Nova Scotia human rights complaint alleging discrimination by Halifax fire dismissed

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

A Nova Scotia human rights inquiry has dismissed claims by a former Halifax firefighter that she was discriminated against because of her gender and retaliated against because of previous human rights and workplace complaints.

In a written decision, inquiry board chair Dennis James says there is no evidence of any discrimination or retaliation against Kathleen Symington between May 19, 2015 and May 19, 2016.

That period runs up to the date of Symington’s complaint, which came roughly a year after she informed Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency she was refusing an accommodated position as a storeperson.

She also submitted a medical opinion that she was unable to work in any capacity with the fire service or the municipality.

READ MORE: Complainant’s side concludes testimony in Human Rights complaint against HRM Fire

Symington, who hadn’t been to work since 2011, subsequently retired from the fire service on Aug. 1, 2016.

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James says in the 12 months proceeding the 2016 complaint, there was no evidence of gender discrimination and he is convinced there was a “fully engaged effort” to have Symington return to work.

Further, he said there was no evidence to suggest anyone involved in the effort to find Symington a position to accommodate her physical disabilities – following neck fusion surgery related to a 2004 motor vehicle accident – was motivated by her previous complaints from 2004.

“There was nothing in the documentary evidence that showed anything other than Halifax Fire trying to bring Ms. Symington back to work within the department. She did not suffer any adverse treatment due to gender.”

Human rights inquiry looks into allegations of discrimination by former Halifax firefighter
Human rights inquiry looks into allegations of discrimination by former Halifax firefighter

James points out there was a hiring freeze put in place by Halifax Regional Council in 2014 that led to delays in solidifying the stores position and offering it to Symington.

“Although there are points of concern in the management of the matter, they are not sufficient to support a finding that Halifax Fire failed in its obligation to accommodate Ms. Symington,” he said.

“It is concerning that council would institute a hiring freeze without clear policy guidelines that provided direction on issues as fundamental as accommodation.”

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In the decision, James also dismisses claims by Symington’s lawyers that two disciplinary letters played a role in the alleged retaliation efforts against her during the accommodation process.

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He notes the letters weren’t supposed to be in her personnel file as per a 2008 settlement regarding Symington’s 2004 complaints, but remained there as late as this spring. Despite that, James said there was no evidence to suggest anyone was motivated by the 2004 complaints.

“The mere presence of the letters remaining in the file … was the entire foundation of a hyper-exaggerated allegation of retaliation,” James wrote.

READ MORE: Halifax fire chief issues apology for systemic gender discrimination

Brendan Elliott, a spokesperson for the municipality, welcomed the decision and said the findings “were appropriate based on the evidence presented.”

“We acknowledge that women are underrepresented in [Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency] HRFE and we are examining our hiring practices with a view toward enhancing our equity-based approach,” said Elliott, stressing that the fire department has recently promoted two women to senior ranks.

“We should note that the allegations brought forward in this Human Rights complaint were historical in nature and we are constantly working to make the fire service welcoming and inclusive for everyone,” he said.

Symington’s case has been supported by former Halifax firefighter Liane Tessier, who received a public apology and settlement in December, 2018, after a 12-year battle over systemic gender discrimination in the city’s fire department.

Symington’s 2004 human rights and workplace complaints were not reviewed by the human rights inquiry as agreed to in a pre-hearing meeting.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2019. With files from Alexander Quon, Global News

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