Discrimination and harassment against female firefighters : The Fire Still Burning-The Fifth Estate


Announcer: [ ♪♪ ] [fire crackles] [indistinct radio chatter] [engine starts up] [ siren wails ]>>Mark: This is why
we call them heroes. Everyday people who make it
their job to run into danger, when most would
run away from it.>>You know,
you pull up to a scene… [ Indistinct Radio Chatter ]>>And you have smoke
showing and you have flames showing, you know. You know your heart’s
in your throat. And the adrenaline’s pumping.>>Mark: When our
homes and our loved ones are at risk, we count on
firefighters to save the day.>>You have your bunker gear on. You throw your jacket on. You’ve got your mask. The incident
commander takes you and says, you know, you two are going to
go in and do the first search with the teams.>>And then I want you to
go ahead and blast it up the ceiling, and watch for
[ Indiscernible ] about 30 degrees.>>And then you get on your
hands and knees and you can’t see a damn thing, and
you start crawling, and you trust what
you’ve been trained with. And you go in blind, and you
start walking along that wall, and you feel that wall. You can hear sounds. You can hear crackling. [ ♪♪ ] [ ♪♪ ]>>Mark: Firefighters have
been hailed as heroes for generations, so it’s
only natural that over time, women would want to join what
used to be an exclusive band of brothers. In Canada, the change
started in the late eighties, as more and more women felt
empowered to turn a dream into a dream job.>>I wanted to do something
that scared the shit out of me, and I thought running into
burning buildings would probably do that.>>I always liked looking
at firetrucks and thinking, “Wow, what do you have to
do to be able to do that?”>>And it challenged you,
you know? To think on your feet,
and to be a part of a group and to work hard.>>You know, I cared
about what I did.>>I used to look at
firetrucks and think, you know, there are
the heroes of the society, and they were strong and
they could do anything.>>Mark: Karen White believed
she could do anything, too. In 1990, she became one of
the first professional female firefighters in BC. And that wasn’t
intimidating for you?>>No, no. It should have been.>>Mark: Across the
country, one by one, other women joined
the Brotherhood. In 1991, Kathy Symington
became one of the first female firefighters in Nova Scotia,
a volunteer with the Sackville fire department.>>Once I got my
foot in that door, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I loved it. I was– That was my niche. I had found it and I was going
to put everything I had into it, and I did.>>Mark: The volunteer now
wanted to make it a career, but she quickly learned no one
was gonna make it easy for her.>>When I graduated
with Halifax in 1997, one of the officers that
came up to me and said, “Congratulations, because we
tried everything we could to knock you out, to keep
you out, oversized gear, everything, and you
still got through it, so good for you.”>>Mark: Why in the world
did they do that to you?>>I think a lot of the job of
a firefighter is a macho image, a tough guy, you know, so if
that’s the image and then a woman can come in
and do the same job, it kind of, maybe, to some
people, takes that image away. I guess they had to
do what they did, and I had to do
what we– what I had to do and get in there so no
matter what they did, we did get in.>>By our count, that’s 200
push-ups for people without…>>Mark: When The Fifth Estate
first investigated this story in 2015, only about 4 percent
of professional firefighters in Canada were women. Three years later,
that hasn’t budged.>>Today we’re gonna be
doing a workout called ten up.>>Mark: There remains a
perception that women simply can’t cut it, that they
are not strong enough, tough enough to
wear the uniform. So imagine the pressure on the
three women in this firefighter training school in Halifax. Lauren Thibault,
then 18 years old, wasn’t intimidated by tradition. Do you know what percentage of
firefighters are actually women?>>I do not.>>It’s about three
or four percent.>>Whatever. Maybe I’ll be one
of those percents.>>Come on guys,
move, move, move!>>Mark: That
doesn’t intimidate you?>>No, I’m not really
intimidated by it. I kind of, like,
like those odds. I think that’s hilarious. Why not? Like, why is there not more?>>At ease.>>Mark: Why do you think it
is that it’s essentially white males who make up most
of the firefighters?>>Hasn’t it
always been that way? Since, like, way back,
like way back?>>Mark: Yeah, it
has, but it’s 2015.>>Exactly. So that’s why I am here. [ ♪♪ ]>>Two, three,
four, five, six, seven, eight…>>Mark: This boot camp is
designed to weed out the weak. Many of the recruits
struggled to get through, but Thibault held her own.>>What’s your name?>>Lauren.
