A small coastal town in Newfoundland has been left without essential services after half of its volunteer fire department quit to support its chief, who is accused of allowing a culture of sexual harassment and bullying to fester within the department.
The accusation has pit the only female member of the fire department against the town’s fire chief, and divided the once close-knit community of Spaniard’s Bay, Nfld. Tensions have been boiling for months since Brenda Seymour, who is also a local councillor, called on Chief Victor Hiscock to resign during a November council meeting.
Seymour claimed that Hiscock failed as a leader by tolerating a culture of bullying and sexual harassment, and mismanaging the department’s resources.
She said she was prompted to go public after a colleague told her that other firefighters had masturbated on her equipment. She also alleged she was shown a pornographic video during a department-organized training session.
“Oh my God, this is never going to stop, it’s just going to get worse,” she told the Toronto Star.
Hiscock declined to comment on the allegations. The matter is currently being reviewed by an independent body hired by the town after a split vote by council resulted in Mayor Tony Menchions casting the final vote to keep Hiscock in his position.
“I figure he had the full approval of council before and, unless something comes to light, I’m going to stand by that decision,” Menchions said.
Seymour’s allegations have divided the “brotherhood” of firefighters, of which her husband is also a member (he has not resigned). It has split the town into two camps — those who believe her and those who don’t.
On Monday, months after the accusations were first made public, about half of the 30-person volunteer fire department quit in protest.The council liaison to the fire department also quit.
“At the end of the day you’re all brothers and sisters and you’re a group that has to stick together,” David Janes, one of the firemen who resigned, told the Star.
The resignations have left the town of about 2,800 vulnerable and scrambling to find volunteers from neighbouring towns. In Newfoundland and Labrador, many fire departments are staffed by unpaid, part-time volunteers.
The province’s Department of Municipal Affairs will be meeting with the town to discuss a solution to its firefighter shortage, and neighbouring communities have agreed to spare volunteers in the meantime.
A spokesperson for the province said this is the first incident of its kind.
Local newspaper the Compass reported that 200 people gathered outside the municipal centre on Thursday evening to support the former firefighters, holding up signs that read “Support our men.”
“We thank you for the support,” the Compass reported Hiscock told the crowd, his first public remarks since the scandal broke.
Former volunteer firefighter Darren Butte, who trained with Seymour and served in another department, told the Star he is “sickened” to see the town support the department instead of her.
“The one issue that can never be entertained by first-response agencies is harassment of any kind,” said Butte, who has since relocated to Calgary.
“If you bore witness to this type of behaviour . . . why did you not take action?”
There have been tensions between Seymour and the department since she joined in 2009, when Hiscock fired her because she “overstepped boundaries” between her job at the fire house and her role in council, according to the independent report that concluded she was wrongfully dismissed.
Seymour said she thought things were turning around this past year, but an incident in the fall at the fire house was the final straw.
Last October, Seymour said she went to the chief in the office to borrow a balaclava. As he was handing it to her, she alleges another male firefighter in the room chimed in:
“Brenda, you might want to go home and wash that. We jerked all over it.”
Seymour claims the chief did not comment or intervene.
Seymour discussed the issue with the chief and the town council behind the scenes, where she brought forward complaints about everything from sexual harassment to equipment maintenance.
“I can’t say that there was a real strong effort made to come to any conclusions or any resolutions with this problem,” she said, which is when she decided to bring up the issue at the November council meeting.
In 2014, Seymour said she complained to the department’s executive board, including the chief, after she says she was shown a porn video during a training session.
But neither the chief nor other members of the executive responded to her complaints, she said.
“Never to date have I ever gotten an apology,” she said.
The instructor who played the tape, Bay de Grave’s Fire Chief Jeremy Hall, told the Star that after Seymour’s allegations were made public he was told by the province he is no longer allowed to be a fire instructor.
“When the videos were played she had just as much a laugh as everybody else did,” he said.
Seymour said she holds the chief accountable for the incident because even though he didn’t press play he was the commanding officer in the room and he was the one who organized the training session. She said she felt the video was played to intimidate her.
“I knew I was in a room with 23 men and I started to question why am I seeing this and what do they want me to do? I took it personally,” Seymour said.
Janes said he and the other firefighters hope to return — if apologies are made to them.
“Trust is earned,” Janes said. “We’re going to have to build a relationship again.”