Six years. More than $150,000 in legal fees. She stood up to sexual harassment inside Toronto police, and won — but at what cost?

The hearing ended unceremoniously, on a crackly teleconference. Six years after Heather McWilliam filed her complaint detailing routine workplace sexual harassment, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal heard closing arguments in the promising Toronto police constable's case.

There was nothing left to do but wait.

McWilliam, 37, packed up her dark blue sedan and her dog, Star, and fled Toronto's midsummer heat for northern Ontario. She wanted time with her dad, a retired Toronto police homicide detective whose career path she'd once had every intention of following.

Instead, since 2014 McWilliam has been cutting her own trail, one she feels honours her calling to serve and protect but that's taken her far afield from where she set out in 2005 when she joined the Toronto Police Service.

She never thought she'd be a whistleblower, but that's how it ended up. A growing number of female officers are taking on their police services for workplace discrimination in a profession that's still nearly 80 per cent male, but McWilliam's case is one of the most public. Her human rights application detailed routine sexual harassment from superiors, ranging from degrading comments — a boss told her he'd "spank her later in private" in front of her peers, another whispered he'd like to "lick her"— to an off-duty non-consensual kiss from a sergeant.

And unlike many other women before her, McWilliam saw the case through to the end.

Many other officers have set out to confront their harassment only to find themselves staring down a lengthy, costly process, said Kate Hughes, McWilliam's lawyer. "They all get settled because there's so many barriers to going ahead."

A labour law veteran, Hughes launched her career in the 1980s with a precedent-setting case against a University of Toronto professor who leered at a female student at a campus pool. Three decades later, she took on McWilliam's complaint, believing in what they could accomplish if they refused to settle — at least one case needed to be argued at the tribunal to help other female and racialized officers, she said.

"If everybody simply settles, there's no precedent and there's no systemic change," said Hughes.

The decision landed in late June, one day before Hughes' retirement.

In a lengthy ruling, human rights adjudicator Jo-Anne Pickel found McWilliam had been the victim of a "poisoned" workplace where sexual harassment was commonplace. She also ordered a set of public interest remedies, including annual Toronto police sexual harassment training and public reporting of internal human rights complaints.

It was a major victory.

But it had come at a price: six years, legal fees conservatively estimated at more than $150,000, and a protracted hearing — not to mention the loss of McWilliam's career path, friendships, and a steep toll on her mental health.

McWilliam's win sets "an incredibly valuable precedent" for future cases of sexual and workplace harassment and discrimination, said Lesley Bikos, a former London police officer who is now researching police culture as a PhD candidate at the Western University. These cases can be exceptionally difficult to prove, "particularly in a culture that often denies, minimizes, and victim blames those who push against it."

But it also highlights the "extreme barriers" ahead of the next officer who tries to stand up to what McWilliam faced.

"What we must consider in the fight for change is that cases like this serve as a warning to officers who may be considering coming forward," Bikos said. "The cost she has paid will act as a deterrent for many."
Const. Heather McWilliam, seen here in uniform in an undated photo. In In a lengthy ruling, human rights adjudicator Jo-Anne Pickel found McWilliam had been the victim of a "poisoned" workplace where sexual harassment was commonplace.

McWilliam was 22 when she put on the Toronto police uniform, assigned to north Etobicoke's 23 Division, among the busiest in the city.

She'd wanted to be a police officer all her life, a dream she recorded in a Grade 1 memory book. She'd watched her dad work homicide cases, including the 1986 murder of 11-year-old Alison Parrott, who was lured to her death under the pretence of a track photo shoot, her body found near Old Mill subway station. McWilliam remembers her dad bringing home folders she couldn't open, knowing their contents might help a victim get justice.

She completed a law enforcement diploma before taking a job with the RCMP in Coquitlam, B.C. She loved the work and her colleagues and quickly distinguished herself for arresting an armed robbery suspect while working solo. But a year in and missing her family, McWilliam pursued and quickly landed a position in Toronto.

She began in 2005on the primary response unit, working chaotic shifts answering 911 calls. She worked well with her partner; a vehicle stop they made helped bring down a drug trafficking ring. She became a coach officer, and loved showing new recruits how to find the little details that clinch investigations.

But she was usually the odd woman out within a culture researchers say remains hypermasculine. In her 2016 study based on interviews with 15 female officers from Ontario, Bikos found that although women were joining police ranks, the profession is predominantly a man's world in which women could be called degrading names or have to listen to sexist or racist jokes to be considered part of the club.

McWilliam said she would overhear officers commenting on the appearance of women coming into the station. When she joined the criminal investigations bureau she would hear supervisors speak derisively about sexual assault complainants. It was "a minor sexual assault," or the complainant was "crazy," or she "had fake breasts so she probably asked for it," McWilliam said, recalling that time in an interview.

"Or, right off the hop, 'I don't believe her,' without investigating it."

In 2011, shortly after she moved platoons, McWilliam felt the comments increasingly turn her way — coming from senior male officers with direct power over her career, the tribunal found.

A sergeant downloaded a Facebook photo of McWilliam in a bikini and showed it to another senior officer at a crime scene, then made the picture his computer screensaver. A staff sergeant handed her a note saying: "You are smokin' hot," and would periodically comment on her clothes or changes in her weight.

In 2012, the tribunal found, Angelo Costa, a now-retired sergeant, told McWilliam he was skilled at oral sex, and on another occasion during a shift whispered in McWilliam's ear that he wanted to "lick her."

In October 2012, McWilliam was meeting a male mentor at a bar. Other officers including Costa were there and when the sergeant was leaving he came to hug her and pushed his lips onto hers, trying to drive his tongue into her mouth, the tribunal found.

Five days after the incident, another platoon change meant Costa became her boss.

The incident was probed by the Special Investigations Unit, Ontario's police watchdog, but Costa was not charged. Later, at the human rights tribunal, Costa denied the allegations, but Pickel found it was more likely than not that they had happened. The "sexual assault in the form of a forced kiss," may have been "a joking way to welcome (McWilliam) to his platoon," she wrote in her decision.


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