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BC firefighters protest gendered harrassment, union inaction

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Issue: 37 Section: Canadian News Geography: West British Columbia Topics: labour, Women

May 5, 2006

BC firefighters protest gendered harrassment, union inaction

by Anna Carastathis

In Richmond, B.C. four women firefighters walked off the job in March, protesting pervasive harassment and discrimination. Firefighter Jeanette Moznik has brought the case to the B.C. supreme court, suing nine co-workers including Fire Chief Jim Hancock, the city of Richmond, and her own union, local 1286 of the IAFF, for harassment and systemic gender discrimination. Moznik alleges that between 1997 and 2001, she was repeatedly subjected to severe, and in some cases life-threatening, gendered harassment on the job by her male colleagues at Richmond's Firehall Number One, and that the Fire Chief and the union failed to intervene. In one instance, Moznik charges that male colleagues named in the suit refused to turn on the water supply to Moznik's hose as she and another female colleague were entering a burning building. Firefighter Sandra Jansen has also filed a complaint against the City of Richmond with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

Moznik and Jansen were two of six women firefighters who joined the Richmond fire department in 1995 when it amalgamated with the force at the Vancouver airport. Prior to 1995, there were no women employed by the Richmond fire department. Another woman was hired in 1998 and was, technically, the first
and only woman, hired by Richmond. There are no women currently on the job: in addition to the four who have walked out, two had quit, and one, Captain Jocelyn Roberts, committed suicide last year. Moznik alleges that Roberts' suicide is related to the working conditions facing women firefighters in the Richmond Force, which, in an affidavit filed in court on April 10, former Fire Chief Rick Papp characterized as having a "systemic problem of harassment" (quoted in the Vancouver Sun). Papp, Acting Fire Chief from 1998 to 2000, is one of the defendants named in Moznik's suit. A former captain, Karl Bessler, described the Richmond fire department to the Globe and Mail as an "old boys club" which resented the presence of women on the force.

Despite this evidence, some detractors, including former colleague Melanie Sora, quoted by the Vancouver Sun, continue to claim that this is a case of "just a handful of individuals behaving badly." But according to Moznik, not only did the employer and union not respond adequately to workers' complaints, the union "actively discouraged and attempted to thwart investigations by the RCMP in the past into allegations involving misconduct by its members" (quoted by CTV.ca). Lawyers for the union and for the City of Richmond want the case before the Supreme Court to be dismissed and the parties to consent to internal arbitration. But Moznik argues that the union, which she says failed to protect her rights in the workplace in the past, has a conflict of interest.

The City of Richmond is currently investigating the problem to determine whether the harassment faced by women firefighters is structural, or merely the result of the behaviour of a few "bad apples." In late March, after firefighters walked off the job, Fire Chief Jim Hancock promised "a new set of rules, rules that probably should have been in place earlier" to protect workers from harassment. According to CBC.ca, changes in policy include "sensitivity training," a new code of conduct, and separate women's washrooms in Richmond's firehalls.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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