CanadaOttawa Community Housing: $70M suit alleges sexual harassment, assault
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The $10 billion earmarked in Tuesday's federal budget to continue a program aimed at spurring construction of new rental units won't go far enough to fix Ottawa's affordable housing crisis, advocates say. The cash will be doled out over the next nine years, enabling the construction of about 42,000 units across Canada as part of the federal government's rental construction financing initiative. Coun. Catherine McKenney, Ottawa's housing and homelessness liaison, said that while the city does need more rental units, it's only a small part of a much larger problem.
A family of female contractors who say they endured a decade of sexual harassment at the hands of employees of Ottawa Community Housing are suing the men and the city-owned corporation for nearly $70 million.
An explosive statement of claim filed last week alleges that 13 men subjected the women to a range of harassment, from outright sexual assault to subtle innuendo about their gender preventing them from being able to do what they say their tormentors said was a man’s job. Among the incidents detailed in the lawsuit: male OCH employees sniffing the women’s seats as they got up, subjecting the women to tales of their own mast--bation and sexual activities with their wives, touching the sides of the women’s bodies and making snide comments that female contractors don’t belong at OCH.
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OCH was served with the statement of claim on Thursday. No statement of defence has yet been filed and none of the allegations contained in the women’s lawsuit has been tested in court.
The women, all sisters working for their family-run companies Dentemp Contracting + Inc. and Stonewall Contracting Corporation, allege that OCH failed to provide a safe work environment and engaged in systemic and institutional gender-based discrimination. That claim is bolstered by the findings of an independent internal investigation commissioned by OCH.
The women allege that OCH breached their charter rights to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex and took steps to take work away from them. When the women voiced their concerns, according to the lawsuit, they were “blacklisted” — work orders were stopped and they were prevented from bidding on future work.
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Genevieve Carroll, Sarah Carroll, Megan Hay, Monika Vugdalic and Shaun Gorrie say they suffer from PTSD, anxiety, “diminished self worth” and are racked with feelings of guilt and “self-blame.” The housing agency failed to protect them and enabled their harassers, according to the lawsuit.
“OCH failed in its duty to provide its contractors and the employees of those contractors with a safe and respectful work environment in which all are treated with respect and dignity,” the lawsuit claims.
Alongside the housing corporation, 13 male employees of OCH and one female employee are also named as defendants and alleged to be perpetrators of the harassment: Sylvain Gagné, Brian Ganim, Doug Cowie, Jean Rivard, Denis Moreau, Daniel Hill, Michel Simoneau, Steve Hanson, Darko Smoljanic, Larry Baker, Stephan Laurin, Jacques Bolduc, Carl Migneault and Christiane Hallé.
The housing agency is owned by the City of Ottawa and funded by taxpayers and through grants. Its board of directors is city-appointed and it is the largest social housing provider in the city.
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The sisters’ two companies were contracted by OCH to provide maintenance and repair work across its properties. The companies were both family-run and allowed the sisters “to work together, doing work that they both loved and excelled at,” according to the lawsuit. The women felt that female contractors on the job “allowed the female tenants of the OCH buildings to feel safe in their own homes.”
But once on the job, they were constantly made to feel inferior, the lawsuit alleges.
“OCH is an environment where female contractors are not welcome and made to feel as if they are lower class persons and workers, based upon their gender,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit lays out the women’s claims of harassment, which they allege began in 2008: “lewd, provocative and insulting comments” about their bodies; being subjected to vulgarities like being called “b—–s” and “c—s” on a regular basis, including once when one of the women refused to accept gifts a male employee brought her; unsolicited and non-consensual touching, including rubbing shoulders; “receiving or overhearing sexually explicit and offensive comments”; instructions to dress in a sexual manner and requests to see them in bikinis; a “general culture of objectification of women” where men would rate which women were attractive and state out loud whether they would have sex with them.
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The women dressed like their male counterparts on the job to avoid being singled out and wore jeans all summer to avoid being harassed, according to the lawsuit. They feared being labeled “troublemakers” and losing out on jobs, risking reprisal and retribution, which is what they allege eventually happened.
Other male contractors who worked for Dentemp and Stonewall were told about how OCH employees were allegedly behaving and would often stand guard for the women.
When the sisters finally did file a complaint, OCH appointed one of the men they say sexually harassed and assaulted them to be their supervisor.
The lawsuit alleges that none of the male employees named has been terminated or disciplined.
It also alleges that one female OCH employee, Hallé, told the women they didn’t belong as contractors and nicknamed them “girls in short shorts.” The lawsuit alleges she actively took steps to block them from being hired.
The women claim OCH made no effort to correct the behaviours.
“Senior level members of OCH, including the coordinators, managers, maintenance service managers and directors at OCH were aware of the conduct of the OCH male employees … but took no steps to prevent such conduct, to discipline the OCH male employees or to protect the female contractors,” the lawsuit alleges.
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The culture was so normalized, the lawsuit says, that a relatively new male OCH employee felt comfortable cornering one of the women, demanding her phone number before texting a “sexually explicit and degrading text” to the number. In fact, the number belonged to the woman’s husband.
The claims in the suit are supported in part by an internal investigation that OCH commissioned because of the sisters’ complaints.
The lawsuit states that an independent investigator hired by OCH filed a report in the fall of 2018 that confirmed “OCH staff engaged in behaviour amounting to sexual harassment, sexual assault and discrimination based upon gender in respect to their treatment of the female contractors.”
This newspaper has not seen the final report, nor have any of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The workplace sexual harassment investigator hired by OCH has not replied to a request from this newspaper to discuss the investigation and its findings.
This newspaper has, however, obtained an internal memo that was sent to all OCH employees in November 2018. It is not contained in the lawsuit.
In the memo, the housing agency says it is “rolling out phase two of safe and respectful workplace” and confirms that the investigator found wrongdoing.
“Recently, Ottawa Community Housing received a formal complaint of harassment from a contractor hired to do work on OCH properties. An investigation was initiated as soon as we were made aware of the complaint,” writes Shaun Simms, the agency’s vice-president of people and culture.
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“It was disheartening to hear that the investigator’s findings revealed that this contractor was in fact exposed to inappropriate behaviour, vulgar jokes and discriminatory comments by some front-line maintenance staff.”
In that memo, OCH called the conduct “completely unacceptable” and inconsistent with the agency’s values.
“For absolute clarity — discrimination and harassment have no place in this organization. OCH is committed to providing employees and contractors with a safe and respectful working environment where all are treated with respect and dignity.”
In the memo, OCH said it “expects all employees to remain professional and respectful at all times in the workplace.”
At the time, the housing agency said it would be implementing training for managers and maintenance staff, which, OCH says has now been rolled out to all staff.
OCH said it could not comment on the specific allegations since they were part of ongoing litigation.
In a statement, OCH said: “We take allegations of harassment very seriously. If a complaint is formally received, (the corporation’s) policy is to open an investigation into the matter. (Ottawa Community Housing) does not publicly discuss individual personnel matters. The corporation has clear policies that govern how these complaints are handled.”
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