>>Lauren, why are you here?>>I want to be a firefighter.
>>What?>>I want to be a firefighter.
>>I can’t hear you?>>I want to be a firefighter!>>Find your motivation! Come on!
Keep going! Keep going!>>Mark: Do you feel that
the bar is set higher for you because you are a woman?>>I’m hoping that’s the case
because that would benefit me more, but I think they’re going
to push me more or less because I’m younger.>>Think you wanna be the clown? Huh?
>>No, sir.>>Why are you moving? No excuse. Exactly. Okay. First day, a lot of stress. I know. Tired from the workout. Nervous?>>Yes.>>Don’t worry about it. Supper comes later.>>He was getting up in my
face, and I was just like, okay, bite your bottom
lip, don’t say anything, just look him in the face. Whatever.
>>Come on! Move, move, move! [ ♪♪ ]>>Mark: But it may be tougher
to break in than she thinks. For generations, the public
perception of a firefighter, as glorified by Hollywood,
was built around the image of brawny, white men. An image
reinforced again and again, from movies like
Backdraft, where fearless firefighters
revealed their courage, to beefcake calendars, where
shirtless firefighters revealed everything else. But inside fire halls,
firefighters are protected by a sort of firewall. What happens in the
station, stays in the station. As a volunteer
firefighter in Nova Scotia, Liane Tessier spent
years fighting fires, then years fighting her own
fire department in Halifax.>>Just, everything
from the very beginning, 12 years of stuff. I mean, this is just, not
even– not even all of it yet.>>Mark: More than a
decade of documented claims of discrimination and
sexual harassment fill a room in her house. The legacy of her career
as a female firefighter.>>What does it take
to– to, you know, have our stories be taken
seriously and believed, and listened to?>>Mark: Tessier would
rise to the rank of captain, but it was in a
climate, she says, of bullying and harassment,
and she says she wasn’t alone.>>One woman had used
condoms put in her bunker gear, and another one had threatening
letters put on her locker, saying, you know, “Shut up,
bitch, or else.” One was thrown
down a set of stairs. And one was left
alone in a fire. Every woman who
has ever spoken out, who’s ever dared
to tell the truth, has been…destroyed. You know? You’re attacked. You’re hated.>>Mark: We spoke to
two dozen women in our original investigation. Dozens more female firefighters
would later contact us to share their own stories of harassment
and abuse in the workplace. Almost all the active
firefighters we spoke to wouldn’t come on
camera, fearing retribution. Except for these three
women, who agreed to share their stories if we kept
their identities secret. Like all the others,
firefighting was their dream job, but it didn’t take long
for the dream to turn into a nightmare. This woman said she was given
a blunt message early in her career.>>I remember going into a
fire during recruit training, and one of the guys in my
group turned my air bottle off. And, you know, you have no air,
and I remember being new and not thinking, and at the time taking
my mask and pulling it away from my face to
breathe, but, you know, you breathe in this
hot, terrible smoke. It burns your throat and,
you know, you run out.>>Mark: When somebody
turns your air bottle off, what message are they trying
to send you, do you think?>>Fuck you. We don’t want you here. It was clear.>>Mark: A second woman felt she
was always fighting to fit in, but it was a losing battle. Did you feel at that time
that the other firefighters had your back?>>It never occurred to me
that they wouldn’t save me, or we wouldn’t be able to
rely on one another in a life or death situation,
but it wore on me. And you just can’t go to work
every single day of your life under that kind of pressure.>>Mark: Do you feel that
they wanted you to fail?>>Absolutely, some of
them did, and I think that attitude…really permeated up
to the highest levels at times. It definitely was a secret no
one really wanted to be told.>>Mark: And what
