, were informed about the frequent attacks on Ecuadorians;  they attempted to start discussions and steer the townfolk away from racism—to little avail.  The town’s  leading clergyman simply wanted everything to be “peaceful”.  The book is a chilling masterpiece.

Worry is a new Canadian novel by Toronto writer Jessica Westhead.  At first I thought it was a bit cloying and uninspired.  But then it hit me what the book was all about.  It takes place over 5 days in high summer, in a ritzy cottage or summer home near Ontario’s Lake  Muskoka.  Ruth, an emotionally overwrought mother and her three year old daughter are visiting Ruth’s best friend, Ava, who has seven year old twin girls.  I don’t want to say too much except that nothing is what it seems, and Ruth’s panic will be yours–  as you read it.worry

NS NDP Supports Legislation Against Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace

Halifax, 4 Oct. 2019

Nova Scotia is now the only jurisdiction in Canada that neither has legislation nor has publicly announced the intention of introducing legislation to outlaw bullying and psychological harassment in the workplace.  Annette Harpell, a resident of Antigonish, was fired from Lawton’s Drugs (owned by Sobey’s) nearly a year ago.  On June 19, the NS Labour Board dismissed her complaint that she was psychologically abused at her job and said it was up to the provincial government to change the law to cover such a situation.

Today, an employee who faces harassment and bullying at work has virtually no recourse.  Harassment and bullying are not prohibited grounds according to the NS Human Rights Act.  And the NS Occupational Health and Safety Act also does not cover psychological violence in the workplace.harpell

Harpell at media scrum in Legislature

 “The situation is surreal and desperate,” says Equity Watch’s Larry Haiven, professor emeritus at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University.  He has taught and researched labour policy for more than 30 years.  “The law is supposed to protect employees from work hazards.  The scientific literature shows that humiliation, harassment, intimidation and other forms of abuse are harmful like physical injuries.  If a box fell on Ms Harpell’s head, she would be covered.  But here she is not.  Nova Scotia is half a century behind the times.” larry-at-paviaLarry Haiven, PhD, of Equity Watch

At Lawton’s, Harpell was terrorized by a female co-worker for bullying and harassment.  Not only did the co-worker refuse to talk to her, to address her or to work with her, the co-worker also shredded Harpell’s work and hid it in the garbage can. This forced Harpell to do the work again.  No one at Lawton’s corrected the bully and management seemed scared to take her on.  When corporate human resources finally intervened, it made the situation worse;  senior management would not listen to Harpell.  Finally Lawton’s simply fired her.    Talk about shooting the messenger!

As Harpell notes:  “We, employees in Nova Scotia, need legislation regarding Workplace Bullying.  … It is our right to work in a healthy and safe environment, and be protected from all forms of workplace abuse.”

On Friday, at Province House, the NDP Provincial Caucus proposed a private member’s bill to amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  As NDP Labour and Advanced Education Spokesperson Tammy Martin said, “No one should have to worry that they will lose their job because they experience bullying or harassment at work. Our province is behind the rest of the country when it comes to workplace harm of this kind and I hope all parties will support addressing this gap in the Act.”

 

Equity Watch is a NS-based organization dedicated to eliminating bullying and discrimination in the workplace.  Judy Haiven is a steering committee member. You can reach her at equitywatchns@gmail.comNDP

Climate Action: Who’s Missing?

 

As I flip through the Facebook photos from the climate demonstrations across the country, there is one group missing from the photos.climate-familyAbove:  Halifax mother and her kids, they made the t-shirts themselves.

Trade unions are missing.  In Halifax, there were no flags, banners or signs from the unions.  Someone told me one union, the PSAC  (Public Service Alliance of Canada), was there – but from my corner of the protest, I didn’t see them.climate1High School students: cbc.ca

In a way, it is not surprising.  For years right wing and centrist politicians have publicly taunted and attacked environmentalists by stacking jobs and job security, against the environment.  It started with the oil companies’ (and the unions’) tone-deaf defense of the environmental degradation caused by Alberta’s tar sands. It spread to other corporations and unions whose members are part of the “extractive” industries.

To be fair, some of these industries have been hit hard.  The continuing low price of oil means big layoffs for oil workers, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and those who work in the  spin-off jobs.  More than 3,000 forest workers in BC are out of work. Seventeen pulp mills have closed – 4 permanently —  due to a crash in lumber prices, and US import tariffs.  The BC government has given $69 million  to help the industry provide early retirement and job retraining.

But on the other hand, in a decade or two, climate scientists and activists tell us little will be left of the world as we know it today.

We Want Everything is a lively sometimes ironic novel about the 1969 strike of tens of thousands of workers at the Fiat auto plants throughout Italy.  In the book, the workers were approached by students who made space at the universities for discussion, debate and strike meetings.  The students accessed campus mimeograph machines to run off leaflets which the workers and students distributed at factory gates. In the late 60s and 70s there was the idea that students and workers shared common cause in rebelling against the old and making the world a better, more equitable place.

Neoliberalism put an end to that world.  Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.” At the climate protests we saw a lot of young people, grandparents, and families– but beyond groups of students and student clubs, there were barely any “societies” such as trade unions.

It seems unions en masse decided not to join the climate demonstrations. climate=treeProtestor dressed as tree, on Spring Garden Rd., Halifax

Sure, many trade unionists have to work on Friday, and can’t just walk off the job.  But unions employ scads of full time “servicing staff” or “reps” who usually process grievances and carry out collective bargaining. The union presidents, and their executives could have directed them to drop their chores, go to the climate march  and bring banners with them.  Clearly this was not done.

