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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

“You don’t want to make me mad,” Bonnie Robichaud says, with a rolling laugh, over the phone from her seniors’ residence in Ottawa. This is true, as the Department of National Defence found out, more than 40 years ago, when Ms. Robichaud launched a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor and their mutual employer, the federal government. The complaint ricocheted through various tribunals and courts for years, until it reached the Supreme Court of Canada, which issued a landmark ruling in 1987 that an employer could be held liable for the “discriminatory acts” of an employee.

I called Ms. Robichaud to talk about the jaw-dropping struggle she outlines in her new memoir, It Should Be Easy to Fix (that was her retort when a senior officer told her she was the only one to ever make a harassment complaint.) The title turned out to be ironic, given the astonishing hurdles that were placed in her way as she tried to get justice not just for herself, but for other women experiencing workplace sexual harassment.

Ms. Robichaud was a young married woman with five children when she took a job as a cleaner at CFB North Bay in 1977. Her supervisor began to harass and intimidate her, forcing her into sexual acts against her will. In 1979, she began her series of complaints about the supervisor’s behaviour, and was ignored or blocked at every turn by her employer and her union. One union official told her, “a guy had the right to chase a woman if he wanted to.” Incredibly, the man who harassed her remained her supervisor through the years she pursued her complaint. (The union paid his legal fees, while refusing for a long time to pay hers.)

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Why didn’t she just quit? I asked Ms. Robichaud, who’s now 76, this question because I can’t imagine living through even a fraction of what she endured. “I had a right to that job,” she says. “I had a right to that job without the behaviour of the sexual harasser. And I had a right to be protected from it by the employer, who did not want to know about it.”

Writing the book was difficult, sending her into an emotional tailspin when she was forced to relive the brutal episodes she experienced decades ago. Still, she was motivated by a couple of factors: To tell her story as an example for those who are still experiencing harassment at work, and as a way to explain to her (now adult) children why Mom was so consumed during those years, working during the day and typing out letters to lawyers at the kitchen table at night. She says, “I tried to be a role model for them, to guide them in their life, through honesty and hard work.”

At this point, there’s a murmur in the background, and Ms. Robichaud says, with another laugh, “Larry says also to mention the husband’s support. We worked as a team.” She and Larry have been married for 55 years, and he was with her at every step, proofreading her letters and supporting her emotionally. In her book, Ms. Robichaud writes about how crucial it was to have the support of her family, and also the women’s committee of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which championed her cause and forced the union to eventually pay her legal fees.

But even with these supports, Ms. Robichaud’s battle against an institutional behemoth like the Department of National Defence was isolating and psychologically draining. This is a fight, of course, that women continue to this day: Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1987, the provincial laws passed since then, and the cultural mind shift of the #MeToo movement, workplace harassment continues its toxic spread across the country. From high-profile settlements paid by the RCMP to women in policing and firefighting taking on their abusive employers, there’s evidence that safety and equality in workplaces is often just lip service. During Women’s History Month it’s dispiriting to realize that Bonnie Robichaud’s battle isn’t women’s history – for too many, it’s their current reality.

One of the worst offenders in terms of workplace abuse has been Ms. Robichaud’s old employer, the Canadian military. Defence Minister Anita Anand has promised a new era of justice and transparency for an institution plagued by sexual misconduct scandals from the top down. Does Ms. Robichaud think things will actually change? “I feel a little bit hopeful,” she says.

One thing that gives her hope is the fact that the silencing and shaming she experienced as a young woman – when harassment was rife but no one talked about it and even fewer listened – is slowly coming to an end. “The more women that are able to speak out, the better, but it’s still difficult, they could still lose their job, they lose their relationships, they lose their life.”

She’d like to see the end of non-disclosure agreements in settlements, for one thing. She was made to sign one as part of her settlement with the DND, and the stifling was like another form of abuse. Only when she was able to reclaim her story, by writing a book and telling it to the world, did she feel the weight lift. She’s drawn strength from others who’ve told her that her words helped them with their own struggles. “It’s very empowering to be able to speak out,” Ms. Robichaud says. “The burden of staying silent was excruciating.”

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