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Canada Ontario court does not have jurisdiction to hear proposed class action against Waterloo police

A judge has ruled that the Ontario Superior Court does not have the jurisdiction to hear a proposed class-action lawsuit that accused the Waterloo regional police force of gender-based bullying, violence and sexual misconduct.

In a ruling released Friday, Justice Deena Baltman said the case raised “serious, triable issues” relating to workplace culture but found the court was not the right venue for the case.

The $165-million proposed class action, which was filed in June 2017, was launched on behalf of all past and present female members of the Waterloo Regional Police Service and their families.

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An unproven statement of claim filed last year alleged female staff were subjected to unwanted sexual advances, career sabotage and personal attacks during their time on the force.

The suit named the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board and Waterloo Regional Police Association as defendants. The force said it viewed the suit as “inappropriate” and vowed to challenge it.

Baltman found the Superior Court had no jurisdiction in the matter and said the claims should be adjudicated either at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario or before a labour arbitrator.

“The defendants should not regard this result as a vindication of current practices,” Baltman wrote in her ruling.

“Even on the limited and contradictory evidence before me, it is apparent that this case raises serious, triable issues relating to workplace culture. The allegations are very troubling and will require close scrutiny should this matter proceed to another forum for adjudication.”

The Waterloo Regional Police Service said Friday’s ruling “reinforces the legitimacy of the grievance and arbitration process prescribed by provincial legislation and which includes external arbitrators.”

“Today’s decision in no way diminishes the board’s and police service’s commitment to provide a safe, inclusive, equitable and non-discriminatory workplace for all of its members both uniform and civilian professionals,” it said in a statement.

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Court documents name the plaintiffs as Angelina Rivers, Sharon Zehr and Barry Zehr, whose allegations of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment spanned from 1988 to the present.

The allegations, which have not been tested in court, included male officers making offensive comments and unwanted sexual advances, male officers wrongly disparaging their work to supervisors and refusing to provide female officers backup when they were dispatched to dangerous situations.

The plaintiffs also alleged they were “isolated, disregarded and warned of repercussions to their career” when they reported complaints to their superiors and “not only were the offending officers rarely and inadequately sanctions, they were sometimes promoted.”

Douglas Elliot, lead counsel for the plaintiff’s legal team, said they intend to appeal Friday’s ruling.

“We are disappointed in this ruling, but it’s important to note that the judge’s decision was not based on the validity of the plaintiffs’ claims,” Elliot said in a statement Friday. “This was purely a procedural ruling based on previous Court of Appeal rulings.”

Rivers said she believed women will continue to experience gender discrimination on the force.

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“The internal processes to deal with these issues are broken,” she said in a statement. “That’s why we came to the courts.”

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