Street Checks in Halifax – a prominent social worker and activist speaks out!


What to read, what to watch

Shadow is both a mystery and a thriller.  It’s by Swedish author, Karin Alvtegen.  Her attention to detail about a marriage gone wrong, about a wayward son, and a depressed daughter seem right on.  The spurned wife gathers strength as the relationships flounder.  Shadow is a masterpiece.

The novel centres on a writer who has won the Nobel prize, and is successful and wealthy.  It’s also about the family’s housekeeper who listens and notes everything that goes on — and says nothing — even if when what she knows would save a life.  Two other less successful writers are trying to push the Nobel winner off his pedestal.  The plot is fascinating and believable.  It’s a murder mystery with many victims.  It’s a thriller with no smoking gun.  Worth reading! shadowGet it at the library as an e-book!

I like the German filmmaker Doris Dorrie.  Her 2007 film Cherry Blossoms is a delight. A 65 year old man who lives with his wonderful wife decides to visit each of his three grown children.  They are not so interested in his visit, because their lives are quite separate from his and they are no longer trying to please him.  The first half of the film is familiar territory, but done in a way that catches the viewer off-guard.  His third child lives in Tokyo, so the dad decides to visit.  The son is a stock broker (or a guy in finance) and is impatient and slightly mean.  The film’s focus turns from the family squabbling to the father discovering the arts, and  street performers.  It’s a clever and masterful film.

cherryGet it from the library

A Swedish murder mystery series, Maria Wern, is a bit tame, but you get a good look at a small city on the island of Gotland off the east coast of Sweden. A bit of running around, some driving, not much  shooting — and the criminals are always bad guys.  There are a few seasons of  Maria Wern, at the library on DVD.maria


Human Rights vs. Human Resources: will corporate Newspeak win?


Almost a year after Equity Watch’s interventions, the NS Human Rights Commission convened a Board of Inquiry (a tribunal) to hear Kathy Symington’s complaint of discrimination on the basis of sex and of disability.  Symington is a former Halifax firefighter.

SymingtonKathy Symington in 2018.

In some ways Symington’s case is similar to the ground-breaking case of Liane Tessier, also a former Halifax firefighter.  In December 2017, Tessier won her sex discrimination case after a 12 year battle.  Ken Steubing, Chief of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency, had to publicly apologize to Tessier for “systemic gender discrimination” in the fire service.

Since the chief admitted to systemic gender discrimination, you’d think that Symington’s complaints, which began shortly after she joined the fire service in 1997,  would be accepted and a settlement offered.  But no, Symington has had to fight for more than 14 years for her complaint to get before a human rights Board of Inquiry. She first filed a complaint in 2004, but in 2006 the NS Human Rights Commission dismissed it.  A decade later, in 2016, Symington again filed a complaint.

Enter Equity Watch.  Equity Watch  is a Halifax-based organization which supports people who are harassed, bullied and face discrimination at work.  Last June, Equity Watch mounted a demonstration on Spring Garden Road in front of the NS Human Rights Commission’s headquarters.  Our placards read:  “Human Rights Commission:  do your job.”  The Commission should have pursued Symington’s first complaint, back in 2004, which they dropped.  In 2018, they rejected her second complaint (filed in 2016). There are hundreds of other human rights complainants in NS whose complaints have also been summarily dismissed by the Commission[1]. EQUITYRALLY1Rally on Spring Garden Rd., June 2018. Photo courtesy of

Equity Watch helped Symington appeal the dismissal of her second complaint. In the summer of 2018, the Human Rights Commission finally agreed to take her case to a Board of Inquiry.

At the hearing, which has taken place over the last 10 days,  I was taken aback by the evidence given by one witness whose use of jargon was almost humorous – if the circumstances had not been so serious.  The witness works in the Human Resources department of Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM).  Her job was to find Symington another job either in the fire service or anywhere in HRM, as she could no longer do her the job of  a firefighter.

