#MeToo: Workplace Sexual Violence and Bureaucracy in Canada’s Public Service
Managers in Canada’s federal public service are woefully ill-equipped to support victims and survivors of workplace sexual assault and harassment.
[Content Note: Sexual violence, PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation]
I’m a public servant for the Government of Canada, and a victim and survivor of workplace sexual violence and harassment. In December 2014, shortly after I finished my undergrad, I started a short term contract at Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) doing clerical work. After a brief assignment in administration at the Department of Justice Canada from June 2016 to March 2017, I now work for the Immigration and Refugee of Canada (IRB).
On Saturday, February 7, 2015, a colleague from IRCC raped me in the backseat of his car around the corner from my house after work. To this day, nearly 3 years after the inciting violence, I struggle to fight for my right to a violence-free work environment. My managers have consistently failed to support me as a survivor of workplace-related sexual assault, repeatedly re-traumatizing me by forcing me to navigate multiple, convoluted bureaucratic processes by myself.
Between a sexual harassment complaint, two related grievances, another unresolved grievance over being underpaid for 8 months, and a worker’s compensation claim related to the stress from all of the above, I am beyond overwhelmed. The heavy emotional burden of my trauma has only been compounded over the years as these processes drag out, and has inhibited my ability to psychologically function in my day-to-day life.
Sexual Assault and Internal Harassment Complaint
When I reported that my colleague raped me, my managers called the police. He was charged with one count of sexual assault, resulting in court proceedings that lasted for 6 months. His bail restrictions prevented him from having any contact with me whatsoever, so my managers reassigned me to the day shift on a different floor in the office, away from him.
As my rapist was a first-time offender, the Crown prosecutor determined that there wouldn’t be a reasonable prospect in his conviction. In September 2015, after he voluntarily completed a diversionary course on sexually-transmitted infections, the charges against him were withdrawn.
Without legal obligation to follow, my managers then thought it was okay to relocate my workstation downstairs, to within 100 feet of my rapist’s desk. I made it clear to them multiple times that this would negatively affect my mental health.
Seeing the man who physically and psychologically violated me everyday was traumatic, a mere glimpse of him launching my mind back in time to the assault. Over and over, I’d hear myself telling him no 3 times, his chuckle, “you’re so scared,” then his panting, hot and heavy in my left ear, the weight of his body suffocating me — or had I just stopped breathing?
Desperate to not be in a position where I had to re-live this on a daily basis, I told my manager about the last time I saw my rapist in the office: I’d been eating lunch in the upstairs kitchen with a group of coworkers when he walked in. Within a split second, my vision blacked out around the edges, my mind looping that moment, muscles tense, heart racing, and hyperventilating as I hurriedly packed up my things.
Without a word to my friends, I headed straight for the washroom where I purged the contents of my stomach between panicked sobs. I tried to ground myself, focus on my breath, something, anything to pull my mind out of hell, but even air was triggering my gag reflex.
After I’d collected myself enough to find better shelter, I made sure the hallways were empty when I exited the washroom. I frantically hit the down button over and over to call an elevator, a fresh wave of panic and nausea hitting me when I realized he could walk into the hall at any moment. He didn’t.
Once I got to the underground parking garage, I locked myself in my car for an hour until my flashbacks and panic subsided. I re-applied my concealer, took a deep breath, and headed back up to my desk to make sure I processed enough files to meet my quota for the day.
None of this mattered. To a couple of middle managers in the public service, an employee raping and traumatizing a coworker was simply an “interpersonal conflict” and not their responsibility to deal with. After all, he had done it in his car as he drove her home from work, and not in the workplace itself — why would it be any of their concern?
Both my social worker and union rep advocated against moving my workstation in closer proximity to my rapist, but my managers just wouldn’t listen. They told me that they were “satisfied” that my desk was far enough away from him, as if they could objectively appraise what kind of hell they were sentencing me to. My desk was on the other side of the office from him and right next to my manager. They reassured me that they would never make us work on the same team. They told me that I would be fine.
I wasn’t. My new base emotional state was heightened, constantly anxious, knowing my assailant was just down the hall. From 7:30AM to 3:30PM, Monday to Friday, I lived in a world where I was just one wrong step away from having to relive being raped.
