Heather McWilliam was born in the greater Toronto, Ontario, Canada area. Toronto is the most populous city in Canada, and due to the meat packing business carried the nickname of “Hogtown.” McWilliam’s hero was her father, a police officer of sixteen years on the Toronto police force. McWilliam got involved in the law enforcement world early, at approximately five years old when she was utilized as a “decoy” in a sexual assault and murder investigation. Law enforcement was always her goal, and she discovered that her mother, who had grown up on a dairy farm, had also wanted to be a police officer, but agencies “were not hiring” at that time.
McWilliam’s family instilled the values of hard work and integrity, and her goals “were always to serve and protect other people and give back to others what you were given by your parents.” McWilliam played sports in school and was a recognized star athlete, and good student. She grew up around males and felt comfortable dealing with them. McWilliam graduated high school in 2000 and college in 2003, graduating with a two-year degree in Police Foundations and Law Enforcement.
Shortly after graduation, McWilliam attended a job fair and was impressed by a female Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer “who looked amazing, full of energy and happy about her career and wearing The Red Serge.” Growing up in the Toronto area, McWilliam never saw RCMP members in The Red Serge because they only worked undercover in the Toronto area.
McWilliam was hired by the RCMP in 2004, and reported to the RCMP Academy, Depot Division in Regina, Saskatchewan. She was the youngest female in her troop of thirty, with ten other women. During training, one male was sent home for his behavior around women, “patting them on their butts.” Because of that incident, McWilliam felt that the matter of sexual harassment appeared to be addressed in the RCMP. (Note: As of January 9, 2021, there was a $100-million class-action sexual harassment lawsuit against the RCMP with a possibility of 3,500 claimants. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has also faced multiple lawsuits concerning sexual misconduct and discrimination. U.S. Representative Jackie Speier stated, “It’s repugnant, and underscores the fact that the FBI and many of our institutions are still good ol’-boy networks. It doesn’t surprise me that, in terms of sexual assault and sexual harassment, they are still in the Dark Ages.”)
Women were allowed to join the RCMP in September of 1974, with thirty-two women across Canada picked to attend RCMP training. McWilliam started her career with the RCMP in February 2004 and graduated as a Police Constable six months later. She was stationed in Coquitlam, British Columbia, and quickly established herself as a competent and fearless Constable.
Although proficient and successful at her posting, handling murders and armed robberies, McWilliam missed her family. She heard that it was difficult to get back to your original Province once you were with the RCMP. After a year, McWilliam traveled to Toronto on a visit, and interacted with the Toronto police who immediately wanted her on their force, offering her a job.
McWilliam did not expect for things to fall into place so quickly, but she took the posting and was placed in Platoon A 23 Division (north Etobicoke) of Toronto Police in 2005. McWilliam, just like her time with the RCMP, was highly successful in Toronto, competent in investigations and always on the high end of arrests.
After two years, McWilliam was asked to be a coach officer, a prestigious appointment as the coach officer essentially sets the new recruits how to effectively do their job and contribute to the future of the platoon. It surprised McWilliam to be asked to serve as a couch officer because there were older senior officers who could have been picked, and being chosen over them showed how well McWilliam was doing at her job.
McWilliam noted that sexual comments aimed at her started early on, in training. She had some run-ins with constables outside of work but did originally did not see it as a long-term problem then: it was usually one on one, and they had no control on her job or career. McWilliam stated, “I was focused on the street. I was excelling in my job training younger constables, having them for a couple months at a time, shaping their career. I felt good about the officers I trained.”
As she progressed in her career, McWilliam had to accomplish the Detective Constable role, investigative role, and community role. She had a high case load and was recognized for the excellent work she was doing. After 6 months as Detective Constable, McWilliam applied to be a Detective officer permanently, which was accomplished. A Staff sergeant (a supervisory role two rankings above McWilliam) told her that she had to wear high boots, and he commented on her weight, which made her uncomfortable. McWilliam was the only woman in the Detective Division, and knew she had to do well and block out sexually charged comments from other Toronto Police officers. She had a high case load and was handling everything like a professional, and in 2009 was chosen to represent the Toronto Police at the Olympics.
While McWilliam was doing extremely well at her career, a new staff sergeant arrived, and he started sexually harassing her, resulting in three sergeants making inappropriate comments, hand gestures, and introducing pictures off McWilliam’s social media into the platoon. “I always thought if I worked hard enough, I would get away from these people by changing departments, but it did not happen,” McWilliam stated. When she got into the police force, a colleague told her that “policing was like high school with guns” and it put what was happening to her in perspective.