It’s not just individual unions that didn’t participate – but what about the myriad of labour federations, starting with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)? The CLC boasts it represents 3+ million Canadian workers.  The page on their website says it stands in solidarity “with [the] student-led Global Climate Strike.”  At the end of its press release, the CLC warns that “Not all workers will be able to join the marches and rallies in person… [but] those who do join the strikes should first speak with their union and consult relevant legislation to understand the legal implications of their actions.”

Really?? That absurdly cautious approach by the largest trade union centre in Canada is not exactly a ringing endorsement of climate action.  With this kind of backhand support, why would unions affiliated to the CLC bother with the march?

Here’s a different story from across the country.

Hotel workers now on strike (left: uniteherelocal40;  right is from BC-CTV news)

Cleaners, room attendants, chefs, and other staff at three upscale hotels in downtown Vancouver have been on strike for more than 10 days.  On Friday, outside one hotel, a young man I know was handing out leaflets in support of the striking workers.  Hundreds of climate activists who were returning from the march drifted by and not one took a leaflet.

Clearly those activists thought they had no common cause with the hotel workers.  Despite doing something radical such as being at a climate strike, the activists felt no empathy for striking hospitality workers.  The environmentalists  wouldn’t even take a free leaflet to read about the strike.

There’s a disconnect between workers and environmentalists – and no one is trying to bridge the gap.  Warning:  It is widening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Black Face and Hate Crimes….

(first published by NSAdvocate.org 28 Sept.’19)

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Just over a week ago, Trudeau made a whistle stop in Truro, Nova Scotia. It was a few hours before at least three photos surfaced from earlier days that showed him in brown/face, and in black/face. In two photos he dressed as Aladdin—the hero from “Arabia” who wears a turban in a Disney cartoon movie. Trudeau had dyed his face and hands, and donned a turban, for a costume gala at the private school where he once taught. Another photo shows Trudeau in black face, his neck, arms and legs also blackened, to look like African-American actor/singer Harry Belafonte.

Truro is barely a 40 minute drive from Pictou Provincial Court. In the courtroom, the day of Trudeau’s election stop, a white middle-aged construction worker stood accused of deliberately firing a nail from a air-powered nail-gun into the back of Nhlanhla Dlamini, a young black man who worked on the same worksite.

I wonder how the photos of the Prime Minister sat with Dlamini. The the 22-year-old African immigrant gave evidence against co-worker Shawn Wade Hynes, 44. Dlamini said that had been subject to racist language at work for the three previous weeks. He suffered threats, racial jokes and was singled out for bad treatment.  For example, Hynes addressed him as “whatever the F they call you at home.” The co-worker also threw nails at him, hammered his booted foot and stapled his jacket to a staircase. Hynes also told him every one should own a black person.

Dlamini, the only Black person working at the site, tried to avoid Hynes.

That is, until one day he didn’t. Evidence was that Hynes made eye contact and smiled at Dlamini. Then Hynes took an air-powered high velocity nail- gun, aimed and shot Dlamini who tried to run away. A 9-cm framing nail entered his back and collapsed his lung.  Hynes went over to him and the victim, barely able to breathe, asked him to pull the nail out. No one – including the business owner who was onsite at the time, called 911, or sought medical help. dlamini

Buele Dlamini (left), and son Nhlanhla Dlamini (right).  credit:  NSAdvocate

Later in the day, Dlamini did go to the hospital where he required an emergency operation and a hospital stay. The injury left him with 3% less lung function. Hynes was eventually charged with criminal negligence causing bodily harm and assault with a weapon. Hynes and PQ Properties Ltd owner Paul Quinn, claimed it was an accident, and purely unintentional.

At the trial, the crown never raised the issue of race because the prosecutor believed there was no “proof.” This despite the three weeks of taunting, racial slurs and harassment of a Black man by more than one white co-worker which lead up to the attack; this despite the fact Paul Quinn did not bother to report the injury to the Dept of Labour as he is required to do—nor did he dial 911. hynesHynes at the Pictou courthouse (CBC.ca)

This week, Judge Del Atwood convicted Hynes of criminal negligence and assault with a weapon. The judge criticized himself for not issuing a bench warrant for Hynes’ arrest when he did not show up in court earlier this year.  Judge Atwood said, “I could have done more…. but I failed to do so.”

See also: Assailant of Nhlanhla Dlamini found guilty of criminal negligence and assault with a weapon

Dlamini’s supporters say that Hynes should have been charged with hate crimes. As community activist and writer Angee Bowden said at a rally, “This is going to be precedent-setting in this province as to how we deal with hate crimes. The message we’re sending individuals who are comfortable in engaging in this behaviour, is that we really don’t care about Black lives.”

In Nova Scotia there are two precedents for the charge of hate crimes. In 2011, two brothers, Justin and Nathan Rehberg were convicted of inciting racial hatred and criminal harassment.  They had burned a 2 metre tall wooden cross in the front yard of a bi-racial couple in Poplar Grove. As the cross burned, one yelled, “Die, n….r, die.” crosskkk

(photo:  National Post)

Trudeau’s indiscretions took place 18 years ago.  Some claim his dressing up in brown face or black face is just a costume, and not racist. Despite setting a tone – that dressing up was fun and frivolous, there is a hard-edge too. It goes to the heart of injustice and racism.

I wonder what Dlamini thinks of Trudeau’s “pranks”.

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, an organization that fights discrimination, bullying and racism in the workplace.  Contact her at equitywatchns@gmail.com