Report into Leduc Fire Services describes ‘poisoned work environment,’ mishandled complaints - Edmonton

An independent investigation ordered after two Leduc firefighters alleged sexual assault, harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace was recently made public.

Third-party investigators uncovered what they described as a “psychologically unsafe and harmful culture” at Leduc Fire Services, “serious, systemic and long-standing misconduct,” and that management “failed to provide a duty of care to its employees.”

The reports, conducted by Veritas Solutions on behalf of the City of Leduc, were ordered June 2021 and presented to the city January 2022, but were just recently disclosed publicly after months of lobbying by the firefighters.

The reports are now also filed as part of a class-action lawsuit against the City of Leduc.

The City of Leduc declined to comment on the report while the lawsuit is before the courts.

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In its investigation, Veritas found that: “Over the past several years, the mishandling of serious complaints of sexual assaults and harassment that were not taken seriously or properly investigated has created a hostile or poisoned work environment for some women.”

The reports state that management discriminated against female employees when complaints were brought forward, and the failure to address the issues left many women worried about retribution — which could include losing their job.

“The management has failed to provide duty of care to their employees, ensuring a safe environment to make complaints and ensure that unwanted/uninvited behaviours do not continue.”

Click to play video: 'Former Leduc fire chief named in lawsuit involving sex assault allegations'

Former Leduc fire chief named in lawsuit involving sex assault allegations

The City of Leduc hired Veritas Solutions to conduct a workplace investigation into two allegations of discrimination and one allegation of harassment made by Mindy Smith and Christa Steele, employees of Leduc Fire Services.

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While investigating the complaints, Veritas heard from other firefighters, some unnamed, who reported similar concerns.

The reports found “the complaints are overlapping, inter-twined and have common causes and conclusions. The investigators found that the complaints are symptomatic of serious systemic issues.”

Steele and other City of Leduc employees from different departments allege, in a lawsuit against the city, sexual assault and harassment, which they say was reported but not resolved.

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City of Leduc approves Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy following harassment allegations

The final Veritas report states: “The investigation conducted into the allegations of two complainants quickly expanded into a myriad of concerns and issues that members of the FRS kept to themselves for quite some time.

“It is fair to say that management does not walk the talk when it comes to understanding the behaviours that constitute discrimination, whether it is based on gender, mental disability, sexual orientation.”

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“Nothing came as a surprise,” Steele told Global News on Thursday. “We’ve been really telling this truth for a really long time. We’re fortunate that somebody came in and did an investigation properly and people listened. And hopefully this will now bring about some accountability.”

Steele wants the city to overhaul its complaint process and apologize.

“These reports are really important to our case,” she said. “You never want history repeating itself. Companies, businesses, cities can learn from our situation and be better.

“Not just (for) us, but 15 years from now, we want to make a safe work environment,” Steele said.

“I really do hope that other fire departments, other cites really take a look at their policies and how things are run and make sure this isn’t happening in their backyards.

“It causes a lot of hurt, a lot of damage, and they can prevent it.”

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Global News first reported these allegations in March. Since then, the City of Leduc said it was reviewing the issue.

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Two Leduc Fire Services employees left the department, one of whom was fired.

The fire chief resigned, citing health reasons.

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City of Leduc files defence, denies firefighters’ abuse allegations

The city has filed a statement of defence, denying all allegations. The statement of defence, filed Sept. 6, 2022, also argues there are multiple reasons why the case should not be heard.

“The plaintiffs’ claims fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator,” the statement reads.

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After conducting extensive interviews, the Veritas team said strong evidence shows that systemic discriminatory and harassing behaviours of some in leadership at the fire department run deep.

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“It is the investigators’ analysis and view that the past unresolved issues are what perpetuates the current culture and the ongoing complaints,” the report reads. “There continues to be a lack of understanding or will on how to manage problematic individuals and group behaviours.”

The reports identify unresolved issues and says “while we have many recommendations to make… this has not been requested by the City of Leduc.”

Click to play video: 'Leduc fire chief resigns after sexual harassment, bullying lawsuit filed against city'

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Investigators write they “stand by their findings… as difficult as they may be to accept.”

Veritas principal director, Bob Stenhouse, won’t comment on the report directly since the City of Leduc is his client. However, he told Global News that his risk management philosophy is simple: do the right thing.

“Any persons that have been identified, through an investigation process, to have engaged in misconduct to be held accountable… Secondly, to make whole or remedy the harms experienced… and lastly, set up checks and balances to make sure these things don’t happen again.”

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Click to play video: 'Firefighter at centre of lawsuit against City of Leduc to address council'

Firefighter at centre of lawsuit against City of Leduc to address council

Preventing future harm is also a goal of the lawsuit, Calgary lawyer Robert Martz said, and the Veritas report helps.

“In our view, it’s an important part of the case. It’s an investigation by a very reputable firm, by ex-RCMP members, into the issues that we’ve raised.

“One of the key things that (Steele and Smith) wanted throughout this is that it doesn’t happen to anyone again. An acknowledgment of what happened and ways to ensure this doesn’t happen again remain important parts of the lawsuit.”

A court hearing May 3 and May 4 will determine if the case should go forward as a class-action or a regular lawsuit.

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