Parks Canada employee found to be victim of workplace sexual harassment fighting to return
WARNING: This story discusses workplace sexual harassment and includes some vulgar language.
Rachel Hansen, a Parks Canada employee in Inuvik, feels like she’s being punished for speaking up about workplace sexual harassment.
In 2019 an internal investigation found that a senior colleague had harassed Hansen.
Two years later, and following a maternity leave, Hansen remains off the job while her harasser, Mervin Joe, continues going into work each day.
“He knew what he was doing was wrong,” Hansen said. “I feel he should be terminated and he should be held accountable for his actions.”
Hansen told CBC News that the pattern of inappropriate behaviour began in 2012. She said it started with offhand comments, and escalated from there. While her colleague’s increasingly frequent comments made her uncomfortable, Hansen said she mostly dismissed them, mindful of Joe’s social clout and experience.
She recalls events where Joe told her he would give her a piggyback if she jumped on his front, and where he told her “I only eat pussy,” when offered lunch left over from a program, as well as repeated invitations to “sneak into his tent” while they were working together as cultural guides on a commercial river trip.
Hansen recounts allegations of further incidents of harassment leading up to her Christmas vacation.
When she returned to work in the new year, she confided in a co-worker who encouraged her to come forward to Parks Canada. By April 2019, Hansen said an independent investigation took place. She said it found that she had been a victim of harassment in the workplace.
Park’s Canada’s workplace harassment and violence policy defines harassment as any action, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee, including any prescribed action, conduct or comment.
Union supports Hansen’s position
Due to a confidentiality agreement between Parks Canada and those involved in the investigation, CBC News was not able to obtain a copy of the Parks Canada investigation that Hansen said found her complaint to be valid. Parks Canada’s policy states that a copy of the investigator’s report will be provided to the principal party, Hansen in this case, and Joe, the responding party.
Kevin King, president of the Union of National Employees representing Hansen, confirmed that senior officials in the union’s labour relations have also seen the investigator’s report and briefed him on its contents.
King confirmed the harassment investigation found “elements of wrongdoing,” and that when the investigation was turned back to the employer for action, he said Parks Canada’s response was “not satisfactory.”
“Parks Canada … has substantial work to do with respect to a harassment free workplace,” he said. “If someone is found to be guilty of elements of sexual harassment, those sanctions needs to be severe in my view. Especially for those in positions of trust.”
In an email from Parks Canada spokesperson Rola Salem, the agency declined to comment on “internal human resources matters” but said that “Parks Canada takes all notifications of harassment very seriously and is committed to providing a safe, healthy and respectful workplace, free from harassment and violence for all employees.”
CBC News later provided Parks Canada with a waiver that Hansen signed, permitting the agency to provide information and documentation on the process of the investigation, its findings and the resulting actions taken. Salem responded that Parks Canada’s policy remains the same and that they still would not comment.
Joe, reached by phone, declined to comment.
Recommendations ‘didn’t work out’
Parks Canada’s harassment and violence in the workplace prevention policy says that following an investigation, the resolution process is considered complete “once the employer implements the recommendations in the investigator’s report.”
Hansen said that those recommendations included taking different stairwells and leaving the office at different times to keep the colleagues separate.
“But that didn’t work out,” she said, adding that the harasser didn’t change his behaviour after the investigation’s findings were shared.
Throughout the investigation, and after its completion, Hansen was pregnant and gearing up for her maternity leave in January. But already by November, her doctor suggested the stress of the situation was unhealthy for the baby and recommended she start her maternity leave three months early.
A year has now passed, and Hansen still has yet to return to work.
Another mental assessment needed
Since taking early leave last November, Hansen said her employer has deemed her “mentally unfit” to return to the workplace. CBC has not been able to independently verify this determination and Parks Canada declined to comment on any details of the matter.
Though Hansen is on leave with pay, she said she wants to return to work, sharing her Inuvialuit culture with visitors.
“My passion is being out on the land with the youth,” she said. “I miss it.”
Hansen said she was assessed by a psychologist and a psychiatrist, who both said she was cleared to return to work. She applied for an internal position in Parks Canada as a cultural resource adviser, which is in the same section as Joe. The doctors felt it wouldn’t be wise for Hansen to join his section but otherwise gave her the green light to return to the office.
Hansen said the employer took the line about her not being advised to work in the same section as the harasser and applied it to not being advised to return to the workplace at all.
She said that Parks Canada is now instructing her to receive a second assessment, although she said she’s already had two. This assessment would have to take place in Calgary.
Hansen said Parks Canada has confirmed the assessment will take place before the end of the year, though by mid-December, a date had not been determined. Since Hansen is only partially vaccinated, and has five children, the logistics of travel and isolation have complicated the case further.
Union president King said the rationale for Hansen’s Calgary assessment “completely escapes [him].”
“I don’t know why or what has been triggered to suggest that this person needs a third medical assessment,” he said.
He said that Parks Canada needs to “step up” its efforts “to eradicate harassment and sexual harassment in all of its workplaces, especially in field operations.” King points to a similar case of sexual harassment in Cornwall, Ont., in the fall of 2020. In that case the respondent was dismissed.
In other sexual harassment cases King said “the respondent continues to be employed,” calling on the agency to be consistent.
“Why does Parks Canada Agency still maintain that a victim of sexual harassment is somehow not allowed to return to the workplace?” King asks.
Of Parks Canada’s 6,789 employees, 51 per cent are women and 48 per cent of supervisors are women.
Hansen’s mother, Ruby St. Amand, was present in the meeting where Hansen learnt her complaints of harassment were deemed founded. As a mother, she said it was difficult to hear what her child had been experiencing, but that it explained what St. Amand describes as uncharacteristic sensitivity.
St. Amand said there were times when, “I could not even look at her or talk to her without her crying, without her really upset. Only after knowing the root of the problem, I understood what happened.”
St. Amand said it’s unfair that Hansen remains unable to return to work while her harasser seems to face no punishment.
King said that Joe was in fact suspended without pay and faced “a severe reprimand” for his actions.
On how long the suspension lasted, King said the details are between Joe and Parks Canada.
Hansen said she was unaware of any retribution and that Joe continued to work in the office for the five months between the results of the investigation and Hansen taking her early leave.
When she asked her employer about consequences for the harassment, Hansen said she was told they couldn’t provide her with that information but that she shouldn’t worry “because management has taken care of it.”
“She was, she is still being brushed off,” St. Amand said of Hansen’s treatment.
St. Amand said the events, the investigation and Hansen’s inability to return to work has impacted their whole family. She recounted one of Hansen’s kids getting chronic headaches and another continuously falling asleep in class.
In speaking out, Hansen hopes those in similar positions can find the courage to tell their own stories, and that the public can be made aware of her treatment.
“They can’t quiet what’s going on, it’s not right,” she said.
“This harasser of mine, he’s a very well respected person… for me to bring it forward is like, who’s going to believe me?”