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One woman’s struggle against sexual harassment at a Canadian Forces base

How Bonnie Robichaud won a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1987 for women experiencing workplace sexual harassment

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Bonnie Robichaud, union activist, public speaker, mentor, and a recognized pioneer and leader in the fight for human rights. Photo courtesy Between the Lines.

The following is an excerpt from It Should Be Easy to Fix by Bonnie Robichaud, who took her fight against workplace sexual harassment all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and won. Earlier chapters describe her taking a job in 1977 as a cleaner at the Canadian Forces Base in North Bay, Ontario, and then being sexually harassed over a long period of time by her supervisor Dennis Brennan. It Should Be Easy to Fix was published in March 2022 by Between the Lines.


I broke my silence on May 24, 1979, four days after the end of my probation. I knew Brennan was about to leave to go on summer holidays. The longer I kept this to myself the harder it had become to say anything and the greater the burden grew inside me for not speaking out.

I began by briefly telling my family doctor what happened. From there I found the courage to tell Larry, my husband, that same day. Now that I had opened my mouth, I decided I wasn’t going to shut it. Thankfully, Larry was very supportive and did whatever he could to help. He immediately put me in touch with a counsellor where he worked and made an appointment for me to see him later that same day. Larry was not angry with me, but he was very angry with management on the base. It was such a relief to have Larry’s love and support and to not be dealing with the harassment alone anymore.

Back to work on Friday, May 25, I mustered up every shred of courage I had. It helped that at last my probation was over, but had it not been over, I still would have gone ahead. I could not have tolerated this pressure for sex any longer. When Brennan called me into the office that morning, I made up my mind to tell him as clearly as I could that there was nothing on earth that would convince me that I would in any way tolerate his sexual advances any longer. He said it was a mean thing for me to say just before he was going on holidays. I said it was the best time to tell him. I said he would go and have a good time, and when he came back he would know that he would have to leave me alone.

Brennan was in Saturday, May 26, at 7:00 a.m., and had me in the office till 8:15 a.m., wanting to know if I had changed my mind and reminding me that it was a mean thing of me to do. The rest of the talk was general. I refused to talk about sex and knew that he was scheduled to be away for four weeks. I also knew that after he returned, I would only be working for a few days before I would go on my own holidays for three weeks. I believed it was possible that this time Brennan would hear me, and with the holiday break this might bring an end to the harassment.

But I didn’t stop there. I guess by now, the reality of the past few months was sinking in. In late May, just after Brennan went on holiday, I prepared a brief statement saying that I had been sexually harassed by him. I took the statement with me to work. I hadn’t decided exactly what I was going to do with it. That day, I had the statement with me as I was speaking to the union steward. I was looking out of his window as we spoke and I saw a union official from Labour and Trades go by. For whatever reason, at this moment, I decided I would give the statement to him. I caught up with him and provided him with my brief statement about Brennan’s sexual harassment, signed and dated. I made him aware of what was happening, but I asked him to keep it in confidence. I still had the hope that Brennan would stop, and if he did I wanted the option to keep it quiet. I was scared. I had confronted Brennan, and now there was a third person in the workplace who knew. It was no longer just Brennan and me. In my mind, even now, I was trying to fix the situation. Speaking to the union official from Labour and Trades was a step forward, truly outside the Brennan bubble. I kept those steps going forward.

If Brennan stopped pressuring me for sex, I wanted to drop the whole thing. I never intended to make a formal complaint. I simply wanted some protection in case Brennan made an attempt to get rid of me when he realized that he could not continue. Knowing I had Brennan’s four-week holiday absence and then my following vacation a few days after his return, it was such a relief. Working without him around was healing and gave me the strength to stay.

***

Brennan returned to the base on June 18, a week early. This was a shock. I was expecting another week of work without him, before I went on my own holiday. I was working the day he returned but managed to put off going near his office until the afternoon. By about 1:30, I could put it off no longer. My shift ended at 2:15, and I had to see the area foreman. When I walked in, Brennan told the two area foremen to leave and shut the door behind them. He kept me there about fifteen minutes, again making sexual advances. I raised my voice and made it clear that I had not changed my mind and was going to inform a third party. (What I didn’t know, was that by this point, Brennan probably already knew about my complaint.) He told me to leave the office. As I left, he added that it looked like I had gained weight and asked how things were with my husband. I left the office feeling angry and frustrated, humiliated, and powerless. I felt like laughing or screaming or crying. I didn’t know which. All the strength and confidence I had gained in his three-week absence was evaporating.

There were people standing in the hall as I walked out. I found my voice and made an oath, out loud: “Whatever it takes under the sun, he will never, ever do that to me again.” They looked at me oddly, but I didn’t care. I kept my oath that I made that day, but I had no idea that there would be so much under the sun.

