LIANE TESSIER HAS A BURNING DESIRE TO SEE JUSTICE DONE. It brought her victory in her battle against systemic sexual discrimination and workplace harassment in the Halifax fire department. But none of if came easy.
Halifax Fire Chief Ken Stuebing delivered a formal apology to Liane on behalf of the Halifax fire service and the the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission at a public news conference on Decemember 18.
The chief apologized to all female firefighters who suffered systemic gender discrimination in the city. He said he wanted to acknowledge a part of the service’s history that “we are not proud of.”
Tessier was 34 years old when she began working as a volunteer firefighter in 1998 at station 60 in Herring Cove, on the outskirts of Halifax. A few years later, she began picking up paid 24-hour shifts with the goal of becoming a professional firefighter.
She rose to captain and devoted herself to instructing new recruits and to skills competitions. She won many awards including a first place in the Canadian Scott Firefit Championships in 2006 and a third place at the World Firefighter Championships in 2007. None of it helped her at work.
Liane says she was bullied, ostracized, made the subject of ugly gossip and regularly had her equipment tampered with. She wasn’t given a new uniform when they were ordered and then disciplined for not having appropriate clothing at work.
It was “death by a thousand cuts,” she told the CBC.
A threat to ‘these guys’
“For some reason I started blaming myself. I worked harder. And the harder I worked, the more it seemed to be a threat to these guys.”
In her human rights complaint, Liane said when she reported the discrimination to her superiors, it got worse. She said she faced retaliation from colleagues, stopped getting called for shifts and was eventually denied a full-time job.
“Every woman who’s ever spoken out, who’s ever dared to tell the truth, has been destroyed,” Liane told the CBC.
“You’re attacked. You’re hated.”
She said she feared for her safety on the job. “All the time, you were watching your back.”
A long road to justice
By 2007, two years of standing up for herself and getting nowhere were enough. Liane Tessier stopped taking shifts as a firefighter. The old boys had won. They forced her to abandon her plans to make firefighting a lifelong career.
But Liane wasn’t done fighting. She filed a human rights complaint about her treatment as a firefighter. The commission took four long years to decide Liane’s complaint did not deserve any action from them. That didn’t stop Liane.
She took the commission itself to court—and won. In May 2014, the court ordered the commission to re-examine her case, starting with a public hearing.
More years passed. The commission finally scheduled the public hearing for the fall of 2017. The timing could not have been worse for the powers that be.
Just days before the hearing date the mistreatment and abuse of women became front page news around the world—the result of a barrage of very public charges from women against Hollywood big wig Harvey Weinstein. The city did not want to try and defend itself against Liane Tessier’s charges in the middle of such a charged public atmosphere. They offered Liane a settlement to avoid a public hearing.
Liane reluctantly agreed—but only when the city met her demands: in particular, her demand to be free to tell her story, her way.
Employers will have to walk their talk
Liane observes: “It’s too bad that a movie star has to start the conversation and suddenly we pay attention when ordinary women for decades have been speaking out and no one’s listening.”
“Gender-based violence is not going to stop because of this apology. But hopefully my struggle, this settlement, and this public apology, will put other employers on notice.
“They are going to have to act. They are going to have to walk their talk. I am watching, and now the public is too.”
Her battle consumed Liane Tessier for years. She’s ready ot move on. But it won’t be easy. Her fight pushed her to the brink of suicide and left her with depression and a lingering feeling of mistrust.
“You become more isolated, you stick to yourself more, you don’t trust people,” she said.
“I lost my sense of joy for things. I lost a big part of myself. I was so obsessed with justice and having my voice be heard.
Liane Tessier’s burning desire for justice brought her vindication—but at a cost few among us—man or woman—would have the courage to undertake.
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