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Former Halifax firefighter concludes testimony at human rights inquiry

Kathleen Symington has filed a human rights complaint against Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services.
Kathleen Symington has filed a human rights complaint against Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services. Alicia Draus / Global News

A former firefighter who filed a human rights complaint against Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services finished her testimony at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission’s Board of Inquiry on Thursday.

Kathleen Symington has alleged that the fire service discriminated against her based on her gender and disability.

While on leave between 2004 and 2007, Symington received two suspension letters. She claims one was because she filed a sexual harassment complaint against a captain.

The complaint was found to be unsubstantiated, and the letter stated she was being suspended for three days for spreading lies. A second letter she received says she was being suspended for not answering phone calls or emails while on leave.

Symington went on leave again in 2011 and sought accommodations in 2013 to come back to work.

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A functional evaluation in 2012 revealed that she could work up to 12 hours a day in a “medium” job. She says this meant she could no longer be a firefighter but that she wished to stay within the service.

Symington says the accommodations process spanned two years. She claims that despite originally being assured the service would find her a position, she was told nothing was available in the fire service. She says the suspension letters were still on her file and she believes she was being pushed out of the service.

In her testimony on Thursday, she called the process frustrating and unnecessarily complicated.

Symington told the board that in 2012, a psychologist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder from harassment on the job. Symington says the accommodation process added to that and that she suffered from severe financial and mental stress, which took a toll on her mental health.

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According to Symington, her long-term disability (LTD) coverage was cut off around December 2014. She called her provider, Great-West Life, to find out why. She says she was told the company had received word from the fire service that she was being unco-operative in the accommodations process.

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Symington says her LTD was unfairly cut off and that she did not receive the appropriate notice beforehand. She filed a lawsuit against Great-West Life in January 2015. In August, the two parties reached a settlement, and Symington received a lump sum, though there was no admission of liability from Great-West Life.

After two years of going through the accommodations process, Symington says she was finally offered a job in stores within the fire service in 2015, but the position paid 80 per cent of what she made as a firefighter.

At that point, she received a note from her doctor stating that because of her PTSD and chronic pain she experienced as a result of a car crash, Symington would be unable to work.

She provided the note to the municipality. In May 2015, the municipality said that based on the medical assessment, it appeared she was no longer able to work and so they were “concluding the accommodations process.”

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Symington says she officially retired from the municipality in August 2015. She transferred her pension to the bank and didn’t start receiving payments until January 2019.

Symington says she had loved her job and was a hard worker.

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She had plans to one day be captain but she claims everything was taken away from her because she filed a sexual harassment complaint that she believes was mishandled.

Symington says her letters of suspension should never have stayed on her file and she points to them as the reason she was not given a job in a suitable timeframe through the accommodations process.

Upon completion of Symington’s testimony, the municipality was given the opportunity to cross-examine her.

Lawyer Karen MacDonald represented the municipality and asked questions around LTD rules and efforts made by both Symington and the municipality to find accommodation.

MacDonald started out her questioning by asking if, prior to 2011, the fire service accommodated her. Symington said they had made accommodations for her before she took leave for surgery.

MacDonald then went back to address one of the suspension letters Symington received while on leave between 2004 and 2007. MacDonald asked if Symington remembered receiving an email from municipal staff about rules regarding repaying a portion of her benefits while on leave. MacDonald says the email had asked Symington to respond to ensure she received it.

Symington says that at this point, she had an infant keeping her busy and could not say exactly when she saw the email.

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A followup email suggests Symington was not responding, and a letter was sent to her after informing her she could face disciplinary action if she did not keep in contact with the municipality while on leave.

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But for most of the cross-examination, MacDonald focused on what happened between 2011, when Symington took leave following surgery, and 2013 when Symington says she was seeking accommodations to go back to work.

MacDonald posed questions about Symington’s understanding of LTD rules and how they changed after two years of leave.

Symington told the board she was “not really sure” what she was required to provide in order for her LTD to continue after the two-year period. She called the entire process “confusing.”

MacDonald also questioned Symington about a 2014 progress report by a municipal worker which stated that “(Halifax Regional Municipality) would like to work with (Symington)” about her accommodation but were unable to do that until getting more information about her functionality.

The note also includes a reference to a course that Great-West Life had arranged for Symington to take at Dalhousie University.

MacDonald asked if she ever took the course, with Symington responding that it was a computer course and would be too strenuous on her neck and hands.

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MacDonald questioned whether Symington understood that that is why Great-West Life stopped her benefits.

Symington said she appealed the decision to have her benefits cancelled and had a doctor’s note that explained how her symptoms prevented her from taking the course.

Cross-examination will continue on Friday and is expected to wrap up by the afternoon when Symington’s lawyer will be calling a second witness, a friend of Symington’s who was present at a number of the meetings discussed in the inquiry.

The municipality has declined to comment on Symington’s claims while the complaint is before the human rights board.

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