I vowed Brennan would never again look at me as if I had no clothes on, or ask me if I was horny, or ever again invade my privacy by asking personal questions he had no right to ask.

He was there for only that one day and I was shaken up, but nevertheless, I finished the week at work. This time, I went to the union steward and told him that I wanted to now make my complaint formal. He told me to write up a “To Whom It May Concern” letter, and he would bring it to P.G. Howe, the base commander. I did this, dated June 22, 1979. Somehow this letter never officially reached the commander.

Now that I had decided enough was enough, making a formal complaint seemed to be my only option. I was still plagued by thoughts of jumping off that cliff. Doing something about the situation was the only way to silence them.

I also wrote up the complaint and gave it to the union official from Labour and Trades to let him know what was happening.

In the meantime, I was very scared to be alone with Brennan. My shift started early the next morning. I bought my husband a meal ticket to join me for lunch, for which I was subsequently reprimanded, apparently not being allowed to bring my husband to the officers’ mess. I had called Larry that morning to come and just be there in case Brennan showed up. Brennan did not.

This was the beginning of my long struggle forward—the complaint procedure with the union, the presentation of grievances, my complaint to management, the Public Service Commission, Workers’ Compensation Board, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and the grievance hearings. I had no idea of all the twists and turns that lay ahead.

Backlash

It’s impossible for me to be sure, but judging by the events that followed Brennan’s unexpected return from holiday, it seems likely that when I told the Labour and Trades union official about my experiences and asked him to keep the information confidential—he betrayed my confidence.

In the week that Brennan unexpectedly returned, I was away for a few days for French language assessment in Toronto. As part of my new position, I was required to have an AA level of French. When I was back in North Bay, on my day off, I was ordered in to work by the union steward, who wouldn’t say why. I said I didn’t want to go in on my day off, but he said I had to. He told me to go to base headquarters. I had no idea why I was being ordered in—I thought maybe it was something to do with the letter I gave to the Labour and Trades union official about the sexual harassment. It was not.

Upon arrival, Captain Adlard, who was the military representative for civilian staff, told me to go to the cleaning services office. There I was asked to wait with Brennan and an area foreman. We waited for forty-five minutes, during which time I did not speak. Brennan and the area foreman then walked me to headquarters. On the way over, Brennan walked on the outside, because, he explained, “You are not for sale.” As far as I can tell, Brennan seemed to believe that he was protecting me from being mistaken for a prostitute by having me walk on the inside, away from the street’s edge. I found the whole performance and its implications insulting, but I didn’t have the stamina to make a scene.

I still had not been told why I had been summoned. Finally, I was led into a meeting with Captain Adlard and Brennan. It wasn’t until the meeting was well under way that I realized this was a disciplinary meeting and I was the one being disciplined! I was told that there was a petition with sixteen signatures asking that I be relieved of my duties, “so that more favourable attitudes may once again be restored among the workers.” I was also told there were fourteen letters of complaint written against me, all within three days, the three days, coincidentally, since Brennan had returned.

I was completely unprepared. Here, I had thought my employer may be responding to my complaints of sexual harassment, and instead, I am being confronted by complaints about my work, in the presence of the harasser. Once I realized what was happening, I had to almost interrupt Adlard to ask to see him alone or to have a union representative with me, but he refused my request. So, with Brennan right there, I told Adlard I had been sexually harassed by Brennan, and I tried to explain that my complaint about the incidents of sexual harassment might have been the motivation for this campaign against me. I somehow had the presence of mind to note that all the letters and the petitions were done within three days of each other—the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after the Friday that I signed and dated the “To Whom It May Concern” letter—and I pointed this out to Adlard, and asked if that didn’t seem suspicious to him. Brennan jumped up and down out of his chair and threatened to sue me.

Captain Adlard’s response was, “Whatever relationship you had is now over; this is just between the three of us and nobody else needs to know. It does not have to get to suing.” He added that he was just coming out of a divorce and that he did not want to deal with this kind of thing, as if that had any relevance to this work situation.

(Another odd detail is that I was summoned to this meeting by the union, in fact, by the person in the union that I had given the “To Whom It May Concern letter,” and not by management. None of this made me comfortable or seemed right.)

Clipping from an August 1987 edition of Maclean’s.

I was not soothed by his words, so Adlard told me I could take the matter to civil court. I told him, “It happened at work, and it will darn well be fixed at work.”

The next day I was handed a “Memorandum of Shortcomings” from base management dated June 29, 1979, stating that although my “work as a cleaner has been most satisfactory … a very high percentage of the cleaning staff have seen fit to indicate their dissatisfaction [of my supervision] in writing.” I was still to be a lead hand but with reduced personnel to supervise. My authority as a supervisor had been taken away.