was the secret?>>The Brotherhood. You know, it’s the very
essence and the ideology of what firefighting is, just by the
very nature of the name of it. We’ve never– let’s be clear–
we’ve never been part of that brotherhood.>>Mark: When we return, we’ll
tell you what happens when some female firefighters
finally decide to take on the brotherhood.>>It’s been an extreme battle,
some portions of it have been devastating. [ ♪♪ ]>>Announcer: There’s
always more to our stories. You can keep up with
The Fifth Estate by subscribing to our
weekly newsletter. We’ll tell you what
we are working on, and share updates
on past stories. Sign up on our
website at CBC.ca/fifth. [ ♪♪ ] Left-hand search,
or right-hand search? You pick.>>Mark: This is what a female
firefighting brigade could look like, one day. But it’s just a
boot camp in Ottawa, aimed at getting girls
to consider a career as a firefighter.>>Okay, I got it! Perfect.>>Mark: Despite
efforts like these, and there are
many across Canada, the presence of women in the
fire services is lower than any other emergency service,
far lower than the police, paramedics, or the military. And no wonder, when you look
at what happened in places like Spaniards Bay,
Newfoundland, back in 2016.>>Got everything in control.>>Mark: Brenda Seymour, the
only female firefighter on the town’s volunteer force,
complained about a culture of harassment and
bullying in the firehouse.>>It’s been an extreme battle. It has affected my
life personally. It’s– some portions of
it have been devastating.>>Many people are blaming
her for this controversy that’s now got this
town in turmoil.>>Mark: And when she
blamed the chief for failing to support her, 20 male
firefighters quit in support of the chief.>>Firefighters all 20 of
them, walking down this street right here. Came into the crowd–>>Mark: Then
something remarkable happened. [ Chanting ]>>Mark: Women in St. John’s
came out to support Seymour and rally against sexual harassment,
and the protest seemed to pay off. Seymour is now a Captain in the
Spaniards Bay fire department which now has three
other women in its ranks. There were other
hard-won victories. In Halifax, Liane Tessier’s
battle finally came to an end after 12 years.>>I had to remind myself
throughout the battle that it was about them and not me. All I can hope for
is that, you know, you’re just like a spoke– one
spoke on the wheel of change.>>Firefighting has historically
been a male-dominated career.>>Mark: Tessier reached a
settlement with the city and received this from the
humbled Halifax Fire Chief.>>I extend an apology on behalf
of the Halifax regional fire and emergency to Liane Tessier,
one of our former volunteer firefighters, and any other
female firefighter who has experienced termination
within this organization.>>Mark: But for Tessier,
the apology comes too late. She’s no longer a firefighter. In fact, none of the women we
spoke to who fought public battles against
discrimination and harassment is working in the fire
service anymore. They were trainers,
lieutenants, and captains, who wanted to make a difference,
but Tessier says she fought her battle to pave the way for other
women who want to follow their dream into the fire service.>>Violence against
women is becoming, you know, front page news now,
which is– and it’s been going on for decades. And finally, women are
starting to speak out, and so, these perpetrators
are finally starting to have something be done
about what they’ve done, but it took a load
of years to get here.>>Mark: As for Lauren Thibault,
she graduated from fire training school in Halifax, but
two and a half years later, she’s still looking for a fire
department that will hire her. The women who blazed
the trail before her have some hard-won advice. Don’t give up. What would you say to a young
woman today who is interested in a career as a firefighter?>>Go for it. Don’t forget what’s
happened in the past. Don’t let it alter you, but know
what’s happened and go forward in a very strong way. So, yes, young women, go
strong, and– and go for it. [ ♪♪ ]