Female firefighters at Leduc Fire Department allege ‘culture of abuse’ in lawsuit

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A proposed class-action lawsuit alleges that women who work at the Leduc Fire Department are subject to a “well-known” culture of sexual harassment and assault, and attempts to report misconduct are met with retaliation.

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In a statement of claim filed Feb. 24 against the City of Leduc, two female firefighters say they experienced bullying, discrimination and physical and sexual assault in the workplace, holding them back from career advancement and leaving them with PTSD.

“The fire department created a system and culture where the abuse of female firefighters was systemic, common, and tolerated and any attempts to report such abuse were suppressed through retaliation, harassment, and bullying,” the lawsuit says.

The allegations have not been proven in court, and the class action has yet to be certified by a judge. The proposed class-action members are any women who worked at the LFD since 2000.

Leduc city manager Derek Prohar said in a statement the city is aware of the serious allegations. He declined to provide further comment as the matter is under investigation and now before the courts.

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Christa Steele, one of the named plaintiffs, said in an interview Wednesday that after 19 years with the LFD, the alleged harassment was taking a toll on her health. Even though she loved her job, she found herself scared to go to work, wanting to call in sick to avoid coworkers that she said made her feel unsafe.

“Fire departments and EMS stations have never been called out — not in a big way. Military has, police has, for all these terrible behaviours,” she said.

“The public needs to know all these secrets that happen behind these bay doors.”

According to the statement of claim, Steele and Mindy Smith, another firefighter, went ahead with the lawsuit after a third-party investigation into the LFD was completed earlier this year. That report hasn’t been publicly released.

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“This boys’ club mentality that continues an abuse cycle of women is prevalent,” Steele said.

“And there are private Facebook groups that are for female firefighters and EMS, and there’s lots of stories of this kind of thing.”

Leduc Fire Department firefighter/EMT Christa Steele.
Leduc Fire Department firefighter/EMT Christa Steele. Photo by supplied

Details of the lawsuit

In the statement of claim, Steele alleges abuse at the LFD began “almost immediately” after she was hired as a firefighter and EMT in 2002. She says a male colleague exposed his genitals to her, she faced inappropriate sexual advances and groping, and a male firefighter climbed into her bed while she was sleeping in the female dorms.

“She was told on engine shifts and in yearly reviews with the captain to ‘watch your back,’ that she had a ‘target on her back,’ and to ‘watch yourself,’” the lawsuit says.

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“She understood that this was because of the harassment and assaults that she had experienced. … The threats were particularly concerning because, as a firefighter, she was involved in dangerous situations where she would have to rely on other firefighters for her safety.

One male firefighter, who was responsible for measuring female firefighters for their uniforms and radio sashes, was reportedly “well known” for harassment. He is alleged to have sexually assaulted both Steele and Smith.

Steele reported being “cornered” in the mess kitchen under the guise of getting measurements only for the man to touch her breasts and genitals, and Smith said she was backed against the wall in a supply closet and assaulted.

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The statement of claim says the man’s job was eventually terminated, and he wasn’t supposed to be allowed to attend fire department events, a ban that allegedly wasn’t enforced. When he was eventually removed from one event, the legal document describes some male firefighters saying, “the girls made it up and railroaded him.”

Other female employees, the statement of claim says, have had similar experiences, but remain too fearful to come forward. The lawsuit also describes instances of harassment and discrimination against female practicum students at the LFD.

Steele said she wants to see the city and the fire department take responsibility for what’s happened, and follow their own safe workplace policies.

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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.

“We have already determined that domestic abuse is not appropriate. So why do we allow abuse in our work?” she said. “You become beaten down and you don’t feel like you’re worth fighting for.”

Steele said she’s known she wanted to be a firefighter since she was a teenager, and she didn’t want to leave a job she felt was a calling. But she also feels she had no choice.

“I honestly would have rather continued my career and have retired as a paramedic firefighter, but this is a hand I’ve been forced to deal. And it’s not fair,” she said.

“I am giving up something that I am extremely passionate about in order to hopefully stop some abusive behavior so that other women can enjoy their jobs as much as I did.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

[email protected]

Twitter: @meksmith

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