After years of fighting for the same pay as her male, uniformed counterparts, Mary Silverthorn, already the second-highest ranked official in the Ontario Provincial Police service, offered to enroll in police college.
She was the lone civilian amongst the service’s four provincial commanders. If it would take uniform status to be considered equal to her fellow provincial commanders, she was willing to earn it. She would even spend six months on the front line if need be. But she said then-commissioner Vince Hawkes rejected her proposal.
“He said ‘I would hate to see you fail,’” she recalled.
Commander Silverthorn, who has an MBA and has completed the OPP’s fitness testing every year since taking the senior position in 2012, is confident she would not have failed: “I think I would have been great.”
Commander Silverthorn’s reflections came as part of her testimony last week at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), where a hearing is underway into complaints of systemic gender discrimination against civilian employees at the OPP.
It’s a key case, not only for the women working at the OPP, “but in the context of the broader #MeToo movement and the broader Time’s Up movement, this is a very significant case on systemic discrimination, which will have an impact for other women as well – we hope, successfully,” said Janet Borowy, one of the lawyers representing the civilian employees.
But the hearing comes at a crucial juncture for the OPP, whose leadership has been the subject of deepening controversy after the Ontario government named Ron Taverner – a close friend of Premier Doug Ford’s – as the next commissioner.
Mr. Taverner’s appointment has now been delayed, pending an inquiry by the province’s integrity commissioner. Commander Silverthorn was one of the other two candidates shortlisted for the position.
The complaint against the OPP was launched in 2015 by the Civilian Association of Managers and Specialists (CAMS), which was established to represent a group of employees who were otherwise excluded from a union.
Today CAMS has 91 members, 89 per cent of whom are women. Their filing notes the salary of the civilian group is on average 42 per cent less than their uniformed, mostly male peers doing similar work.
But the case encompasses more than base pay, claiming that the predominantly female civilian employees also receive fewer benefits, bonuses, training and promotion opportunities, and that they also face day-to-day sexism.
Lee-Anne McFarlane and Amanda Weaver are the lead applicants in the case.
Ms. McFarlane, manager of the OPP’s human-resources division, said she hopes “the new commissioner will review and address our case before the human-rights tribunal and consider the large systemic issues and impacts to this group of predominantly female OPP employees.”
Though Commander Silverthorn was initially a member of CAMS, she bowed out shortly after its creation, after she testified the commissioner made clear that her participation could compromise her job security.
“It was a tough decision,” she told the tribunal last week. “I [was] stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Because she is not a member of CAMS, Commander Silverthorn was not a complainant in the case. But she was subpoenaed as a witness.
She is not the only woman at the OPP who has felt threatened for speaking out.
Before Ms. Weaver was scheduled to give her testimony last summer, the tribunal heard that OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum allegedly told a former colleague in a text message that he “hope[s] she breaks her ankle.”
“She better be very, very careful,” Deputy Barnum allegedly added, in a text to a former colleague who had messaged him about the upcoming proceedings. “I am very surprised she has stooped to this.”
After the text messages came to light, the applicants lodged an additional complaint to the HRTO, filing the screenshots as evidence. In that filing, Ms. Weaver alleged that she “experienced these comments as an extremely threatening, intimidating, an abuse of power and as a reprisal.”
They are asking that Deputy Barnum be removed from his role in overseeing professional standards at the OPP.
Asked for comment, legal counsel for Deputy Commissioner Barnum said he “emphatically denies the specific allegations as presented.”
The OPP said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that the organization takes the matter seriously and has referred it to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services for investigation.
Asked about the status of that investigation, a ministry spokesperson said they do not publicly discuss confidential human-resources matters.
The OPP stressed that “respect, professionalism and accountability are proud values of our organization.”
It noted that as a member of the Ontario Public Service, it is the Treasury Board Secretariat that negotiates or determines the salary and benefits of all employees of the OPS, including those at the OPP.
Given the continuing proceedings, the OPP noted it could not comment on specifics. Former Commissioner Vince Hawkes did not respond to a request for comment by the Globe.
Commander Silverthorn’s three days on the witness stand were a focal point of the hearing.
The tribunal heard that though she has held the job of provincial commander longer than her three male counterparts, she earns less than them because she is a civilian employee and they are sworn police officers.
The province’s last sunshine list shows Commander Silverthorn earned $181,000 plus taxable benefits in 2017; her male, uniformed counterparts earned about $216,000 plus taxable benefits.
In addition to their rank as provincial commanders, Brad Blair, Rick Barnum and Fern Labelle also hold the distinction of deputy commissioner – a title that is typically reserved for uniformed officers, but is available to civilians through an order in council on a commissioner’s recommendation.
Diane Nagle, a civilian, received the ceremonial appointment, and was named Deputy Commissioner of the OPP in 2000 and held the role for nine years. Wendy Southall also received the order in council – and was both the first woman and first civilian to be named Chief of the Niagara Regional Police Service, serving in the role from 2005 to 2012.
Commander Silverthorn had proposed that the OPP make her a deputy commissioner as well.
“It was an easy remedy,” she said. “It was rejected.”
In the meantime, she told the tribunal, her direct reports who were uniformed officers were making “substantially more” than her.
The primary reason uniformed officers are paid more than civilian employees is because of a section under the Police Services Act that says they can be called to duty at any moment.
But the CAMS applicants argue that, in practice, this does not often occur (and that civilian workers are also sometimes pulled into extra duties, such as the G8). Their concern is that uniformed colleagues working civilian desk jobs are being paid disproportionately more for the same work.
In 2010, Commander Silverthorn and her male counterparts put forward a business case for a pay raise. But when those changes were finally approved and her colleagues secured both a pay increase and pension improvements in 2013, she learned they had dropped her from the proposal.
She testified to being devastated: “I was very disappointed that I wasn’t being compensated equally for performing work of equal value.”
When Vince Hawkes became commissioner the following year, she said he assured her that he supported her quest to achieve the same classification and compensation as her peers. Yet in her testimony, she recalled months – and ultimately, years – of run-around as her requests were ignored or passed on.
“It felt like I was living in an Abbott and Costello movie. Who’s on first, what goes where ... I don’t know, I felt like I was living in a dark comedy,” she said.
During the same period, she said the commissioner went to bat for raises for male counterparts – including a civilian employee who was seeking (and won) a similar salary reclassification to the one she was told was impossible.
“It was such a sharp and unfortunate contrast,” she said. “It wasn’t lost on me that the commissioner was advocating for male counterpart and doing nothing for me.”
In September, she filed a formal complaint against the then-deputy minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, for discrimination on the basis of sex, and reprisal.
In her testimony, Commander Silverthorn also recalled repeated instances of discrimination and inappropriate comments throughout her time with the service.
A superior who asked her to babysit his kids. A commissioner who joked (at an event to commemorate the service’s first female graduating class) about bringing back skirts and purses as part of the uniform. Casual use of derogatory language.
“I am deeply disappointed that the culture of my organization is one of bullying, harassment, and that it’s beyond condoned – it’s rewarded,” Commander Silverthorn said.