I confess to having taught Human Resource Management at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University for 18 years.  But I have never heard anyone use corporate jargon as the witness did when she talked about personnel issues.   The witness’ testimony was nothing short of “newspeak”[2].

First, the woman witness from Human Resources called herself a “senior consultant in HR.”  She said her title was changed to “Business Partner to Fire and Emergency Services.” 

The “Business Partner” explained that the goal for the accommodation process [to place Symington in another role] was based on a “functional match”for the worker, rather than considering her emotional and mental concerns.  I think this means the employer would only accommodate for physical problems of the job, not mental or emotional stressors which Symington had.  Bear in mind, Symington’s case hinges on two grounds:  physical and mental disability as well as sex discrimination.

'That's not what I thought you meant when you said you expect to obtain a small settlement today.'

The Business Partner witness referred to the “vacancy management process”– in plain language that means finding an unfilled job vacancy for Symington. However, prior to filling a vacancy, there had to be a decision about  “whether it could be bundled.”  What does that mean?  I think it means finding out if one job could be added on to another to save a staff position.  The witness said that the CAO (HRM’s Chief Administrative Officer) had decreed that there was to be no budget increase.  That meant the  Business Partnerhad to take “a look at every job and prove you need the role – that there are no other modifications needed to fill or bundle the role.” What?

At one stage the Business Partner talked about the “concentration of vacancy savings through vacancy management.”   Newspeak if I ever heard it.

The witness, or Business Partner, noted that Symington was “skeptical” about the entire process, though the Business Partner  claimed she “listened” to [Symington] and even “empathized”– twice! — with Symington’s concerns.  Still the Business Partnerblamed Symington  for being “un-cooperative” in the process.

Despite the fact that Symington had worked for HRM for 18 years, the Business Partnertestified that no job could be found for Symington because she had not submitted a new resume! HRM, and Human Resources and even the Business Partner — knew all about Symington’s condition.  Back in 2005, Symington’s car had been vandalized 3 times in one yearwhile it was parked outside the fire station where she worked.  No one admitted to being the vandal, and there was no investigation by Halifax Fire or anyone else.  Terrified by these incidents, Symington was accommodated in a new role:  she went to work temporarily in the Stores area of the Fire Service – far from her home fire station.  So it was perfectly clear that she could do the job in Stores.

However, despite Symington having done the job in Stores, the Business Partnerclaimed there was the problem of the “Job Site Analysis”or JSA.  The higher-ups in HRM management seemed to have gone into a tizzy because they thought they would have to modify the Stores job for Symington, “based on her functional capacity, the new location, new duties and new structure.”  Really— is that a big deal?

At the hearing I also found out that despite there being a job open in Stores, it took nearly three years to clear it with the top management and the union and then to offer it to Symington.  Before that job, the Business Partner– considered placing Symington as a bus driver.  However Symington’s “functional capacity”showed “that she wasn’t a “functional match.”

Symington herself gave evidence at the hearing.  She said she was told by the union as well as by key people in management that “there was no job for [me] in Fire,”

The  Business Partner’s  evidence seemed like much ado about nothing.  The truth is that

  • it took HRM more than two years to find a job that would accommodate Symington.
  • Management never told her, or even suggested there was any other job she could do
  • Meanwhile Symington had no income, and was desperate for money.
  • By May 15, 2015, HRM had solidified the job in Stores for Symington. HRM met with the union, but the union forgot to tell Symington.
  • Shortly after that, Symington applied for long-term disability – which meant she was no longer available for a work.

The Business Partner’stestimony was almost laughable. What is clear is that Symington had been left high and dry.  After a career in firefighting, she had no job and no future.  Symington had dared to complain about sexual harassment and bullying, and she was out of a job.

And she still is.

You can read other stories about the hearing, here and here.

But you can only read about human resources corporate Newspeak here.

[1]In fact the Commission’s own 2016-17 Annual Report notes that the Commission received 2567 inquiries, and accepted just 110 complaints.  Of the 110 complaints, just over 50% were found to be without merit, or not followed up.

