The high-profile case of a female Toronto police officer alleging workplace sexual harrassment is now in limbo, after the final hearing dates have been abruptly cancelled in the homestretch of the much-delayed process.
Five years after Const. Heather McWilliam filed a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, McWilliam was told Monday that the adjudicator will no longer be available to hear the remainder of the case — a blow that could mean 34 days’ worth of evidence will be tossed, and the hearing restarted.
The development comes two weeks before Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner was scheduled to testify at the hearing, which involves allegations of years of sexual harassment and humiliation by supervising officers at 23 Division, the north Etobicoke detachment headed by Taverner.
Taverner was expected to be among the final witnesses called — if not the last — before closing arguments, which would wrap up a hearing that began in October 2016. The tribunal has heard from 32 witnesses.
Calling the latest development “outrageous,” McWilliam’s lawyer, Kate Hughes, said the tribunal may have to restart the entire hearing with a new adjudicator, in part because the hearing has not been fully transcribed. All the while, McWilliam — “a bright, promising officer” who is off on sick leave after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — has put her life on hold since filing her complaint in 2014.
Becky Fong, a spokesperson for the tribunal, said she could not comment on the future of the case, including whether the hearing will have to restart or if there is another scenario. The parties will be contacted to schedule a “case management conference call in order for the Tribunal to hear from the parties to determine the next steps,” she said.
“Once the Tribunal has had the opportunity to hear from the parties, issues including evidence, witness testimony and submissions can be addressed,” Fong said.
Taverner is a close family friend of Premier Doug Ford, whose controversial appointment as head of the Ontario Provincial Police is now being probed by the provincial integrity commissioner. He is not named in McWilliam’s complaint, but the tribunal has previously heard allegations Taverner attempted to dissuade her from making a formal complaint against a supervisor who made sexually suggestive comments.
In Hughes’s opening address in the case, she alleged Taverner suggested McWilliam needed tougher skin, and pointed to a poster in his office that said: “loose lips sink ships.”
None of the evidence has been proven at the tribunal. Taverner did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday and a lawyer and a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Services Board — a respondent in the case — declined to comment.
The development comes as the tribunal is facing a shortage of the vice-chairs who are tapped to adjudicate the quasi-judicial hearings. In a notice posted on its website, the tribunal warns of service delays as it “continues to work with the government to improve its services,” and it states that “recruitment is under way to fill adjudicator vacancies.”
The shortage in adjudicators coincides with an increasing number of human rights complaints, including from a small but growing group of policewomen alleging harassment and discrimination on the job, and who face a lengthy, expensive and professionally risky process as a result.
McWilliam claims she was for years subjected to a pattern of sexual harassment and humiliation by her supervising officers — including hearing sexual or sexist comments on a daily basis — and is alleging a systemic problem with the way women are treated within the service.
After her case was publicized, Hughes said she “was flooded by calls from other policewomen” sharing similar experiences of on-the-job harassment, but expressing a fear of coming forward. Since McWilliam filed her claim, two other female Toronto police officers have filed complaints with the human rights tribunal. Sgt. Jessica McInnis and Const. Firouzeh “Effy” Zarabi-Majd each allege discrimination within a workplace that is “poisonous” for women.
“Making a public complaint is career suicide for a woman in policing,” Hughes said. “And with a dysfunctional human rights tribunal in Ontario nothing is going to change.”
In a statement Tuesday, McWilliam said the recent setbacks in her case “only empower us to continue to stand up for our rights and the truth about the culture in policing, and also give others further insight to the challenges we face.”
McWilliam’s case first hit a significant snag last August, when Hughes said they were informed by letter that the case would have to start over because the adjudicator was leaving for another job.
McWilliam’s lawyers then brought motions to the tribunal to have that adjudicator brought back to complete the hearing, as it was in its final stages. A plan was then made to allow the adjudicator to leave her new job for a brief period and resume McWilliam’s hearing in March and April. Those dates were scheduled for the remaining evidence, including Taverner’s testimony on March 19.
Then came word last month that the spring hearing dates were off, “without explanation,” said Hughes.
Notification this week that the adjudicator cannot be brought back — again with no explanation, according to Hughes — has meant the efforts made within the last nine months have been fruitless.
Tyler Boggs, Hughes’ co-counsel, said that five years after she started this process, McWilliam is “medically and financially worse off for having spoken up.” He says her ordeal will have a “chilling effect” on women bringing forward sexual harassment claims in the workplace.
“Her spirit is strong, but what she’s been through will undoubtedly be looked at by other women as a cautionary tale,” Boggs said.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis