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Court documents allege a range of harassment and 'hostile environment for women' at Leduc Fire Services

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GRAPHIC WARNING: This article contains details readers may find disturbing

New details have emerged in an ongoing civil lawsuit against the City of Leduc as court documents detail allegations that women working as firefighters experienced systemic discrimination and sexual assault.

Affidavits from 10 women who worked for the Leduc Fire Services (LFS) and several reports commissioned by the city southwest of Edmonton to probe the allegations have been recently filed as part of the class action certification proceedings.

In February 2022, a lawsuit was filed against the fire department by two former female firefighters alleging physical and sexual assault, harassment and bullying while on the job.

Leduc has applied to have the lawsuit struck on the basis it should proceed to a labour arbitrator.

A hearing has been set for May, where a judge will decide whether the allegations can proceed as a class action. The lawsuit has not been proven in court.

'HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT FOR WOMEN'

Robert Martz, lawyer with Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP, represents the plaintiffs and believes there could be more women who may come forward as the lawsuit progresses.

"They've pursued this lawsuit in an effort to shed light on what has occurred and to ensure that it doesn't happen again," Martz told CTV News Edmonton.

In 2021, the City of Leduc commissioned Veritas Solutions, an independent workplace investigator specializing in harassment and psychological safety, to complete five investigations into how incidents were handled by the fire department.

Initially, the city denied the release of the third-party probes, citing privacy law. Martz says they were "relevant" to the case and "an important piece" to help the court understand the full scope of what was being alleged.

"The evidence surfacing within the varying allegations, information, complaints and evidence presented to our investigators," one of the reports concluded, "is indicative of both systemic and interpersonal misconduct as related to gender discrimination and harassment and sexual harassment.

"In effect, the LFD (Leduc Fire Department) is a hostile environment for women."

On Friday, the City of Leduc told CTV News Edmonton it was not able to comment on the lawsuit and associated allegations as they are before the courts.

'PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOUR'

As Veritas investigators conducted interviews and reviewed evidence in assessing some of the allegations, it found "patterns of behaviour" including a "spectrum of harassment" ranging up to sexual assault and mismanagement by persons in authority when responding to complaints.

"Over the past several years the mishandling of serious complaints of sexual assaults and the harrassment that were not taken seriously or properly investigated has created a hostile or poisoned work environment for some women," one report read.

One incident Veritas reviewed noted mismanagement by LFS where a male part-time firefighter was dismissed for sexual harassment but was allowed to attend a fundraiser in a dress uniform.

According to the investigation, three female firefighters said he would smell their hair, touch their breasts and crotches "under the guise of measuring them for radio sashes." In one instance, he grabbed a female firefighter by her hips from behind and "simulated intercourse."

Veritas found "there was much conflict" over his termination from LFS, with "many male members" believing the allegations were fabricated.

Ahead of a public fundraiser in Leduc, female members of LFS were told the terminated member would not be allowed to attend. Despite this, he had been invited by a captain to attend and posed in several photos of active fire crews.

The acting captain that day asked the duty chief to tell him to leave, stating his presence caused several other members to be uncomfortable. It took an order from the deputy chief for the former employee to leave, with the duty chief and other members loudly objecting, the Veritas report recounted.

ISSUES WITH PERSONAL BOUNDARIES

One of the "significant contributors" to a negative workplace culture at LFS, found by Veritas, was a disregard for physical and personal boundaries.

Several firefighters experienced inappropriate touching incidents, a pair of sexual affairs, and others reported sexual assaults, according to the report.

One female firefighter told Veritas that touching occurred "frequently" and that she would not describe it as consensual, "but that it was 'accepted.'"

"I've had my butt grabbed by a captain," she told Veritas. "I didn't consent to it. And I would rather he hadn't. But it's just the way it is."

She also referenced how male firefighters sometimes could be seen "slapping each other's dicks."

"That is consensual, because that's a joke that they all have amongst each other. And I don't think that will ever stop because that's who they are."

In another instance, a different female firefighter shared with Veritas how while she was competing for an advanced care paramedic and firefighter position, a male LFS staff member exposed himself after he asked what "her panties looked like."

Several years later, that same woman who was now working with the department, had the same man come into the women's dorm and attempt to crawl into bed with her, the report stated.

LACK OF SERIOUS ATTENTION TO COMPLAINTS

In another incident, Veritas concluded an allegation of mismanagement of a reported sexual assault by LFS leadership and the city's human resources department was founded.

After a female firefighter had been sexually assaulted during an LFS member's night party, the Veritas investigation noted she was later "intimidated and coerced" into complying with leadership's direction of proceeding with mediation instead of a formal investigation.

"[The female firefighter] relented to make them stop calling her," the Veritas investigation analysis stated.

She told Veritas that management's conduct "made her feel that she had no choice but to comply with the mediation," especially as she was competing for a full-time position with LFS. That session was then led by the fire services' chaplain, despite Veritas finding there was "no evidence" they had any training or experience in mediation.

"The management within the Leduc Fire Services has demonstrated on several occasions that female employees are discriminated against when complaints are brought forward," Veritas concluded.

"[This creates] a work environment that is not safe from retaliation and free from condemnation."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Amanda Anderson and Sean Amato 

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