Written by Hélène Bigras-Dutrisac and Nicole D. McFadyen
On June 2nd, 1996, sixteen months after she had filed a sexual harassment complaint against him, Theresa Vince was murdered at work by her supervisor. On November 12th, 2005, Nurse Lori Dupont was murdered by a co-worker whom she had previously had an intimate relationship with. Despite these deaths occurring at their respective workplaces, in both cases a coroner’s inquest only occurred because of the lobbying efforts of families, women’s advocates, and organized Labour, academics, survivors, and community groups. The findings from the inquest into Dupont’s murder echoed those of Vince’s: These murders were preventable and meaningful, multi-sectoral health and safety law changes remain desperately needed.
These tragedies serve as a painful reminder of the serious–and potentially fatal–consequences of workplace sexual violence. On April 28th, as we observe the National Day of Mourning commemorating workers who have been killed, injured, or suffered illness as a result of workplace related incidents, it is important that we centre and honour the memories of Vince and Dupont, along with countless other workers who have or are currently experiencing sexual violence in the workplace. In doing so, we highlight the complex and ongoing battle that victims and survivors of sexual violence in the workplace experience, the significant ways that this form of violence continually impacts their health, and the need for ongoing advocacy geared towards fostering systemic change.
The effects of sexual and gender-based violence in the workplace are profound and long-lasting, impacting the psychological and physical well-being of workers who experience it.1 These workers, who are predominantly women and often experiencing intersecting forms of oppression and marginalization,2 are at higher risk of developing depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders. They are also more likely to experience low self-esteem, nausea, and sleep disturbances.3 Theresa Vince likely experienced many of these psychological and physical consequences of workplace sexual violence, as her daughter, Jacquie Carr, describes:
“Two months before she died, I watched my mother curl into a ball as she sat on the sofa – tears - one by one – rolled down her cheeks - all she could say was that she was under a lot of stress. It had been months since I had seen her smile. She couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t talk anymore - all she could do was curl up into her self-protective ball and wish for her hell to be over. She never made it to retirement day.”4
Unfortunately, as the initial resistance to complete a coroner’s inquest in the deaths of Vince and Dupont demonstrate, not all deaths and illnesses resulting from workplace incidents are treated equally. Injuries, illnesses, and deaths resulting from sexual violence and harassment are often seen as individual issues, separate from—and different than—other types of workplace injuries.4 At the same time, the effects of unaddressed sexual violence in the workplace ripple out from the targeted employees, creating and sustaining a culture of fear that limits the ability of workers to safely report without fear of retaliation. This can lead to further isolating employees that are experiencing sexual violence and reduces the likelihood that interventions will take place. In recognition of this and in response to the growth in advocacy following Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement,5 the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-65 in 2018. This Bill aims to take a comprehensive approach to workplace harassment and violence of all forms. It requires employers of federally regulated workplaces to prevent harassment and violence, respond to incidents of harassment and violence effectively, and support employees affected by harassment and violence.6
The impact of Bill C-65, which is set to come into effect this year, remains to be seen. As with all workplace-related legislation, the willingness of employers and employees in leadership positions will be key. At the CREVAWC, we look forward to continuing to advocate for workers to ensure that Bill C-65 is meaningfully implemented and, in centring and honouring Vince, Dupont, and others targeted by sexual violence in the workplace, are confident that we will continue making progress towards ensuring all workplaces are safe spaces.
If you or someone you know is or has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, you are not alone. Visit http://makeitourbusiness.ca/resources/finding-community-resources-for-workplace-domestic-violence for a list of resources or contact The Assaulted Women’s Helpline, which offers a 24-hour telephone at 1-866-863-0511 and a TTY 1-866-863-7868 crisis line for abused women in Ontario.
1. Darius K-S Chan et al., “Examining the Job-Related, Psychological, and Physical Outcomes of Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 32, (2008): 362-376.
2. Cassandra Okechukwu et al., “Workplace Injustice: Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, (October 2011): 1-14.
3. Sandy Welsh, “Gender and Sexual Harassment,” Annual Reviews 25, (1999): 169-190.
4. “Remembering Theresa Vince: Sexual Harassment Awareness Week,” Make It Our Business, June 2, 2017. http://makeitourbusiness.ca/blog/remembering-theresa-vince-sexual-harassment-awareness-week
5. Tarana Burke, “History and Vision: About Me Too”. nd. https://metoomvmt.org/about/
6. “Federal anti-harassment and violence legislation receives Royal Assent,” Government of Canada, October 25, 2018. https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/news/2018/10/federal-anti-harassment-and-violence-legislation-receives-royal-assent.html