The first week of June has been chosen as Sexual Harassment Awareness Week because June 2 marks the anniversary of Theresa Vince's death.
In 1996 her death changed the views of many people in Ontario about sexual and workplace harassment. Her tragic and untimely death showed us that workplace harassment can no longer be easily dismissed as a trivial problem.
Theresa Vince was a twenty-five year employee for Sears Canada Inc. At the time of her death she was the Human Resources Training Administrator. On June 2, 1996, Theresa Vince was murdered at her place of work, by her boss, the store manager, who also shot and killed himself. Sixteen months earlier she had made a complaint of sexual harassment and a poisoned work environment. For the majority of her time as an employee with Sears, Theresa loved her work, her co-workers and the atmosphere in which she worked. She excelled in her role and was described by many as ‘highly competent’ and ‘the one who runs the store.’ But things began to change slowly when the new store manager arrived. “He treated her differently from the very beginning,” stated one co-worker.
Almost everything we know about Theresa’s experience was gathered from witness testimonies at a coroner’s inquest into the workplace deaths. We know that Theresa’s boss complimented her on her appearance. He stared at her. He phoned her on her extension “twenty to twenty five times a day” (in an eight hour work day that’s every twenty minutes) and called her into his office “at least that many times.” He would follow her with his eyes when she walked by, even if he was engaged in conversation with employees and managers. He would follow her to coffee break and stare at her. He would take an extra-long route to the bathroom to pass by her desk. He told her “if he were married to her he would buy her a dishwasher.” He gave her expensive perfume and tried to kiss her. He frequently brought her up in conversation. He lifted his pant leg to show her his tan. He offered to rub suntan lotion on her back. He piled work on her. He would be mean and surly to her.
Theresa’s final strategy to escape the harassment was early retirement. She was murdered two weeks before she was to retire. Theresa can’t tell us in her own words how this experience felt or how it affected her; for that we must rely upon the observations and comments of the people around her. Her family watched as this experience changed her. Her daughters’ observations reveal the magnitude of the harm of workplace harassment:
“Here’s a person that was always my strength and I looked at her and she was consumed with self-doubt.”
“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.”
Working with Theresa Vince’s family, women’s advocates and labour activists, Chatham-Kent MPP Pat Hoy put the first private members bill forward in 2005 to declare Sexual Harassment Awareness Week. When that didn’t pass, he put forth the same bill in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2007, on the third try that the bill finally passed, unanimously.
Sexual Harassment Awareness Week exists to increase public awareness, foster change in attitudes and behaviour, and to prevent another tragedy from occurring.
In Part II of this blog, we will discuss other legislative changes that came about as a result of activism sparked by the tragic death of Theresa Vince.