[2]Newspeak is a term used in George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984. Newspeak was the language in Oceania, where 1984 took place.  Newspeak did not allow negative thoughts, or challenges to the government or to authority.  Rather than say something was ‘bad’ it was considered ‘ungood’. For more see

What to read, what to watch….


Antique Jewels (1966) by Paul-Emile Borduas

 You need to read Suzanne, by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, a well-known artist, novelist and documentary filmmaker in Quebec.  (She made Inch’allah, which I highly recommends and you can get at the Library on DVD). This is a fantastic novel. The grandmother, daughter, grand-daughter span 80 years of Quebec history.  The daughter, from a poor family on the other side of river from Ottawa, joins the Automatistes — a revolutionary group of young artists and poets who rejected the stifling of culture and freedom in Duplessis’ Quebec.  This book soars.  Barbeau-Lavalette writes about art, artists and the political and cultural climate of Quebec under the near fascist 20 year rule of Premier Maurice Duplessis.  It was a time that was called La Grande Noirceur (“The Great Darkness”).

Suzanne was a finalist on this year’s CBC Canada Reads, and I’m not surprised it didn’t win.  I’m not surprised because of the pull-at-the-heartstrings book by Max Eisen  By Chance Alone (about the Holocaust) which of course had to be number one. I recently read that book  and as an autobiography it’s okay, but it’s Holocaust misery at its best. By that I mean the plethora of holocaust memorial books, films and so on seem to me to be another way to deflect discussion about the war crimes Israel perpetrates to oppress (and destroy the lives of) the Palestinians today.

Suzanne is loosely based on the author’s grandmother’s life.  Lavalette writes about  the outrageous control and impoverishment of the people by the Catholic church — which of course led to the “Quiet Revolution” in Quebec in the 1960s.  There are delightful parts which detail painting, and poetry in the book.  Like most novels, the beginning is far better than the ending.  However this is a great book!suzanne



Something to Watch is Suspects, two seasons of DVDs. This is a British cop series, but it seems more like a documentary.  Each episode is about a crime which the police can’t really understand. The cops play with their tried and true methods and find something more sordid or weird or ordinary has taken place — and the cops’ prejudices come thru.  Worth watching — from the Library. suspects

Reign of Terror in Halifax Transit: independent forensic human resource audit needed

streetcar2019:  Overturned streetcar: art installation at the site of Bloody Saturday in Winnipeg by Noah Gonick (filmmaker and artist)– in celebration of Winnipeg General Strike 1919.

One hundred years ago, the Winnipeg General Strike began. First the 300 women telephone operators walked off the job,  followed by 30,000 other workers in all kinds of occupations – bakers, clerks at Eaton’s, factory workers, tram drivers,  postmen, journalists, teachers, tradesmen and railway workers – even the city police and firemen went on strike.

streetcar2Photo: 21 June 1919

For 6 weeks in the heat of early prairie summer, workers ran the city.  The Strike Committee decided when and how bread and milk were delivered, which shops were open and what services provided.  They held Winnipeg in a tight grip. For the first time in “modern” Canada, there was a huge action by organized workers to fight against the political elite, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (forerunner of the RCMP), and the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand.  The Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand represented the businessmen, bankers and politicians in Winnipeg and the province,  who normally controlled the lives of workers.  The Citizens’ Committee claimed it was the Bolsheviks who were behind the strike.  Obligingly, The New York Times ran a headline at the start of the strike:  “Bolshevism Invades Canada.”

The strike heralded a new workers’ solidarity, grounded in the expression “an injury to one is an injury to all.”  Workers ran a major Canadian city for six weeks.  Trade unions made a breakthrough in that their shared aims and resolve paved the way to many victories and to massive organizing over the next fifty years.

