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Fighting the Boys Club

Former Halifax Firefighter wants level playing field

by Robert Devet

Former firefighter Liane Tessier has been fighting gender-based discrimination and harassment at Halifax Fire seemingly forever. She even had to take the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to court.  She believes her situation is not unique and what happens to women in blue collar jobs in male-dominated workplaces desperately needs more attention. Photo contributed.
Former firefighter Liane Tessier has been fighting gender-based discrimination and harassment at Halifax Fire seemingly forever. She even had to take the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to court. She believes her situation is not unique and what happens to women in blue collar jobs in male-dominated workplaces desperately needs more attention. Photo contributed.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - For Liane Tessier, a former Halifax firefighter, the last ten years or so have been rough. So rough that you wonder how she managed to hang in.

At the fire station where she worked she was haunted by malicious gossip and subjected to harassment.

And a complaint she filed with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission turned into five years of inactivity and foot dragging. Still nothing has been resolved.

Things were fine for the first years Tessier worked as a volunteer firefighter at the Herring Cove fire station.

Volunteer is actually a bit of a misnomer. She worked regular shifts, and she was paid. It was a job. And it was a job she enjoyed. She was eager to learn, got along with her colleagues, gained qualifications, and she loved every minute of it.

But soon there were indications not all was well.

Gossip, tampering with her possessions, hurtful episodes where Tessier felt she was shown disrespect began to poison the work environment.

And things took a turn for the worse after one incident in particular, when some of the men in leadership positions felt humiliated because Tessier questioned in public, respectfully but forcefully, a decision they had made.

“Ever since, each time I spoke up I got retaliated against,” Tessier says, referring to the Fire Station Chief, the Deputy Chief and some of her co-workers. “Once you speak up about something that happened to you, you get attacked through malicious gossip, or through lies and exaggerations.”

When she went to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission because she felt harassed and unjustly passed over for a career position, it dismissed her case.

It did so after sitting on the investigation for five years and doing mostly nothing. Seven different officers were assigned to her case over that time.

Not one to ever give up, Tessier appealed that dismissal. She wants a Board of Inquiry and public hearings.

In February of this year the Nova Scotia Supreme Court agreed with her. The Court ordered a new investigation. The Commission should have interviewed two key witnesses, the judge said.

And last month, in an unusual move, the Supreme Court awards $10,000 to Tessier, with the lump sum payment to be shared between HRM and the Human Rights Commission. In its judgment the Court chastises the Commission for taking way too long and failing to exercise due diligence.

But, although somewhat vindicated, after that long ordeal, Tessier still finds herself where she started off seven years ago.

Tessier has learned some hard lessons over the last ten years. It all came down to being a woman trying to establish her own space in a traditionally male-dominated workplace, she believes.

“Women in very male-dominated professions like fire fighting, or working off shore, or plumbing or carpentry or welding, we get abused quite a bit all the time. In subtle ways and not so subtle ways,” she says.

“I grew up thinking we are equal, women could be whatever they wanted, take the job they wanted. It's a big lie, as far as I am concerned,” she says. “ We are not equal. It's not a level playing field.”

For Tessier there is no doubt that the boys' club still reigns supreme in most Nova Scotia workplaces.

“It is terrifying to speak up, there is a stigma attached to speaking up,” she says. “You're seen as crazy, nuts, making too much out of it, too sensitive, too weak, an you still have to suck it up and put up with the bullshit. You sort of blame yourself. But it is not your fault.”

Miserable, but unwilling to give up, she looked for support, but mostly to no avail.

Female co-workers would often sympathize, but be unwilling to speak up.

“The women I worked with didn't want to speak out, they were all afraid, says Tessier. “Even the women who had been abused in the workplace. Even women who had witnessed the harassment didn't want to speak out.”

And outside help was also hard to find. Grassroots feminist organizations were focused on things like domestic violence, education, housing or poverty. Tessier's category just didn't seem to fit, she says, and she would never hear back from them.

Blue collar working women face tremendous sexism, but receive little attention, Tessier believes.

“I am very glad that the whole idea of rape culture, and what is happening to white collar women is getting to be known. Reporters speaking out about the misogyny that they are up against, academics, women in IT, women in politics, of course I am glad that they are beginning to be heard,” she says.

Even finding a lawyer to help with the appeal proved difficult. Judicial reviews don't win, she was told, especially gender-related ones.

“Nobody quite believed me that the Commission had badly botched my case,” Tessier remembers. “It sounded like sour grapes. Nobody wanted to take the time to go through the mountains of documentation.”

But eventually she found her lawyer. And she won her appeal.

Which puts her back right where she started seven years ago. A second investigation will be launched by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to determine whether the case should go to a public inquiry.

No longer with the Fire Department, she is now working with a new lawyer and the Commission to ensure that her complaint reflects the issue of gender-based discrimination she believes lies at its root.

“There still are these very male-dominated jobs out there that women are trying to enter. We really need help. We have been working in these jobs since the sixties yet there is no place for us, there are no initiatives to help us out,” she says. “The workplace just expects you to conform.”

“Once you start getting abused at these workplaces you sort of blame yourself. But it is not your fault. It is still the dynamics of the boys' club.”

Liane Tessier would be very grateful for your help and support as she continues to speak out about the issue of gender-based discrimination in male-dominated workplaces. Contact her through her excellent blog Disappointing the Boys' Club

See also: Why women don't speak out. By Liane Tessier 

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert


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