Constantly being reminded of and having to relive violence extremely damaged my mental health and emotional wellbeing. Not only did my managers legally violate my right to a harassment-free work environment, but this was outright inhumane and cruel. They had the power to remove me from this environment, but they didn’t. Instead, they chose to hold my head down as I drowned in my trauma every day.
I mean, by that point, I was acclimating to the notion of being less than human. My voice and humanity hadn’t mattered to my rapist either — why would my managers treat me any differently, right?
To make matters worse, my rapist was on the office Occupational Health and Safety Committee and a shop steward for the union, actually making him responsible for protecting my rights in the workplace. The irony would have been hilarious if I wasn’t living in a perpetual nightmare.
My managers clearly valued bureaucracy and paperwork over a human life, so engaging with the policies they so deeply respected was my only lifeline. I formally requested workplace accommodation for my disability, holding my managers legally accountable under the Canada Human Rights Code. I submitted letters from my doctor and social worker, who both advocated for my being transferred out of that office entirely, as being around my rapist was violently damaging my health.
With a formal legal obligation to abide by, my managers reluctantly began looking for another office with a vacancy I could fill. I endured this personal hell for 6 weeks before I was finally transferred out of the office. 3 weeks later, my managers called me to threaten disciplinary action if I were to discuss my sexual assault with anyone but them. They warned me that I could be seen as “violating” my rapist’s privacy.
Pissed off and entirely fed up with their bullshit, I filed a formal harassment complaint internally through IRCC against my rapist, manager, and director.
The department took nearly 2 years to finalize the complaint, despite a public service-wide standard of resolving the process within 12 months. IRCC hired an independent consulting firm to conduct a formal administrative investigation into my complaint, which took place over the summer of 2016. A lawyer from the firm interviewed me in-person for about 4 hours, and collected pieces of documentation I’d gathered from an information request I made under the Privacy Act.
The firm compiled the evidence into a series of Preliminary Reports, and delivered them to IRCC near the end of 2016. The department distributed the reports to the parties for comment in mid-March 2017 — I wrote about 9,000 words in response. Near the end of the following May, the investigator sent the Final Reports to IRCC.
After months of follow-up, it wasn’t until November 2017 that IRCC distributed the Final Reports and their written decision on the findings. The independent investigator had concluded that my rapist harassed me. It wasn’t because he raped me — they refused to investigate the assault as it occurred outside of the workplace — but while I was reporting him to my managers, he and my ex-best friend/co-worker were retweeting each other’s tweets calling me a “false victim” and “crazy bitch.”
The report also concluded that my manager and director had harassed me by minimizing my disclosure about PTSD, and being reluctant towards accommodating my disability. In one of the most horrifying and telling pieces of evidence that I’d come across, my director actually likened a coworker raping me to being divorced.
A regional manager from IRCC was responsible for taking action on the findings in the Final Report. In his written decision, he accepted the findings about my rapist. He indicated that corrective measures would be taken — what those corrective measures were, I still don’t know. The regional manager felt so compelled to comment, “I must state that the use of Twitter by those involved was ill-advised and the messages, including those posted by you, were inappropriate.”
To add further insult, he disagreed with the investigator that my manager and director harassed me, citing that I was “ultimately accommodated” and therefore the harassment policy did not apply to my situation. As such, he refused to take corrective action against them, but admitted they could’ve been “more sensitive to my circumstances.”
Once again, IRCC continued to deny me justice, and gravely minimized the psychological damage they’d inflicted on me. Yet another manager completely failed to value my humanity and dignity.
Since I had to exhaust every single bureaucratic method of recourse before the Canada Human Rights Commission (another years-long process) would hear my complaint, I filed a union grievance against IRCC. Despite IRCC’s inhumane management team having literally started it, their HR advisors refused to accept my grievance since I’m no longer their employee. Instead, they told me to file it with my current supervisor at the IRB, who accepted it and ultimately denied it, since it wasn’t the IRB’s problem either.
This grievance went to the next level, to the HR advisors at the IRB, who also denied it because they “lacked the authority” to investigate. One Google search and sifting through public service policies confirmed that although government departments operate as separate entities, the “employer” is the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada.