It’s against this backdrop I look at what happened last week to YZ, mechanic at Halifax Transit.  The racism, harassment and physical threats that happened to YZ continue to happen to hundreds if not thousands of workers across our city and province.  Unfortunately – unlike in the Winnipeg General Strike — we see few unions that take on the problem of member-on-member violence and harassment. In the specific case of YZ (whose identity has been protected because he fears for his safety) the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) has said barely a word either last  week or throughout the 8 plus years it has taken for the YZ case to wend its way through the NS Human Rights Commission.transit1

YZ is white.  He is married to an African Nova-Scotian.  He started work as a mechanic at Halifax Transit in 1979.  Due to racial taunts about his marriage to a black woman,  he went  on long-term disability from 2004-06. He briefly returned but has not been able to work since January 2007. That was 12 years ago.  In 2006 he filed a complaint of discrimination with the NS Human Rights Commission.  In fact YZ had also become a support person for one co-worker in particular – Randy Symonds who was African Nova Scotian.

It took the Commission eight years — until 2014 — to launch a Board of Inquiry. The Board convened hearings for three years until 2017.  In March, 2018 the board chair, lawyer Lynn Connors, released her decision which concluded  that  YZ had been discriminated against, and that HRM (his employer) had tolerated a poisonous work environment.transit2

It took another year for Connors to assess and award the damages to YZ. That was the nearly $600,000 awarded to YZ, which was in the news last week.

The background to the YZ case is worth understanding. The attacks against him included:

  • degrading and hateful comments.
  • garbage left on his work bench.
  • being given different and more “dirty” work to do.
  • denial of a day off work to get married, when others got time off. The supervisor had seen YZ’s black fiancée drop him off at work. The supervisor then treated YZ worse and differently than other workers.
  • a BBQ at the union’s social club, Club 508, where YZ and his wife heard a co-worker say “We don’t want those kind of people here, they weren’t invited.”
  • a co-worker testifying that she heard someone say, “Blacks were not welcome” at the party.
  • One particularly racist co-worker, Arthur Maddox, acting rude to YZ’s wife when she phoned to speak to YZ.

YZ’s wife wrote a letter of complaint about her phone call with Maddox to Transit management.  The supervisor claimed he checked and it had all been taken care of.

By 2000, the taunting and harassment of YZ spread to two newly hired workers– African Nova Scotian Randy Symonds, who worked in the storeroom and mechanic David Buckle.

  • Symonds was told that coal mining “was nigger work and for whops”
  • Maddox said “racism should be a law and that you can shoot someone and get away with it”
  • Maddox told Symonds was to “suck me boy”
  • Maddox called Symonds racial slurs six to seven times a week
  • Symonds was called a “New York ghetto dweller”
  • Symonds was physically threatened many times by co-workers. Maddox jumped over the stores counter and physically threatened him.
  • Co-workers made fun of Buckle’s hair and “hair-do”
  • One mechanic hollered for all to hear that he refused to train “No Good-For-Nothing Indian.”Another said, “I won’t be training any fucking Indians.”
  • Co-workers used the term “Got Buckled” if a job was not done well, was a dirty job, or something did not work right.

There was a reign of terror at Transit – and no one in authority intervened.

In May 2001, Transit fired Arthur Maddox (the especially racist worker). The union, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU),  filed a grievance grievance2 to get Maddox his job back. Not willing to subject himself to more antagonism and possible violence, Symonds declined to testify at an arbitration hearing. The employer was left without a strong case and agreed to a mediated settlement with the union.  Maddox was reinstated with six moths of back pay a year  after his dismissal. In the meantime, another worker had written graffiti on the washroom wall:  “All minorities not welcome, show you care, burn a cross [signed]– a member of Baby Hitler.”

Maddox returned to work, seemingly vindicated.  Six months later, he tried to run down YZ with a bus in the transit garage. YZ testified that he believed Maddox “blamed me and my wife” for his firing and that this was “revenge.”  YZ reported this and the other incidents to management, and the supervisor said he could not recollect the incident with the bus in the garage, and did not investigate or take any action.

In 2003 Randy Symonds filed a complaint with the NS Human Rights Commission, demanding a public enquiry and $100,000.  No other worker, not even YZ, would sign onto his complaint.   Due to financial pressures, in 2006 Symonds accepted a settlement which a “gag order” kept secret.  Not able to return to the poisoned work environment, he spent his last 7 months on Workers Compensation due to stress. Readers should know that in NS, Workers Compensation pays only 75% of earnings for the first 6 months someone is off the job.  Symonds’ bullies and assailants – including Maddox – earned their full pay, benefits and pension contributions—while Symonds was, in effect, punished financially.

In January 2007, Symonds died tragically in a highway traffic accident.

Since the accident, according to an interview with Symonds’ wife and daughter, not one not one person from city management, nor any councillor contacted the family.
The union, the ATU, remains mute.  In cases where the union bears some responsibility, the Human Rights Commission can name it as a co-party with management to the complaint, but the Commission seldom does so and did not in this case.

And, other than a recent online comment praising the YZ monetary award the wider labour movement has asked no questions.  How could this reign of terror go on for 14 plus years? How could a black man become unemployed and then die due to the stress of living with the anger and threats directed at him by racist co-workers?  How could a white man and his black wife receive such soul-destroying treatment for the mere crime of loving each other?

But when will anyone step up to explain what happened and how it won’t happen again?

Back to 1919, when 300,000 workers supported each other and their unions supported one another in the Winnipeg General Strike. At the time, workers in unions across the country also struck in sympathy. Today, workers who face contempt, ridicule and discrimination are on their own.

Equity Watch demands an independent forensic human resources audit of Halifax Regional Municipality. What we have here is a catastrophic system failure of supervision and of human resource management. Residents of HRM need to know not only what happened, but why it happened.  So far, Jacques Dubé CAO of Halifax Regional Municipality, merely says “we have to do better” and HRM is  “unwavering in our commitment to continually do better.”  Equity Watch says this is not good enough – where is the investigation, what are the steps HRM is taking to ensure nothing like this ever happens again?  The public needs to know.



What to Read, and What to Watch

I thought I knew about the Blitz in London during WWII, but I knew nothing til I read Pat Barker’s recent novel Noonday. noondayI really liked her Regeneration trilogy — three interconnected books about WWI, psychiatry and what we now call PTSD.  Noonday is excellent too.  Two middle aged artists– Paul and Elinor —  live and work in London. Paul is a somewhat famous war artist.  Though Elinor’s paintings hang at the Tate Gallery, as a woman, her work is considered lesser to his. Their lives unravel with the disappearance of a 12 year old boy from the London slums who was sent (for safety) to live in the countryside with Elinor’s mother and sister.  This was common in WWII — children were sent to the English countryside and even as far as Canada to escape the bombing of London.  For example the English author of the children’s series The Indian in the Cupboard and the book The L-Shaped Room, Lynn Reid Banks, spent some of her teenage years living in  Saskatoon!   When Elinor’s elderly mother dies —  the boy decides try to find his mother in London, and the lives of Paul and Elinor unravel.  This book is a rare and deep read.

Swedish crime writer Karin Alvtegen has written a mystery and thriller rolled into one in her book Missing.  Her social commentary about the homeless in today’s Stockholm, about social workers and about cops is skillfully woven thru the book.  On the book jacked is the comment that missingAlvtegen’s novels are “head and shoulders above the rest of the Scandi crew.”  I heartily agree.

I’m watching the 4th of 5 seasons of a series called Line of Duty. It’s a first rate  excellent policier which takes place in Birmingham, Belfast and Manchester UK (so far).  It’s about crooked cops, tunnel vision and adherence to almost blind authority. You won’t leave your couch. I’m watching it on Netflix — acting is great, believable and very gritty. line-of-duty

Former Halifax transit worker receives record $593K award in harassment case

Nova Scotia·Updated

Man said he suffered from trauma due to a hostile workplace

The City of Halifax has been ordered to pay nearly $600,000 in damages to a former bus mechanic who suffered harassment at work. (CBC)

A Nova Scotia human rights board of inquiry has handed down an award of nearly $600,000 to a former Metro Transit bus garage worker after finding he was the victim of racial harassment and discrimination by management and co-workers.

