A group of current and former officers alleging systemic sexism in a southern Ontario police force is asking the province’s top court to allow them to pursue a proposed class-action lawsuit. (Black Press Media file photo)

Officers alleging systemic sexism take case to Ontario’s top court

The police service has denied the unproven claims

A group of current and former officers alleging systemic sexism in a southern Ontario police force is asking the province’s top court to allow them to pursue a proposed class-action lawsuit.

The collection of primarily female officers saw their bid to launch a suit against the Waterloo Regional Police Service and its union quashed by a lower court last year after a judge ruled the issues raised were best addressed by a human rights tribunal or a labour arbitrator — a position the officers hope Ontario’s Court of Appeal will reconsider.

The officers allege decades of sexual harassment, bullying, gender-based discrimination and active assaults against female cops with the Waterloo force.

The police service has denied the unproven claims and is asking the Appeal Court to uphold the lower court ruling.

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Two female officers and a retired male superintendent first sought to have the suit certified in 2017, and at least three other past or present female officers have since joined the effort.

In documents filed with the Appeal Court ahead of a hearing taking place Tuesday, the officers allege the lower court judge, Justice Deena Baltman, erred by ruling that the matter could not be handled by a civil court.

“The appeal calls on this court to resolve for the first time the well-recognized benefits of class actions in improving access to justice with traditional judicial deference to labour arbitrations,” their factum reads. “The ‘system’ to which the motions judge has comprehensively if reluctantly deferred has provided no remedy to women.”

The $165-million proposed class action was launched on behalf of all past and present female members of the Waterloo force and their families.

An unproven statement of claim filed at the time alleged female staff were subjected to unwanted sexual advances, career sabotage and personal attacks during their time on the force.

The suit named the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board and Waterloo Regional Police Association as defendants. The force said it viewed the suit as “inappropriate” and vowed to challenge it.

Court documents name the original plaintiffs as Angelina Rivers, Sharon Zehr and Barry Zehr, whose allegations of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment spanned from 1988 to the present.

In addition to claims of systemic issues, Rivers and Sharon Zehr also levelled specific allegations. Those included allegedly being driven to remote areas and asked to perform oral sex, having equipment removed from their police vehicles, lewd text messages in the middle of the night, and being dragged into a men’s change room by male colleagues.

The plaintiffs also alleged they were “isolated, disregarded and warned of repercussions to their career” when they complained to superiors.

Baltman found the Superior Court had no jurisdiction in the matter and said the claims should be adjudicated either at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario or before a labour arbitrator.

“The defendants should not regard this result as a vindication of current practices,” she wrote in her ruling.

“Even on the limited and contradictory evidence before me, it is apparent that this case raises serious, triable issues relating to workplace culture. The allegations are very troubling and will require close scrutiny should this matter proceed to another forum for adjudication.”

The officers’ argument to the appeal court said Baltman took too narrow a view of the jurisdictional issue while failing to consider the fundamental questions underpinning the suit.

“This case presents a dynamic tension between the theoretical benefits of a tribunal or arbitration … such as informal resolution of charter rights in a prompt and inexpensive manner, and the reality for female police officers in Canada,” their factum reads. “Labour arbitrations have proven themselves ineffective, not just for these female police officers, but for female police officers across Canada.”

The police force and its union argue Baltman made the correct ruling.

Their lawyers argue that the plaintiffs did not cite a specific law that violated their charter rights, a failure they said should automatically render the case beyond the scope of civil court.

They also argue that granting permission for the suit to proceed could prove disruptive on a national scale.

“The appellants seek a significant shift in the legal landscape governing dispute resolution in labour relations which, if granted, would have an impact on labour relations in unionized workplaces across Canada,” their factum reads.

“The appellant’s legal position, if accepted, would undermine the legislature’s policy choices in establishing distinct labour relations regimes, outside the civil court, in an effort to foster expediency, efficiency and predictability for dispute resolution in unionized workplaces.”

Michelle McQuigge , The Canadian Press

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