Denying my grievance without allowing me a hearing directly violated our collective agreement, and so I had to file another grievance, bringing my total number of grievances up to 3.
That Time IRCC Underpaid Me for 8 Months
While they dragged out resolving my harassment complaint, IRCC made an administrative error in my pay file, resulting in my missing $150–300 on every paycheque from October 2016 to June 2017. The IRB rectified the situation to the best of their ability, but by then, the damage to my finances was already done.
Not only did IRCC further re-trigger my PTSD, but their failure to pay me properly (Isn’t that the basic concept of having a job???) also resulted in my accumulating more debt, putting me in a grave financial situation.
Being treated as less than human by my managers for 3 years has taken an extreme toll on my mental health, and has affected my ability to cope with regular life stress.
Last fall, my mom had a stem cell transplant to treat her blood cancer and from which she’s still recovering. In September, I’d just pulled myself out of an emotionally abusive sexual relationship with my best friend who’d sexually assaulted me, and also ended an 11-year romantic relationship with my high school sweetheart. The emotional stress was too much, my symptoms culminating in a psychological breakdown at the end of October 2017 where I’d become suicidal.
3 Grievances and a Worker’s Compensation Claim Later…
I’d been reluctant to file a worker’s compensation claim since I had enough paperwork to juggle and could barely manage everything as it was. The breakdown made me realize that I couldn’t work for an employer who clearly refused to understand the emotional burden of these processes —so I filled out yet another form detailing the various traumas I’ve suffered over the years.
In my personal statement, I wrote that I’d used up all my paid sick leave earlier this year, and because of my pay issues, I couldn’t afford to go on unpaid or disability leave. Essentially, I had no financial choice but to keep working.
Despite making my financial situation very known, my managers at the IRB forced me onto sick leave in mid-November 2017 anyway, another instance of management within the public service refusing to value my voice. They told me that I couldn’t return to the workplace until I’d been cleared “fit to work” by a third-party evaluator, which they hoped would happen at the end of the month.
My employer paid for me to undergo a third-party psychiatric evaluation, which didn’t happen until late December. Throughout our 1 hour appointment, the doctor I was referred to bullied and shamed me — she commented that I had “unresolved issues” and was frustrated that I had never been referred to a psychiatrist. After having me relive my trauma and explain the processes I was engaged in, she “assessed” that I had no medical reason to be off work and that I needed “psychiatric intervention.” I left the appointment re-traumatized.
A few days later, just before Christmas, my supervisor e-mailed me to tell me that management had advanced me the maximum amount of paid sick leave, effectively putting me on involuntary, unpaid leave. I looked at my overdrafted bank balance, my student loan, and outstanding credit card debt, and panicked. She told me to apply for Employment Insurance and Disability Insurance under our benefits.
At this point, paperwork has become one of my triggers.
To sum up:
- I was raped by a coworker, and made to work on the same floor as him for 6 weeks.
- My managers at IRCC refused to help me, equating my trauma from sexual violence with a bad breakup.
- Someone in HR screwed up my paperwork, resulting in my missing 20% of every paycheque for 8 months, severely damaging my finances.
- IRCC blatantly ignored the third-party investigation into the harassment complaint, and refused to hold my former managers accountable for belittling my PTSD.
- The IRB put me on involuntary, unpaid sick leave despite knowing about my stressful financial situation, and sent me to a psychiatrist that only re-traumatized me.
- The IRB has denied my grievance due process because they “lack the authority” to investigate, despite it being their responsibility to get it to those with authority.
My managers constantly and repeatedly denying me support and compassion throughout these past 3 years has effectively made the workplace even more toxic than it already was for me, and I’ve since refused to return to work.
Since first being put on leave, my mental health has further deteriorated because of my managers’ inaction. I’ve been especially re-triggered this month, and have spent most of my time dissociated, sleeping, crying, or suicidal.
Bureaucracy takes time, and I’ve been told over and over that this is just how these systems and processes work. Given the present state of my mental health however, it’s clear that I’ve nearly run out of time. At this rate, I’m not sure that I’ll survive to see the end of this trail of paperwork — but hey, due process is obviously more important than human life!