KJIPUKTIK (Halifax) – A fight against gender discrimination, retribution and gossip at a Halifax fire station is approaching its final stage as the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (HRC) refers the case to a public Board of Inquiry.
“I fought tooth and nail for this for a very long time,” says Liane Tessier, a former firefighter. “My hope is for my case to be a catalyst for legal change for women and gender rights all across Canada.”
It’s a fight Tessier started almost a decade ago, after falling victim to discrimination and bullying at the male-dominated Herring Cove fire station. What makes her case unusual is that Tessier not only had to do battle with HRM management, she had to take the HRC itself to court.
Tessier argued that HRC investigators took too long (five years), did a bad job investigating, and were wrong to dismiss her case.
Justice Arthur LeBlanc of the Nova Scotia Supreme court agreed. Key witnesses were not heard, there were numerous delays, and investigators showed bias against Tessier throughout, LeBlanc concluded in May of 2014.
Now the HRC has completed its second investigation and determined that Tessier’s case has merit after all and should proceed to a Board of Inquiry.
That conclusion puts Tessier at a point where she should have been years ago. The experience has taken its toll, says Tessier.
“Back in 2005 is when the abuse and harassment at the firestation started, I spent a number of years trying to deal with it internally, but that went nowhere,” she says.
“Then in 2007 I decided I had to go the the HRC. It was devastating when the Commission decided to dismiss my case without really doing any investigating at all.”
To take the HRC to court was very difficult. Even finding a lawyer was hard, says Tessier. Judicial reviews are notoriously difficult to win, let alone judicial reviews centered on gender discrimination. Not to mention that she was often met with disbelief.
“Liane’s commitment to the process is incredible,”says Melissa Macadam, Tessier’s lawyer. “Just consider how long ago the discrimination and the acts of retribution occurred, and how she then took the first step in going to the Commission, only to find that the HRC was essentially negligent.”
“It takes a lot out of you to go through interviews, putting your faith in the process, only to find that it didn’t do what it is supposed to do. Most would have stopped there, but she continued on and was vindicated,” says MacAdam.
MacAdam believes that Tessier’s battle will impact many working women who are facing similar ordeals in their workplaces. To make sure of that, Tessier insisted that her case extend beyond the personal and consider issues of systemic discrimination at HRM.
“That is a huge accomplishment for her, and has huge significance for all women in the HRM fire services. It could also have huge ramifications outside of HRM. It’s definitely something Liane should be commended for,” says MacAdam.
“It’s too early to tell what the impact may be,” says MacAdam.”But Liane’s determination will impact others who can’t come forward, and will support other women who are fighting similar battles. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and if you continue on your voice will be heard.”
Tessier believes the entire ordeal has easily cost her $60,000 in legal fees. But nothing compares to the emotional toll taken by the decade-long fight.
“Very few people stuck with me. I lost friends and family and the career I loved,” she says.
In a way the long time it took to reach this final stage may even be to her advantage, Tessier believes. Things have maybe changed for the better, by a tiny bit.
“Ten years ago there was no hope or encouragement. But around 2012 I started to note a difference culturally. Women spoke out more than ever, in the RCMP, the military.
I thought maybe there is hope after all. It’s like I had to wait for culture to catch up to the realities of gender discrimination.”
Meanwhile, HRM has expressed an interest in a resolution conference, a type of mediation, rather than a public inquiry. But Tessier isn’t interested.
“This is not just about HRM saying sorry to me or the other women whose harassment claims they ignored,” says Tessier. I want this on record, I want them to make changes.”