Class action lawsuit alleges systemic discrimination of female firefighters in Leduc

An Alberta firefighter, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against female employees, says she expected a ‘boys club’ culture when she entered the male-dominated profession — but what she experienced was far worse than what she imagined.

Christa Steele is one of two named plaintiffs in a new class-action lawsuit filed against the City of Leduc Fire Services for allegations of systemic discrimination and harassment against female firefighters.

“What I wasn’t prepared for was the almost immediate sexual assault, sexual harassment,” she said.

Steele has been working as a firefighter EMT in her hometown of Leduc for 19 years, and says it’s her love of the job that made it difficult to come forward, saying she “was willing to push this down as far as I could to keep that.”

Steele says inappropriate sexual remarks, groping and even her male colleagues exposing their genitals to her began almost immediately when she took the job, and a culture of silence kept her from feeling comfortable speaking up. But a recent incident involving an unnamed male colleague pushed her to explore legal action.

The second plaintiff, Mindy Smith, claims in documents that she also faced harassment and assault from the same man asking for a replacement uniform belt. Smith says he blocked the exit of a supply room and sexually assaulted her.

An investigation into his actions led to his termination says the statement of claim, but he continued to attend fire service events despite being banned. And comments made by leadership within the Leduc Fire Department made Steele feel unsafe at work.

“Within the department, myself and other complainants were being told that we railroaded him, we targeted this individual, that we are lying. It really makes you feel like this is never going to end, it makes you feel useless,” explained Steele.

The statement of claim was filed on February 24. Robert Martz, a partner at Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer, is representing the plaintiffs.

“Female firefighters weren’t valued in the same way as male firefighters,” he said.

“Over a period of about 20 years, there has been systemic discrimination, harassment, abuse of female firefighters that wasn’t properly dealt with at all by the fire department or the city.”

Leduc City Manager Derek Prohar told CityNews in a statement, the City “has been made aware of serious allegations. As the matter is under investigation and now before the Courts, the City is unable to comment.”

The latest data from Statistics Canada show that less than 5 per cent of firefighters in Canada are women, although there has been an effort globally to diversity the industry.

Steele says while she has noticed Leduc making an effort to hire more women, she believes addressing systemic culture takes more than putting up posters decrying groping or sharing an image with the hashtag #BreakTheBias on international women’s day.

“They do all the things, but they don’t punish their friends for touching people, there are no consequences.”

Steele stresses she is speaking up to encourage safer workplaces free of sexual harassment, not wanting her story to discourage young women from pursuing a job as a firefighter or first responder.

“They just have to be armed that these things do happen, but they shouldn’t.” says Steele, “We shouldn’t allow it just because we say, ‘Oh, it’s an old boys club. That shouldn’t be okay.”

Steele is still an employee with the fire department but is not currently working. She is unsure if she’ll ever work as a firefighter again despite it being her passion.

“I would retire doing this job if my hand wasn’t forced,” she said. “We need our workplaces to be like a second home and we need to feel safe going to these places … I could have put my head down, kept my nose clean and gone into survival mode … but I need for women and men to know that abuse isn’t acceptable and sanctuary trauma isn’t acceptable.”

Both plaintiffs allege their mental health and careers have been severely harmed because of the discrimination, harassment, and abuse.

“Other female employees of the fire department remain unwilling to come forward due to fear of retaliation, but have experienced similar incidents of discrimination, harassment and assaults,” says the lawsuit.

It further states a recently completed third-party investigation into the allegations substantiated claims made by Steele and Smith, which prompted them to move forward with legal action.

The suit claims the City of Leduc and the fire department were negligent in providing a safe workplace and breached their protected rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The women are seeking punitive and compensatory damages.

The class-action lawsuit has not yet been certified, and all allegations have yet to be proven in court.

-With files from the Canadian Press

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