The new staff sergeant had the same shift as McWilliam and was really taking advantage of his position. McWilliam was an outsider within a hypermasculine profession, law enforcement. A 2016 study by Dr. Lesley Bikos, former police officer and PhD candidate researching police culture, noted that women were joining law enforcement but the profession remained predominantly male and a world where women can be called degrading names or must listen to sexist or racist jokes to be considered part of the club.
McWilliam also noticed how the male officers were minimizing sexual assaults, noting how victims should respond, and she started noticing how sexual crimes were being minimized. Pictures of McWilliam in a bikini started circulating in her platoon, which someone had taken off her private media account. Other officers rationalized the bikini picture by saying it was on her social media account, so what was wrong with passing it around at work? A sergeant remarked that “You are smoking hot.” Another comment was “What is the big deal?” This can happen in a work environment that is 80% or more composed of men. It is a culture that denies, minimizes and victim blames the women who shoulder up to the male majority.
McWilliam felt that she was being “tested” to see how far some men could sexually harass her without her complaining. Some officers made sexual comments about the women coming into the station. Supervisors would make derisive comments about sexual assault victims. McWilliams stated, “They would say, right off the top, ‘I don’t believe her’ without investigating. They said it was a ‘minor sexual assault” or the victim was ‘crazy’ or ‘was asking for it.’”
McWilliam had changed platoons in 2011 and was concerned that now these remarks were coming from senior male officers who had control over her career and promotions. A sergeant told McWilliam that he was skilled in oral sex, and during a shift told her he wanted to “lick her.”
McWilliam attempted to escape the harassment by moving to another platoon, Homicide, but was denied the position, and she had to remain under a staff sergeant who was sexually harassing her. The harassment continued and at a social function, in front of other officers, the staff sergeant grabbed McWilliam and stuck his tongue down her throat. In another incident, in front of several of her peers, he said he intended to spank McWilliam. He followed her around the station, and on night shifts would wait in the dark for her, which terrified McWilliam.
McWilliam was denied a homicide position, but her Superintendent would not let her transfer. She found herself under a staff sergeant who was sexually harassing her and who had told her that he could “ruin me and my career.” Her Superintendent asked McWilliam not to file the complaint, but McWilliam, who never thought she would be a whistleblower, followed through on her complaint. The Superintendent, who had 45 years on the job, had a poster in his office that noted “Loose lips sink ships,” and McWilliam asked if that saying applied to her. After filing her complaint, the poster disappeared.
McWilliam put an official complaint against her staff sergeant regarding the sexual harassment to Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which is a Canadian civilian law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction over municipal, regional and provincial police officers. According to the SIU website, the unit “was created in 1990 with a mission to nurture public confidence in policing by ensuring that the conduct of police officers, in cases falling under the SIU jurisdiction, is subject to rigorous and independent investigations.”
McWilliam found the SIU investigation to be negligent. They interviewed the harassing officer first, then interviewed McWilliam, but never returned to re-interview the officers after they had given false and misleading statements to SIU. SIU normally publishes a report concerning their investigations, but in McWilliam’s matter, a report was never noted in publication. Another problem McWilliam ran into was that her union balked at giving her a representative for her complaint of sexual harassment.
After filing her complaint, McWilliam was sent to assist on a wire that was based in homicide. The supervisor of the wire told McWilliam that they hated policewomen, that women should do paperwork and men should take the street duties. Looking back, McWilliam recognized that after she filed her sexual harassment complaint, her career went downhill, and from that point on, nothing was ever the same.
McWilliam asked for work with the Drug Squad and was granted her request. She excelled, and she was asked to stay, which she was willing to do. Her Superintendent turned down the offer and made McWilliam stay on a platoon that was sexually harassing her. McWilliam’s Superintendent was like the “Hugh Hefner of the police entourage, hosting private parties” and ignoring McWilliam’s complaints. The culture of sexual harassment was imbedded in the office, and the subtext was that you had to have sex with your superiors to get a promotion. McWilliam just wanted to do her job, but she felt minimized, and the sexual harassment would not stop.
In May of 2015, McWilliam was notified that the SIU investigation would not bring any charges as ‘there was not enough evidence.’ An inspector told McWilliam that the subject of her allegations was “too old to retrain.” Prior incidents weighed on McWilliam, like attending a sexual assault at the hospital, and officers were making comments about the victim and her demeanor and responses to questions they were asking.
Things got worse and worse after McWilliam filed her complaint at SIU, and one day McWilliam walked into the platoon and officers were making sexual jokes, and simply staring at her. By January 2014, McWilliam had enough, she already had an appointment with her psychologist who informed her that she was displaying the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The doctor told McWilliam to stay away from her workplace, that it was not safe, and she needed time to heal. McWilliam took sick leave and was harassed from her work and threatened that she would be marked absent without leave if she did not come back to work. The Platoon nurse told McWilliam that she could provide her with tranquilizers if it would help her return to work.
McWilliam turned to the Human Rights Tribunal in October 2016 and submitted a complaint regarding the sexual harassment at her work. The Tribunal holds hearings to investigate complaints of discriminatory practices and may order a respondent to a complaint to cease a practice, as well as order a respondent to pay compensation to the complainant. Unfortunately, McWilliam had to pay for her human rights lawyer to represent her at the Tribunal, while all the witnesses against her all were afforded legal counsel free.
McWilliam started receiving harassing mail, her personal emails were hacked, postings on Facebook appeared to be aimed at her with notations of killing and wanting someone dead. A poster at the Platoon warning against sexual harassment had the title “You are not alone” but someone crossed out the “not”, which made it “You are alone.” A Christmas party was held by the Platoon that was Serpico-themed. Officers came in 1970’s attire and knives and emojis referencing McWilliam were present.
The stress of being a victim of bullying, sexual harassment, death threats and ostracism wore McWilliam down, and she admitted being “scared” and suicidal and her body “crumbling.” She decided that the only real option open to her was to try and save her integrity and engage in self-care every day.
McWilliam’s Human Rights Tribunal case was initiated in October of 2016, and finally adjudicated on June 30, 2020 after she had exhausted financial reserves paying $150,000 in legal fees. During those four years, McWilliam had to testify in front of a hostile venue with 30 high ranking officers testifying against her. She saw that the other side was trying to burn her out with the high legal costs and badgering she was subjected to on the stand. She had to endure questioning that devolved into the other side spelling out four letter words for her, minimizing her PTSD and trying to get her to react to the badgering. She spent six or seven days on the stand with the Toronto Police Services Board attorney’s weaving a portrait of McWilliam as lying, not a credible witness, that she failed to prove the board violated her rights under Ontario Human Rights Code, and that the tribunal needed to dismiss her allegations. It was pointed out that incidents were investigated by the Toronto police professional standards and Ontario’s Special Investigation Unit and no charges were presented.
McWilliam’s lawyers, Kate Hughes, Nadia Lambek and Tyler Boggs were able to prove that McWilliam was a victim of a “pattern of harassment” and humiliation by her supervising officers. They proved that when McWilliam complained about the daily sexual comments she was shunned and denied career opportunities. An expert called by McWilliams’ lawyers noted that sexual harassment and discrimination was difficult for any woman but raising it in the police culture was a clear transgression of an unwritten code.
On June 30, 2020, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario released judgement in McWilliam v. Toronto Police Services Board and Angelo Costa, 2020 HRTO 574, and in a 156-page decision found that “Constable Heather McWilliam has established that she was subjected to a poisoned work environment, sexual harassment, sexual assault and discrimination by superior ranking officers employed by the Toronto Police Services Board.”
In the end, truth won out, and the Human Rights Tribunal ruled in her favor, awarding her $85,000. Six years from the initial complaint, and massive costs in legal expenses that no one else but McWilliam had to pay. McWilliam was so injured from the harassment and subsequent legal process that she was granted disability (workman’s comp likened it to losing an eye) and cannot return to work. She suffered from PTSD and had to move from the Toronto area. But she survived, and she decided to advocate for change, creating a business known as Brave Inspires Brave (Braveinspiresbrave.com), telling her inspiring story globally as she encourages others to find the courage to bring about change. McWilliam created change at the Toronto Police Services as they were forced to address a system that was toxic for women officers.
McWilliam wanted to create better training for police officers, to change the culture, and she faced down a bureaucracy that did everything it could to outwait, outwit, and bleed her. The Toronto Police Services created a toxic and hostile environment for one of its’ brightest and most talented, depriving the public of a competent, professional officer but McWilliam won, got her integrity back and advises others, “You can survive this, it is not a death sentence.”