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Township and CAO liable for sexist allegations and gender-based discrimination against female fire captain

May 9, 2023

Co-Author: Tino Perruzza

Sexual and gender-based harassment and discrimination continue to be a challenge in male dominated workplaces like the fire service.  And for Dundalk fire department captain Melanie McGraw, a flawed investigation by the Township’s CAO made it worse.

McGraw was awarded more than $170,000 by an Ontario court that found she was fired based on unfounded, sexist allegations and gender-based discrimination that infused a flawed investigation by Township of Southgate’s CAO.[1]

McGraw was a female administrative assistant and volunteer fire captain with the Dundalk fire department which the Township operated, and a part-time instructor with the Ontario Fire College. With 10 years on the job, she was a strong performer and was on track to become the deputy fire chief.

Despite her strong performance, her firing was sparked by unfounded, malicious and sexist rumours about alleged misconduct. A deeply flawed investigation by the Township’s CAO found that McGraw:

  • engaged in inappropriate behaviour
  • sent other firefighters naked or inappropriate photos of herself
  • caused firefighters to leave the fire department
  • caused morale problems within the fire department
  • gave passing grades to students at the fire college who had sex with her
  • had intimate relationships with members of the fire department
  • tarnished the reputation of the fire department, and
  • caused high turnover in the fire department

McGraw sued the CAO and Township after she was terminated without cause in 2019.

At the time, she was the only female captain and woman in a position of authority in the fire department.

The investigation was flawed

The court held that the CAO’s investigation suffered from over-reliance on unspecified and uninvestigated gossip and demonstrated gender-based discrimination. McGraw was never interviewed so had no opportunity to defend herself or provide her version of events. The CAO also never saw the inappropriate photos allegedly circulated by McGraw, nor had anyone else he spoke to before firing her. The CAO also admitted to fabricating the allegation that McGraw exchanged passing grades for sex with students at the Fire College.

The court ruled that the CAO relied extensively on false and dated second-hand information and gossip to justify firing McGraw. Calling the Township and CAO’s conduct “discriminatory and reprehensible,” on top of six months reasonable notice, the Township and CAO were held liable for $170,000 in damages.

$75,000 moral damages

An employer can be liable for moral damages when it acts unfairly or in bad faith during an employee’s dismissal by being untruthful, misleading or unduly insensitive.

The court found that the Township and CAO were exceptionally unfair in the way they dismissed McGraw. She was fired because of unfounded and sexist allegations that were never proven true, without having a chance to respond. The CAO conducted an “amateurish” investigation, treated gossip like fact, and assumed the worst of McGraw.

The court said the CAO failed to recognize that McGraw endured gender-based discrimination. She was the target of allegations made in a male-dominated environment, which neither the CAO nor council considered in deciding whether she engaged in the alleged misconduct.

McGraw was awarded $75,000 in moral damages for her losses arising from the way she was terminated, and the resulting embarrassment and humiliation.

$35,000 damages under the Ontario Human Rights Code

Ontario’s Human Rights Code says that every person has a right to be treated equally in their employment and without discrimination because of their sex. Ruling that McGraw was marginalized in a toxic workplace that was male-dominated and was fired because of sexist allegations that were never proven, the court awarded $35,000 for damages for gender-based discrimination and noted it would have awarded more if not for the moral damages.

$60,000 punitive damages

Punitive damages punish a party for reprehensible conduct that is “a marked departure from the ordinary standards of decent behaviour.”  

The court said that male-dominated workplaces must strive to avoid gender-based discrimination. Yet the Township and CAO failed to recognize that a woman in a position of authority was a potential target for sexist allegations and malicious rumours.

The court held that the CAO also engaged in conduct deserving of punitive damages, including fabricating the “sex for grades” allegation and exaggerating concerns about the inappropriate photos, the reputation of the fire department, and high turnover. McGraw was awarded $60,000 in punitive damages.

Transforming a culture

McGraw’s experience highlights the unfortunate reality of gender-based discrimination in some male-dominated workplaces like fire departments, and it signals the need for employers to create diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces.

Society is changing. So too are societal norms and tolerance for harassment and discrimination. To reflect these changes, the culture in fire needs to adapt.

While things have improved, sexual and other forms of harassment remain a persistent problem in the fire service due, in part, to an overarching culture where:

  • stereotypical gender norms are enforced
  • sexual comments, innuendoes, gestures and “jokes” are normalized
  • mobbing (i.e., group bullying) and gender-based harassment are misunderstood and seen as an expected part of the culture
  • rumours and gossip are common
  • the chain of command acts as a barrier to change
  • a culture of silence prevents people from coming forward

Harassment is more likely in workplaces lacking in diversity, and sexual harassment is more common in male dominated workplaces.

Women in fire may be disadvantaged through stereotypes and biases. They are more likely to be accepted if they participate in the existing culture rather than challenge it. And women in fire leadership or who don’t conform to workplace norms (e.g., nicknames, teasing and pranks) may experience crude names, exclusion and harassment.

Shifting hypermasculine cultures like the fire service to one flanked by diversity, equity and inclusion requires sound process and policies, removing systemic barriers and raising awareness, not just of discrimination and harassment, but also of the behaviours that lead to it like microaggressions and incivility. Empowering leaders and fire service members with the knowledge and skills to change behaviour is a fundamental part of the respectful workplace toolbox that helps transform a culture.

Note: A version of this blog post was previously published in the Summer 2022 OMHRA ECHO Newsletter

[1] McGraw v Southgate (Township), 2021 ONSC 7000 (CanLII).