No attempt was made to even acknowledge my concerns, let alone address them. I felt like a steel door had been slammed in my face. I now felt even more frightened and afraid to speak and did not feel safe from being sued by Brennan. I realized I was the one perceived as the problem.

This meeting made it clear that there would be no support from management in solving my complaint against Brennan. My long-awaited vacation was coming up, but I didn’t want to go away with this hanging over my head. I tried to postpone it, thinking it could be solved before I left, but my request for a change of leave was denied. Imagine how naive I was, to think that it could be solved so quickly!

I spent the first few days of our camping holiday pretending I was chopping Brennan’s head off when I was chopping wood. Wood chopping wasn’t usually my job. Normally, Larry would have done it. Next, I played nursery rhymes over and over on the eight-track tape player and sang along with them, until Larry made me stop. After that, every night at the campfire, Larry and I would spend hours trying to figure out how we were going to fight. It was not a restful vacation.

***

My first day, after my vacation, I wrote a three-page memo in answer to the memorandum of June 29, but I didn’t send it to Captain Adlard. I felt it would make no difference, and it was embarrassing. In it I had explained what Brennan was doing to me.

In the days following my return near the end of July 1979, although I still received the pay of a lead hand, I didn’t have the duties. I felt devastated by the demotion. I loved my job and thought I was a good supervisor. I was subsequently isolated, disciplined, and given a heavy workload. These were extremely difficult times for me with bouts of crying and severe depression. Just making meals at home became a very difficult task. The nightmares I had experienced during the harassment did not stop and I was sleeping poorly.

Isolation was the hardest of the difficulties I was experiencing. On my first day back to work after the sexual harassment complaint, I went for a coffee break at the cafeteria on base. Many of us had a coffee break at the same time, and I was a few minutes late arriving. When I walked in, everyone got up and walked out. Brennan, who almost never came to break in the cafeteria, was there and so were the two area foremen. When Brennan left, every one followed him out. I was shocked; I had never experienced anything like that before.

The shunning kept happening for several days. Then I was told I was not allowed to go to break in the cafeteria anymore. I challenged this by submitting a grievance and was again permitted to take breaks in the cafeteria. But the shunning continued, and everyone still kept leaving when I arrived. Sooner or later, I thought, they would get tired of missing their breaks, but after several weeks of this, the ones who liked me least just stopped coming. After a while it was too much, and I occasionally took my break alone in my cleaner’s room.

This awful treatment was hard to bear. My depression deepened. No one would talk to me. I felt as though I was always being watched. The effect of this type of shunning was devastating, but I wasn’t going to be defeated. I knew I had done nothing wrong. At one point, I bought a book on body language. I thought if I could not talk to anyone, at least I wanted to show that I was strong by walking tall and sitting straight and looking confident. In reality, I was scared all the time. I don’t know if this strategy had any effect on those around me but I felt stronger as a result.

I was assigned a barrack block to clean, referred to as the punishment block. I had gone from supervising five cleaners to one very uncooperative half-time person. I used to comment that I never knew which half I supervised. Hard as it had become, it was still better than the sexual harassment and staying silent.

Only three days after I had been assigned to the punishment block, my supervisor found some dead flies on the windowsill and claimed they had been dead and lying there for three weeks.

It was the time of year that dead flies accumulated daily on the windowsills, attracted by the heat and the sun. A good friend of mine suggested I find out if it was possible to determine how long the flies had been dead. I phoned the health department in North Bay to find out how long it took for rigor mortis to set in. It took three calls; luckily no one hung up on me. I was told once rigor mortis had set in there was no way of knowing how long the flies had been dead. I was sure there was no way my supervisor had the resources to know either. Besides anything else, as far as I remember it, I had only been assigned this block for three days when this happened, so even if his charge was correct, how these three-week-old fly corpses were my responsibility, I’ll never know. When I stopped to think about it, the accusation was so outrageous it could have been funny, if it wasn’t so serious.

Despite the extreme stress at work, I had lots of help at home with Larry, who was behind me all the way and very patient. He helped prepare meals with the kids and helped me with all the tasks I had related to moving my complaints forward. And of course, he was also working at his own paying job.

Bonnie Robichaud is a Canadian labour activist and public speaker whose campaign against sexual harassment while working for at Canadian Forces Base North Bay ultimately led to a Supreme Court decision that employers are responsible for maintaining a safe, respectful, harassment-free workplace.

Read the full story in Bonnie Robichaud’s new memoir, It Should Be Easy to Fix, from Between the Lines.

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