Police officers facing sexual harassment at work is “unacceptable,” Ontario’s labour minister said in response to a CTV News Investigates story about complaints claiming the Toronto Police Association (TPA) is failing to protect members facing harassment or discrimination.
Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said he would look into the state of Ontario law that gives victims of sexual assault few options when their union decides not to represent them — a situation two officers alleged happened repeatedly thanks to what they called a toxic culture at work that was reflected in the association’s behaviour.
“I think this is unacceptable and I’ve been working with the solicitor-general to make sure we get to the bottom of this and if there’s any action to be taken we’ll take some action,” McNaughton said.
The minister was responding to a series of stories by CTV News Investigates that outlined previously unreported complaints by Toronto Police officers that their association had failed to represent them in concerns of workplace harassment, leaving them with few legal options.
In one case, Const. Heather McWilliam is asking the Ontario Police Arbitration Commission to order the TPA to repay her more than $30 million for years of legal fees, travel expenses and other costs associated with fighting sexual harassment at work.
She wrote in her duty of fair representation complaint that the association instead sided with and provided resources to the other officers who had sexually harassed or assaulted her, and that in some cases those officers were union representatives.
In another case, a Toronto officer claims the TPA let her rack up about $45,000 in legal fees to fight for compensation in an injury claim when male officers would have had that covered, pointing to a toxic workplace culture that tolerates sexism.
The Toronto Police Service released a report earlier this year that found about 60 per cent of people surveyed said they had experienced or witnessed harassment or discrimination within the TPS in the past five years.
The TPS said releasing that report was part of a reckoning with the phenomenon that Chief James Ramer called “unacceptable” at the time.
The TPA has told CTV News Investigates that it represents thousands of members across all types of complaints and has only ever received three complaints that allege discrimination on sex or gender, saying all members deserve to come to work free from harassment.
Under Ontario law, a union or association has wide freedom about which claims to take up and which to ignore, employment lawyer Howard Levitt said in an interview.
If the union member feels they haven’t been represented they can allege that the union behaved in an arbitrary, discriminatory or bad faith manner — but that’s a tough road, he said.
Legally the victims can make a human rights complaint — something that Const. McWilliam did successfully — or a duty of fair representation complaint, but tribunal awards often don’t justify how much the legal actions cost, he said.
“The remedy is effectively impotent. That’s the reality,” Levitt said.
Those not in a union can go directly to the courts, but don’t get other protections the unions offer, he said.
Angelo Sciacca, who represents one of the complainants, called for legal change to allow victims of sexual assault to directly sue their employers for compensation.
McNaughton wasn’t specific in his remarks about precisely what he was looking to do about the state of the law.
He encouraged any worker who is facing sexual assault or harassment to call Ministry of Labour investigators, who have more resources to investigate the situation.
“The law in Ontario is very clear. Every single worker in every workplace must be free from violence and harassment,” he said.
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