It’s the largest amount ever awarded by the commission.

The inquiry heard that Y.Z., a mechanic, was targeted with verbal racial slurs, graffiti in the washroom, vandalism of tools and assault between 2002 and 2007. A bus was used to terrorize him by brushing past him.

Y.Z., who is white, is married to a black woman. He told the inquiry his marriage made him the focus of racial taunting.

A psychologist told the inquiry that Y.Z. has been diagnosed as having somatic symptom disorder, major depressive disorder and PTSD.

‘Bad place physically and psychologically’

The psychologist, Myles Genest, said there are “no grounds to suggest [Y.Z.] would be experiencing his current disabling conditions were it not for his experience of negative work environment and threat to his safety in the workplace.”

[Y.Z.’s] in “such a bad place physically and psychologically that it almost has a life of its own now,” the psychologist told the inquiry.

In 2007, the former Metro Transit worker attempted suicide and since then has been “largely housebound” due to his fear of encountering employees from the bus garage.

An independent Nova Scotia human rights board of inquiry looked into the complaints of Y.Z. (Robert Short/CBC News)

The lawyer for Y.Z., Bruce Evans, told the inquiry that his client continues to suffer the psychological impact of discrimination to this day.

His wife regards him as “broken” and his son says he “died” 12 years ago when he tried to take his own life. Y.Z.’s wife suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to work for two years.

Lawyer sought higher award

The $593,507 award provides $105,650 in general damages to Y.Z. and $433,077 for past and future lost income. There’s also an award of $21,675 for future care and $33,015 for pain and suffering for Y.Z.’s wife.

Evans was claiming $950,000 in compensation for his client. But the past and future loss of income award was halved because Y.Z. did not accept a transfer to another facility, said the finding. Y.Z. said “the people who were causing the problems were the ones who should be forced to leave and not him,” he told the inquiry.

Judy Haiven is a retired professor of management, and one of the founders of Equity Watch, a group that fights workplace discrimination. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

“It is my hope that my monetary award will send a clear message to HRM and its supervisors of what their legal obligations are under the Human Rights Act to investigate and address potential violations under the Act,” wrote Lynn Connors, board of inquiry chair.

The case unearthed new details about another case of racism and threats suffered by Randy Symonds, who was Y.Z.’s co-worker. He died in a car accident in 2007.

Connors also drew attention to recent racial tension at the bus garage. According to a 2015 workplace survey, 61 per cent of employees at the Ilsley Avenue facility reported dissatisfaction on being treated with respect and consideration, and “bullying, racism, [and] intimidation” were examples of disrespect they experienced.

“What troubles me the most is the finding of the Workplace Assessment completed in 2015. It still does not show a great picture of what that workplace is like,” said the ruling.

The Human Rights Commission confirmed this is the highest award to date.

Evans said there was no comment from him or his client at this time.

Another apology

The Halifax Regional Municipality’s chief administrative officer repeated his apology for the racism at the bus garage.

In a statement Wednesday, Jacques Dubé, said the municipality accepts the decision regarding damages. The municipality will pay the award and will not appeal the decision, according to a city spokesperson.

“We remain unwavering in our commitment to continually do better,” said Dubé. “As chief administrative officer, I am committed to advocating for a harassment-free workplace.”

‘A catastrophic failure’

Equity Watch, a group dedicated to fighting workplace discrimination, has been monitoring this case. Judy Haiven, a co-founder of the group and a retired management professor, said the racial harassment Y.Z., Symonds, and an Indigenous man experienced at the bus depot “is a catastrophic failure of management.”

Haiven said the record award to Y.Z. is appropriate because he lost his career due to the “reign of terror that happened in the transit yards.”

She said the municipality’s apology and pledge to improve the workplace culture is “too little, too late.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union has not responded to a request for comment.


Elizabeth Chiu


Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7, 7:30 in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at